The scrumptious smells of hot food from Al and Lena’s Catering service wafted over Dorsey Gym. At the head of the room, Naomi Collier dished out gourmet popcorn samples from her company, What’s Poppin’. On the walking track upstairs, DJ Henderson, owner of Much Mo“w,” discussed lawn care options with potential customers while, on opposite ends of the main floor, Tristian Anderson presented her Tri Herbal Cosmetics and associates from the PHP Agency talked with visitors about financial planning.

More than 350 visitors came to campus for the inaugural Columbia College Black Business Expo on Feb. 3.
(Photo by Jennifer Sander)

The inaugural Columbia College Black Business Expo drew 20 vendors and more than 350 visitors to campus on Feb. 3. The event, one of the first of its kind in mid-Missouri, sought to shine a spotlight on local black-owned businesses and let the community see the types of services they offer, from beauty to fashion to food to art and just about everything in between.

“I would say it’s more inspiring than anything,” said Anderson, a senior at the University of Missouri and the owner of Tri Herbal Cosmetics. “It really makes a difference when you’re working in a space with people that look like you and can relate to you. It’s really interesting to be able to go around and see everybody’s different passions and how they were able to implement that.”

The Columbia College Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee started tossing around the idea of a showcase for black-owned businesses last summer. Committee members were looking for a keynote event that would stand out during the group’s programming for the year.

They felt a celebration of black ingenuity and entrepreneurship held at the beginning of Black History Month would be the perfect fit.

“We just wanted a welcome space,” said Micheal Lewis, Columbia College assistant director of Evening Campus admissions and one of the event’s organizers. “We wanted everyone to feel welcome, to realize that the black expo was not just for black people. The idea was to embrace the community, and we had quite a variety of people come. That was great.”

Members of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee handled logistics on the day of the event and enlisted student volunteers to help things run smoothly. Organizers started contacting potential vendors in the months leading up to the expo, and word also started getting out on social media.

Whitney Jones, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Columbia College-St. Louis in 2016, said she knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity when Lewis contacted her about the expo. Jones started her own clothing company called Liv & Kiss, with the motto “empowering women one thread at a time.”

Jones, who is pursuing her Master of Business Administration at the St. Louis location, finished third at the Columbia College Student Entrepreneur Showcase last spring.

“I’m almost out of business cards, so that’s always wonderful,” Jones said at the end of the day. “It’s just really getting my business out. And then, by me being an alumna, that really says a lot. I believe in the school, believe in what they stand for. Events like this are just amazing.”

Collier, too, jumped at the chance when Lewis reached out to gauge her interest. What’s Poppin’ will be opening a storefront at the MU Student Center in the spring but, for now, it can only fill online orders.

Her order forms were full by the end of the day.

“It lets me know that we’re doing something that is not only empowering our community as minorities in Columbia, but as student business owners, women business owners,” said Collier, who is also a senior at Missouri. “The levels can go on and on. It’s been really good, especially for this to be the inaugural year. It’s been very well attended. All the conversations, all the interactions I’ve had have been extremely positive.”

Lewis said vendors are already lining up for the second annual Columbia College Black Business Expo next year.

“We are definitely all in and excited for where it will go,” Lewis said. “We just want to keep growing and attracting more people. It’s been a labor of love. I feel really good about what we’ve done. It’s just how do we make it bigger, how do we make it better going forward for next year?”

Check out a photo gallery from the Columbia College Black Business Expo below!