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8 black-owned small businesses promoting change in the UK

From health and homeware to social media and sustainability, these exciting and innovative black-owned businesses are disrupting sectors across the country and beyond...

Throughout Black History Month (BHM), commemorated every October in the UK, people and organisations celebrate the impact and influence of people from Black British communities.

It’s particularly important to note the context in which this year’s BHM is taking place. Only a few months ago, the world witnessed scenes of George Floyd’s death, and people around the globe spoke up and stepped out to support black communities.

In addition to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gaining more wide-spread attention and recognition, people and businesses worldwide have been learning more about the issues facing black people, in order to show their support.

We’ll be examining what it means to be a black entrepreneur in the UK specifically. What are some of the celebrations to know about? And conversely, what are some of the challenges facing black-owned businesses, and what are some potential solutions?

We’ll showcase some of the most exciting, innovative small businesses that are leading the way in promoting change in their sectors.

At Startups.co.uk, we’ve been leading the way in championing small businesses for the past 20 years, and counting. Our vision is to empower UK startups and entrepreneurs, encompassing a full spectrum of identities, and this includes using our platform to share as many business stories as possible – both during BHM and all year round.


Black-owned businesses in the UK: The stats

One of the first challenges we faced was actually finding the data to show how business leadership breaks down by ethnicity in the UK.

Only limited information is available, and when it does exist, categories are often broad and all-encompassing of multiple ethnic groups, such as BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic).

This is problematic as not only do such terms group together entire cultures, heritages and communities, but it also doesn’t allow for detailed analysis of specific ethnic groups. Plus, there are increasing calls to reject the term BAME, as it’s thought to be outdated and not fully representative.

Although this debate is ongoing, there are inroads being made into how such data is collected. The Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME), based at Aston Business School, produced a report for the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) in 2020.

It found that in 2018, approximately 250,000 companies were ethnic-minority led businesses (EMBs). But, as the Unlocking Opportunity report pointed out, apart from the Census, the categorisations for ethnic groups aren’t specific enough – which doesn’t allow for more in-depth analysis to be conducted across different groups.

The report also called for a regular and comprehensive national study about ethnic minority entrepreneurship in the UK. Such a study could help considerably in making more detailed data available when looking at small business statistics.

And, in turn, this could make it easier to monitor and assess the range of different ethnic groups that make up the EMB category, as well as recognise where support may be needed, and highlight successes.

The Black Report is the first qualitative report about UK black startup founders, working with 60 black founders at the pre-seed stage. Some of its findings include:

  • The founders’ teams were diverse, with 53% male, 46% female, and 1% non-binary staff
  • 71% identified their heritage as African, with the next highest being the 8% who identified as Caribbean
  • The founding teams were comprised of 48% female founders, and 52% male founders
  • Of the reported 322 total staff, three-quarters identified as people of colour – three times more than the benchmark across the tech industries in both the UK and the US
  • 88% of founders used self-funding to finance a part of their ventures
  • Of investors currently investing in black founders, 38% are people of colour

This article aims to highlight and celebrate the work being done from UK black-owned small businesses specifically, which are promoting change and helping to develop the business landscape.


Which UK small businesses are promoting change?

Here, we take a sector-by-sector look at eight small businesses that are helping to change the business landscape in the UK.


Hair and beauty

The black hair care market is a huge industry, and is worth an estimated £88 million. What's more, black women spend up to six times more on hair care than white women.

As well as this, black and Asian women were found to spend an extra £137.52 per year on beauty products, according to a 2016 Superdrug survey – with lack of choice a key issue that contributed to this increased spend.

While some improvements have since been made, products for afro, curly, and textured hair still only occupy limited space on shelves in major retail outlets, and black-owned businesses in this space remain under-represented.

However, there are more and more black entrepreneurs taking this matter into their own hands, and helping to meet the demands of under-served customers.

SOUL CAP

SOUL CAP is addressing a long-standing issue for people with voluminous hair: how to keep it protected while swimming. Its answer? A range of swim caps, along with a hair towel, which are all aimed at customers who have thick and curly hair.

To date, it has sent out more than 30,000 swimming caps across the world, and has amassed 3,200+ followers on Instagram, with another product in the works.

And that’s not all. SOUL CAP launched the #BlackGirlsDontSwim campaign in July 2020, partnering with Alice Dearing, a Team GB swimmer, to help challenge misconceptions and promote more diversity in swimming.

It also works with The Wonder Foundation, a charity that uses education to help disadvantaged girls, women, and communities.

SOUL CAP

SOUL CAP founders, Michael and Toks

Michael Chapman, founder at SOUL CAP

Describe the impact your business is having in its sector.

“There is a lot of misinformation and stereotypes surrounding swimming that we as a brand want to dispel. The racist rhetoric in science that claims Black people can’t swim, which simply isn’t true, has fed through generations and communities for too long.

“Something as simple as a swim cap that fits voluminous hair solves a massive barrier to the sport, and we’re so happy we’ve helped so many swimmers with the right kit.

