From hairstyling to home cooking, longtime business owners to new startups, entrepreneurial spirit was on full display Saturday, Feb. 18, during the fourth Black Business Expo at Columbia College.
Sixty vendors from around mid-Missouri set up shop in the Southwell Complex as about 450 community members checked out their products and services. This year’s expo was the largest such event yet at CC — and by a wide margin, more than doubling the number of businesses from the last edition.
The annual expo is organized by the college’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“Columbia College is a pillar in the community,” says beauty salon owner Roy Lovelady, “so to have a pillar in the community have a vested interest in the Black and brown community definitely says a lot. It’s neat being out here. It’s a great experience and a networking opportunity to get out and see other Black businesses that I might not have known about.
“It’s just elating to see so much culture in one room.”
Lovelady owns 360 Star Styling Studio and offered hairstyling to customers during the expo. He also serves on the Columbia City Council.
“I think this is a great event,” Lovelady says. “I wish it could happen more. As people talk about it and ask how to become part of it, it’s becoming more well-known.”
The four-hour public event operated as a free open house, with a brief program and entertainment during the second hour, including a performance by the 360 Stars in Motion youth dance team under Lovelady’s direction.
The purpose of the expo is to shine a spotlight on minority-owned small businesses.
“The Black Business Expo represents the hope, the strength, the partnership and the spirit of the Beloved Community teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” says Alejandra Gudiño, the college’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “For us at Columbia College, it represents the possibility, the opportunity and the honor to host and uplift these business owners’ voices and efforts.”
Columbia College President Dr. David Russell in his brief remarks encouraged attendees to visit all of the participating businesses, learn more about what they do and ultimately invest in their efforts.
“Today we have the opportunity to celebrate Black-owned businesses as well as the spirit of entrepreneurship that is vibrant throughout our community,” Russell said.
The college compiled a directory of participating businesses, with the book named in honor of longtime community leader James “Jim” Whitt, who passed away in 2021. Annelle Whitt continues her husband’s legacy by running the James & Annelle Whitt Entrepreneurial Development Foundation.
She hosted a table on behalf of the foundation, which provides seed grants to minority- and women-owned small businesses in addition to offering workshops, mentoring and coaching.
“There are a lot of young folks who have tables set up here. What many of them are lacking is capital,” she says. “To be in this environment and say, ‘Hey, we can help you in that regard,’ that’s the (priority). Exposure and getting your brand out there, getting yourself out there.
“Your ability to interact not only with the public but with other vendors is important, because sometimes as small business owners, you need the support of other businesses.”
Columbia Mayor Barbara Buffaloe was among the community leaders in attendance at Southwell.
“I just want to say how proud I am of the improvements our community is making,” Buffaloe told the crowd. “Last time, we had 30 booths in attendance, and we have 60 this year. The fact that we’re doubling, we’re forever moving forward, and I just want to thank everyone for being here.”
REDI provides entrepreneurs with coworking spaces, coaching, print services, rooms for rent, a podcast studio and more as it helps remove barriers to success for small businesses, Sparks says.
“It’s great that so many businesses have a chance to express themselves and express themselves freely,” Sparks says of the expo. “I think this is great. This is open expression, this is their true heart and this is a great way to show off exactly what’s going on in Columbia and why this is so important.”
Christy Moten got an early start to the morning alongside her husband, Ronnie, to prepare fresh ham, green beans and other food items for her catering business called Gussie Kitchen.
Moten’s late mother, Gussie Samuels, provided inspiration for the business she carries forward.
“My mom was a chef all her life, and I got my cooking skills from her,” Moten said. “This is a way of honoring her and keeping her legacy alive and then also passing it on to my grandkids.”
Moten says she wanted customers to get a taste of her cooking and learn about her catering options.
“It’s exciting,” Moten says of the expo. “We never knew there were this many people who own their own businesses. I’m finding stuff that I like that I’ve been ordering off the web that I could’ve been getting in town the whole time.”
Martha Tomlin-McCrary, who works as a full-time real estate agent with Weichert Realtors First Tier after retiring from a 37-year career for the federal and then state government, hosted a booth at the event to talk with potential clients about buying or selling a home or property.
“Doing something like this brings people in and they have a chance to see and talk,” Tomlin-McCrary says. “There are first-time homebuyers who are afraid to purchase because they don’t know if they can, if they qualify. So that’s what I’m here for — to work through that process.”
Tomlin-McCrary was accompanied by her husband, Marvin “Moon” McCrary, who played basketball at the University of Missouri in the early 1980s.
“Just to see everybody and visit different vendors, I’ve been buying things as well,” she says. “We get to meet new people and new businesses, and I love that. You never know what you’re going to need.”
Maronica Kitchen registered a table at the expo for her social services consulting business called Ask Miss Ronnie-Beyond. Kitchen helps clients locate and apply for resources and benefits they need, essentially serving as their advocate.
After previously attending as a customer, she says this year’s expo was a “wonderful opportunity” to get the word out about her relatively new business.
“I’m just so ecstatic that Columbia College is doing this,” she says. “I’m so appreciative the college is thinking about the Black community, bringing us together, because we need this.”
Deborah Napier of Debbie’s Sweet Treats echoed that sentiment, saying she was glad to be among the vendors after moving back to Columbia from Colorado just a few months ago.
Napier greeted customers with a spread of homemade chocolate candy on display.
“All of what you see is from my family’s recipes all down through the ages,” she says. “I just want to bring out the best in our family name.”
Verl and Harry Williams, returning customers of the expo, remarked about the large size of the event compared to years past.
Harry Williams says he heard advertising on the radio in the lead-up to the event this year.
“I’m enjoying the variety,” says Verl Williams. “It’s really nice. Bigger than the ones we’ve been to before, so this has been great.”
Tonya Kemp, owner of N’Spired Scents, was one of many people attending the expo for the first time.
Kemp says her experience was positive and she is already looking ahead.
“I really hope to be part of this again next year,” she says.
Black Business Expo in the media
Columbia College hosts 4th Annual Black Business Expo — KRCG 13 TV
Minority-owned businesses set up shop at Columbia College — KOMU 8 TV
Columbia College hosts Black Business Expo — ABC 17 TV
Columbia College Black Business Expo returns, doubles in size — Columbia Missourian
60 vendors to showcase Black-owned businesses in expo at Columbia College — Columbia Daily Tribune
Black Business Expo comes back to Columbia with more energy than ever — KBIA