Sophia has her sights set on becoming an architect and someday hopes to run her own firm. She’s being home-schooled, in part because D.C. public schools offer limited courses in entrepreneurship and at only three high schools — two of them alternative schools for at-risk students.
“I wanted Sophia to have a more real-world experience learning about business,” said Shantel Collins, her mother, who is a graphics designer. “I wanted her to learn how to solve problems, not just pick the right answer on a test sheet.”
It’s not hard to imagine Sophia realizing her dreams, given her talents and family support. She’s coming of age when it’s not unusual to see women-owned businesses in the city, which can be inspiring.
From 2007 to 2016, women-owned businesses in Washington saw a growth rate of 51 percent, one of the fastest in the nation, according to a 2019 report by Beacon, a D.C.-based organization that connects and supports female entrepreneurs.
The District is home to 68,236 small businesses, according to census data, with 27,000 owned by women. Black women own about 12,400; white women about 11,000.
But behind those numbers are indications of the formidable challenges that await women of color seeking careers in business.
“Though Black and White women in D.C. have comparable numbers of businesses,” the Beacon report said, “the differences in total receipts is alarming: with about 11,000 firms, White-women-owned businesses earn nearly $3 billion in receipts, while the approximately 12,000 Black-women-owned businesses earn $600 million in receipts. This gap only widens when factoring in other minority groups.”
Similar troubling patterns show up nationally in a 2018 American Express report of women-owned businesses. In 2007, the average revenue for women-of-color-owned businesses was $84,100; by 2018 it had dropped to $66,400. But outcomes were just the opposite for businesses owned by white women. In 2007, the average revenue for their businesses was $181,000; by 2018, it had jumped to $212,300.
And a February report by the JPMorgan Chase Institute makes it clear that no matter the race of the woman, women-owned businesses start with revenue 34 percent lower than firms owned by men. The revenue growth for women doesn’t narrow over time.
So if that is the burden all women must carry, imagine how much heavier the load is for women of color. They are experiencing not just sexism in a white-male-dominated world of business but racism, too.
At least the problem of racial disparity has been identified, and various groups of female entrepreneurs are working on remedies. Perhaps in two or three decades, or whenever Sophia decides to set up her architectural firm, the economic playing field will be a little less tilted.
Sophia’s mother says she wants her daughter to learn to manage money and realize that it “doesn’t grow on trees.” And Sophia’s learning fast, putting most of her business profits into savings, investing some and spending a little every now and then.
“Not only do I want money — I want to learn how to make money,” she said.
Asked why she chose to sell candied apples, Sophia said, “I saw one at a carnival when I was little, and it was pretty.”
Sophia has a mentor — as all budding entrepreneurs should — who runs a coffeehouse in her Riggs Park neighborhood. Veronica Cooper, 68, is owner of Coffee Culture Too. She has a can-do attitude. When it comes to encountering obstacles, in business or life, she says, “You maneuver around them, or you go through them, and you get things done.”
When she was 13 growing up in Flint, Cooper had her own business, as a seamstress, repairing and later making dresses. After attending the Pratt Institute of art and design in New York, she traveled the world as a fashion designer.
In 2005, she moved to Washington. She opened Culture Coffee Too in 2017 and took Sophia under her wing.
On some weekends, Sophia uses Cooper’s business for a pop-up store to sell her treats. Cooper also gives her sewing lessons, which she sees as preparation for becoming an architect.
Cooper says she is aware of the economic burdens that sexism and racism can have. But, she says: “You just have to hang in there. You have to fight. Be ready for battle or stay out of the ring. You have to ask yourself, how badly do I want this?”
“I’m not excusing injustice or unfairness,” she added. “I’m saying deal with it. I’ve been waking up black and female all of my life, and I go out and take care of business.”
Not long ago, Sophia paid a visit to Bené Millinery and Bridal Supplies to meet shop owner Vanilla Powell Beane, who was celebrating her 100th birthday. One of the youngest entrepreneurs in the city had come to pay homage to one of the oldest.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” Sophia said, offering a handshake.
The hatmaker’s century-old hand embraced the candy maker’s, the girl’s fingers soft and nimble from texting. Beane recalled that when she was 10, her hands had calluses from chopping tobacco on a sharecropping farm where she grew up in Wilson, N.C.
Beane moved to Washington in 1942 and spent the better part of the next 60 years creating hats and building a business.
“Do you sew?” she asked Sophia. “I could use someone like you helping me make these hats.”
She gave the girl enough material to try her hand at making a hat, called it homework and told her to come back when she had finished.
Beane, who was born Sept. 13, 1919, grew up in an era of stark racial disparity and injustice. There were times she had been happy just to have a job, no matter how unequal the pay. Reflecting on her life, she paused and shook her head. “How did I get over?” she asked, sounding amazed to have endured.
“Good lord,” she said.
Beane kept a poem at her shop that had been written and signed by Maya Angelou, called “Phenomenal Woman.” She suggested that Sophia read it sometimes. Words that encouraged black girls to be comfortable with who they were, appreciate how they looked and know that beauty comes from within.
Sophia was impressed.
She said of Beane: “She had this dream and stuck with it for all these years. I can see myself doing that.”
And with any luck, Sophia’s dream will come with fewer challenges and equal pay.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.