“We’ve taken this issue further through our wider campaign work with our Brand Partner and GB Swimmer, Alice Dearing, through our #BlackGirlsDontSwim campaign, where we invited the public to tell us about their experiences of swimming while Black.

“By opening up a conversation around these issues and tackling them, we want to increase accessibility and inclusivity in the sport.”

What advice would you offer to aspiring/new entrepreneurs?

“Self-belief is key – I think it’s easy to doubt your ideas or underestimate your potential, especially when people tell you your idea is too niche and it won’t run. You miss the shots you don’t take, so my main advice would be to take that risk and take action, or else you’ll never know what could have been.”

As a business operating in the hair space, what more do you think could be done to promote change in your industry?

“I believe better representation and understanding of different hair types in the mainstream hair industry is needed.

“We’re really proud to have developed our microfibre hair towel that works wonders on all hair types, and that came from taking the time to research and understand those hair types.

“We’re really happy to be working with Hairitage, London’s first Afro and textured hair boutique, as one of our hair towel stockists, who focus on hair products for curls and coils.

“It’s easy for people to be using the wrong products for their hair and doing long-term damage when the offering does not necessarily cater to them. So it’s great to see small businesses tackling this problem, and hopefully this will snowball into the mainstream industry.”

Are there any myths about running your own business and/or your industry that you’d like to bust?

“In the swimming world, the main myth we want to bust is the idea that Black people don’t swim. We want to see more people in the water and enjoying the benefits swimming has not only physically, but also for mental health and wellbeing. There are so many existing sports that Black people celebrate and excel in, and we want to see the same in swimming.”

You miss the shots you don’t take, so my main advice would be take to that risk and take action, or else you’ll never know what could have been.

Michael Chapman, founder at SOUL CAP

Bowë Skincare

Another business helping to change the hair and beauty sector is Bowë Skincare, which offers moisturisers and oils intended for women of colour. The brand is inspired by its West African heritage, and products are made using responsibly sourced ingredients.

This vegan and cruelty-free business has also been featured in Red magazine, as well as the UK editions of both Good Housekeeping and Women’s Health magazines.

bowe skincare

A selection of Bowë Skincare products

Rose Annor, founder of Bowë Skincare

Describe the impact your business is having in its sector.

“I made an intentional decision to put women of colour at the centre of what I present with Bowë: I wanted those women to experience Bowë, and to feel cherished and valued.

“In the light of Black Lives Matter and brands like Fenty, I feel that the mainstream beauty industry is starting to recognise that women of colour don’t spend with them anymore by default – that there are brands like Bowë catering to them with the vim they use to shut women of colour out.

“When I receive feedback telling me they can tell my products are made by a woman that’s been in their shoes and knows what they want, I know I’m on the right track.”

What advice would you offer to aspiring/new entrepreneurs?

“Consistency matters, above many things, if not all. I’ve had my ‘aha!’ moments in consistency. Showing up for your business day after day (as cliché as it may sound) allows you to see the patterns; shows you where and how to make changes.

“When you strike once and then bow out for a while, maybe it’s a hit, but you’ll have no idea why you succeeded – and importantly, how to replicate that win.”

As a business operating in the beauty/homewares space, what more do you think could be done to promote change in your industry?

“Stop labelling us as ‘other’ or ‘ethnic.’ It’s just another way to push us to the side. It’s assumed that we would only fit with a very small demographic, and yet there are mainstream beauty and homeware brands trying to copy what we do, and it’s seen as ‘ground-breaking.’ Spare me. We are just as good, if not better, than the status quo – and we’re doing it with much, much less.”

Are there any myths about running your own business and/or your industry that you’d like to bust?

“I’m not sure I would call it a myth, but I’d love to get rid of the idea that if you work super hard, you will generate a million-pound business quickly.

“There’s a benefit to what we see as low and slow: there’s much to learn going through the seasons over and over as a business owner.

“You learn which times of the year are most important for growth, you can build a genuine relationship and trust with your customer base, you get to understand your audience and what truly makes them tick; there really is no shortcut to long-term success.”

“There’s a benefit to what we see as low and slow: there’s much to learn going through the seasons over and over as a business owner… there really is no shortcut to long-term success.”

Rose Annor, founder of Bowë Skincare

liha beauty

LIHA Beauty

LIHA Beauty aims to make products that offer “African roots and a quintessentially British attitude”. It has created a range of butters, candles, soaps and oils, along with online workshops where people can learn how to make their own home-made cosmetics.

Not only this, but it boasts a 25,000+ strong Instagram following, plus write-ups in some of the world's biggest media publications, including Vogue, Refinery29 and Marie Claire.

As well as its online store, you can find LIHA Beauty products in stockists across the US, Europe, and further afield.


Homeware

Bespoke Binny

Bespoke Binny offers a range of handmade products for the home. Founder Natalie Manima took inspiration from her work as a cognitive behavioural therapist, along with her passion for sewing, and created a product line with a focus on using colourful prints from West Africa.

