Lena Cheatum grew up watching her grandmother cook food for multitudes of people, from Greek students at the University of Missouri to patrons who would come visit her restaurant in her home. When she was old enough to help cook, she did so enthusiastically, and now, years later, she’s following in her grandmother’s footsteps.
And as anyone who attended the second-annual Black Business Expo last Saturday, Feb. 23, can attest, it was easy to find Al & Lena’s, the catering company Cheatum runs with Al Buford, once entering the Southwell Complex doors. Just follow your nose.
Al & Lena’s was just one of 23 vendors on display for the event, which drew an estimated 300 attendees and outgrew Dorsey Gym from its inaugural year, is the largest of its kind in the state.
Michael Lewis, associate director of programs and partnerships, explained that while many events during Black History Month rightfully look back on our history, he and the other members of the Diversity, Excellence and Inclusion Committee wanted to specifically create a forward-looking event.
“If you can put all the different examples of black businesses in a room and invite people to come in, as silly as it sounds, the response usually is, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize you can do anything as a black business,’” says Lewis. “Columbia’s a great incubator for businesses, and these are great examples of that. A lot of the businesses are solvent and doing well, this is their second year here, so we appreciate having them in the room.”
A mutual benefit is to connect vendors with the college’s Fishman Center for Entrepreneurship, which can offer resources throughout the year to help small businesses thrive. Becky Bocklage, director of the Fishman Center, was on hand to meet with several vendors at the expo.
Chad Jones-Hicks ’13 credited Columbia College for helping his mother, Stephanie Jones-Osbourne, with givng her the tools necessary for her to eventually venture out on her own and create Stephanie’s Travel Club. A 40-year veteran of the travel industry, Jones-Osborne went back to school to get her business degree, and has now been working as an independent travel agent for roughly 15 years.
In addition to booking individual trips, Jones-Osbourne tries to organize a large cruise or other big trip every other year. Last year, she guided a group on an Alaskan cruise, and next year, the itinerary is for St. Thomas and St. Maarten in the Caribbean on the largest cruise ship in the world.
The variety of businesses was evident inside Southwell; among the vendors was Mystic Pours, an acrylic fluid-art business. Courtney Griggsby and Whittney Good have been working together for just about six months. Their colorful wares were only display, and showed the pair’s creativity and passion.
“We’re best friends that love art. One night we started pouring paint, and decided that we have to keep doing this,” Good says.
“It’s fun to make a mess and make something beautiful,” Griggsby added.
Jennifer Schenck, a Columbia business consultant who works with small-business owners to improve their companies, attended the expo to support and encourage her fellow business owners, and came away impressed. “The quality of small businesses was really good. You can really tell that the owners are really passionate about what they’re doing. I was also impressed with the quality of the booths; a lot of times when you go to a vendor fair, you see new businesses that don’t have everything in place just right. These folks all know what to do.”
KOMU’s Lanitta Collier reports on the Black Expo: