By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Back in January of 2019, Johnson City was beginning the celebration of its sesquicentennial.
For Lottie Ryans, it seemed like the perfect time to bring the community together and collect the names of as many black-owned businesses as possible. Ryans presided over a roundtable discussion that resurrected the names of many long-forgotten businesses.
The trip down memory lane was bittersweet. Most in the room had fond memories of the businesses and their proprietors, but the plain fact was entrepreneurship was a necessity for black business owners and their customers who weren’t allowed to frequent white-owned businesses.
“We had just about every business imaginable represented,” Ryans said. “Some of that could have unfortunately been because black people were not welcome in certain establishments, but regardless, just the depth and breadth of the types of businesses was pretty amazing for me to learn about.”
As Johnson City begins looking for ways to incentivize entrepreneurship through a partnership with SyncSpace and FoundersForge, efforts are underway to ensure that black-owned businesses are part of the city’s future. Adam Dickson, director of the Langston Centre, said the sharp decline in minority-owned businesses in the decades that followed segregation leaves this generation of potential black entrepreneurs starting from scratch.
“There wasn’t really a sustainability plan in place,” Dickson said. “So when those individuals who owned businesses died, the business died with them. So now we have to leverage (the Langston Centre) to really begin to think about the future of minority-owned businesses.”
The Langston Centre is currently offering a STEM-focused afterschool program to give younger students a solid foundation to prepare them for fruitful career paths in the 21st Century. In addition to teaching those hard skills, Dickson said plans are being put into place to begin teaching high-school aged students the soft skills they will need to thrive as leaders in the professional world.
As the director of workforce development at First Tennessee Development District, Ryans is already involved in initiatives to help promote entrepreneurship among all of our young people. For example, Career Quest hosts a business battle competition where students are able to pitch their business ideas to a group of “sharks.” Winners walk away with $500 or $1,000 of seed money to help them get their businesses off the ground.
“Sometimes there are just wild ideas, and they need some structure, and sometimes we’re like, ‘You don’t need us, but you’ve got a great idea going here,’ ” Ryans said. “But it really does give kids a chance to say, ‘Maybe I can really do something with this.’ ”
In many ways, Ryans said the pandemic has opened some doors for the best and brightest young people in our region to explore staying in the region and potentially starting businesses, but it has also exposed some obstacles to those hoping to build a business locally.
On the positive side, Ryans said the climate has changed regarding folks working remotely.
“One of the things I’ve said the whole time I’ve been doing this work is that your zip code shouldn’t matter, and we’d like kids to stay in the region and not have to leave,” Ryans said. “I think people will trust having employees anywhere and then people will recognize they can do business anywhere.”
While BrightRidge has worked to expand broadband access to rural areas in recent months, Ryans said there are still too many places in our region – both rural and in cities – where Internet speeds are a determent to doing business.
“Getting that ubiquitous broadband is an important piece in where this can go,” she said.