In the spring, Tracy Williams-Dillard received an unexpected call from the Small Business Revolution TV show she had never heard of.
The producers sought the input of local black community leaders to find black-owned businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul that they would feature in the sixth season of the show, which is funded by the Minnesota-based Deluxe Corporation. As publisher and CEO of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a black-owned newspaper that has been in existence for 87 years, Williams-Dillard fits the bill.
But Williams-Dillard already had a lot to do. During the pandemic, it lost advertisers and was forced to downsize its staff, making it harder than usual to publish a weekly newspaper and keep its website up and running. On top of that, Williams-Dillard was still experiencing the loss of her husband to COVID-19 in December.
“I said to myself, ‘I have nothing better to do when I’m doing all this? “I had a lot to do,” she said.
So she asked the employee to make a list, which she handed out to the producers. A week later, they called her again, thanked her for her help and asked: “Isn’t it you small business owned by blacks? “The producers convinced her to apply, and the Minnesota Registrar spokesperson was one of six businesses – out of more than 100 candidates – on the show, which is now on Hulu and smallbusinessrevolution.org.
“It was so exciting,” she said. “I didn’t think for a minute that I was going to be involved in this.”
FROM THE CIRCULAR STORE TO LIPSTICK ON THE PLANT
Amanda Brinkman joined Deluxe in 2014 as Brand and Content Director. The company, founded in 1915 in Saint Paul, started out as a check printing company. He has recently added a number of other services including marketing and web development. In an effort to raise awareness among small businesses, she created the Small Business Revolution show.
For five seasons, Brinkman and her team have traveled the country covering small-town small businesses nominated by their own community. They were in the middle of filming season five when a pandemic hit in March 2020, forcing them to get creative and shoot remotely from basements and warehouses. That season, the show was nominated for an Emmy for the first time.
Deluxe decided to make the sixth season the last and shifted the focus away from small towns. After the assassination of George Floyd, Brinkman decided to investigate Black’s businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“We are really proud of this work,” Brinkman said. “Bringing him home last season was the perfect way to end the series.”
In addition to Minnesota’s press secretary, season six features Gentlemen Cuts, a nearby barbershop on St. Paul’s East Side; furniture store Elsa’s House of Sleep in Midway; St. Paul’s Taste of Rondo, which opened during the pandemic in summer 2020; Lip Esteem, a plant-based lipstick company headquartered in Lake Street, Minneapolis; and Sammy’s Avenue restaurant on West Broadway in Minneapolis.
Whenever possible, the production kept things as black and local as possible by hiring local teams, contractors, poets and musicians.
Each episode focuses on a different business, telling its story and helping with cosmetic and technology upgrades, as well as offering business strategy advice from Brinkman and other business leaders. While many small businesses are well aware of how difficult it is to keep stores running, Small Business Revolution is not about helping failing businesses.
“The goal is to show what can happen if you invest in a small business,” Brinkman said. Take Elsa’s Sleep House. It is a second generation business with 14 employees. But what does it look like when you are helping such a business rise to the next level? “
A TABLE FULL OF MEMORIES
In 1934, Williams-Dillard’s grandfather, Cecil Earl Newman, founded a couple of newspapers covering the local black community – a press secretary in Minneapolis and a tape recorder in St. Paul. For decades, they told stories that were not covered by the mainstream media, and eventually the newspapers gained a nationwide reputation. After Newman’s death in 1976, his wife Laura took charge. She merged the two newspapers in 2000, and in 2007 decided to retire at the age of 85. She handed over control to her granddaughter Williams-Dillard.
“We spill ink in my family,” Williams-Dillard said with a laugh.
Shortly after Minnesota’s spokesperson was selected for the show, the producer sat down with Williams-Dillard and asked what she would do with the money invested in her business.
“I didn’t know,” she said. “I’ve never heard anyone come and ask me this question.”
Williams-Dillard had a recent artist quote, so this was a start. The manufacturers, thanks in part to partnerships, repainted all the walls, replaced the furniture, and donated a set of new computers to the newspaper. Actually, they replaced most of the furniture. There is one thing left.
“The table I’m sitting at belongs to my grandfather,” she said. “I have a lot of memories there. You couldn’t pay me to replace him. “
Looking for inspiration from each other
For the owner of the Sleep House, Elsa Tetra Constantino, appearing in the Small Business Revolution was a big challenge for him and his employees.
“There was a lot of filming, a lot of business consultations,” Constantino said. “We had to shoot while the store was open (for business). But it’s exciting and a much-needed advertisement. It was really great to get help with the brand and the business. My employees have been through a lot in the last couple of years. “
Constantino’s mother, Elsa Rezene, moved to Saint Paul from Asmara, Eritrea in 1966. Fueled by her entrepreneurial spirit, Resenet has honed her craft over the years by selling beads, clothing, incense and jewelry. In 1997, she opened Elsa’s Sleep House and focused on customer service while building her family business. After her death in 2004, her son took over.
“I really love what (the producers) did for the store and I was very, very happy that they were able to bring my mom’s story to life,” Constantino said. “They really highlighted it and highlighted it.”
The producers offered Constantino to expand his business, but he was always wary of these attempts. “We’ve always just tried to serve our customers and stay in business. I didn’t want to lose sight of this business that my mom started. It’s a tricky balance. You want your values to match your business.
“Something I have learned from this experience is that many small businesses and small black businesses face many of the same problems. We are not unique in these issues. And it’s okay to accept them, talk about them and find a way to meet them. “
Constantino watched all six episodes of Small Business Revolution when they went online Tuesday morning. Although he had one problem with the show – “it was inconvenient to see myself on TV” – he liked everything else.
“I saw a lot of surprises and it was great to see so many experts and community leaders,” he said. “It was really nice to see everyone come together and put on a great production that highlights the black business in the sister cities. It shows why black businesses are valuable and what they do for society. I was so inspired by the stories about other companies. “