This includes bedding and tableware, as well as virtual lampshade making classes where people can make their own creations using Bespoke Binny’s signature prints – all the while highlighting the importance of the home environment.

Having drawn international praise from BuzzFeed, Martha Stewart, and O, The Oprah Magazine, Bespoke Binny and its message is reaching plenty of people. Indeed, the brand has more than 52,000 Instagram followers, and is also stocked by The British Library.

bespoke binny

Natalie Manima, founder of Bespoke Binny

Natalie Manima, founder of African homeware brand Bespoke Binny

Describe the impact your business is having in its sector.

“I think I offer something that has not been widely seen in the interior design/decor sector, and it's nice to be that breath of fresh air. I don't think I'm as widely known in the industry as I would like to be, but I'm working on it!”

What advice would you offer to aspiring/new entrepreneurs?

“‘Persistence is the way forward’ would be my advice – especially in times such as these with COVID. It's really important to find ways to continue to add value to your customers/clients; think about ways you might need to adapt and change how you work, and be persistent but flexible with your goals for your business.”

As a business operating in the beauty/homewares space, what more do you think could be done to promote change in your industry?

“When we say change, are we talking about diversity? I think with my industry, as with many others, the important thing to keep in mind is looking at who is represented in the industry – and more importantly, who seems to be missing.

“There are people with gifts and talents from all walks of life, genders, races, sexualities etc., so in whichever industry we might be talking about, if we don't see them there, it's not because they don't exist – it's because they aren't being represented.”

Are there any myths about running your own business and/or your industry that you’d like to bust?

“I think a typical one is the idea of an overnight success – I'm yet to see one! Someone who looks like they have blown up overnight had probably been putting years and years into what they are doing before they were discovered.”

“There are people with gifts and talents from all walks of life, genders, races, sexualities etc., so in whichever industry we might be talking about, if we don't see them there, it's not because they don't exist – it's because they aren't being represented.”

– Natalie Manima, founder of African homeware brand Bespoke Binny

Black-owned businesses and funding

Bowe Skincare, LIHA Beauty, and Bespoke Binny are all recipients of a dedicated marketing fund, an initiative launched by Fanbytes, a Gen Z marketing agency.

The fund was started by Timothy Armoo, CEO at Fanbytes, to promote real action and change in response to the BLM movement.

The fund is set to support £100,000 of marketing campaigns. Not only is the fund an excellent boost to these businesses and their marketing strategies, but it speaks to another challenge facing black-owned businesses: a lack of access to funding.

Indeed, improved access to external finance for EMBs was another recommendation raised in the aforementioned CREME report for the FSB.

This also echoes the work being done by ImpactX, a double bottom line (measuring the social impact, as well as the traditional financial output, of a business) venture capital company. It focuses on supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs in Europe, particularly those from the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.

This London-based firm has an ethnically diverse team, and members have backgrounds in business, finance, and academia. Its work is focused on funding creative, entertainment, media, and tech enterprises through seed, series A and series B rounds (the early stage funding processes for startups).

Health and well-being

A key area of health is providing sufficient maternity care for women, with this extending from pregnancy right through to the early days at home with a new baby.

In fact, research published in the BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth journal found that womens’ experiences during this time – whether positive or negative – can affect not only the mother, but the child and wider family too, which further reinforces the importance of this aspect of healthcare.

And when looking at ethnic disparities in maternal care, it’s clear to see that this is another major issue, with the rate of maternal deaths during pregnancy varying considerably between different ethnic groups in the UK.

Indeed, from 2014 to 2016, the rate of maternal deaths during pregnancy was 15 in 100,000 for Asian women, and rising to 40 in 100,000 for black women. In comparison, the rate for white women stood at 8 in 100,000. These illuminating findings were compiled by Oxford University researchers.

Understandably, this is a big problem with far-reaching effects, and the ways to solve it are likely to be varied and nuanced. However, one business that is aiming to improve the experiences of pregnant women and new mums is Making Humans.

Making Humans

making humans

Founder Bukky Maybank’s own maternity experiences inspired her to start the business. With the intention of empowering mothers, its offering includes ‘Mums That Thrive’, an online video course covering everything from handling stress to maintaining a self-care routine and creating healthy habits. Live coaching sessions are also available.


Technology

While the lack of diversity in UK organisations (particularly in senior and leadership roles) is well known, this has been reinforced yet again more recently.

The Colour of Power 2020 report analysed the 1,099 most powerful roles in the UK, featuring decision-makers across both the public and private sectors. This includes CEOs of organisations in a number of industries, as well as magazine and newspaper editors, to name just a few roles.

It found that of these roles, only 17 are held by black males and females, representing 1.5% of the total.

And when examining these findings in terms of gender, the situation becomes even more dire: black females hold only three roles, equalling just 0.3% of the overall amount.

The report recognised that there have been greater calls for improved diversity at the top-tier of UK institutions. However, it notes that there have been hardly any improvements on the original findings since the report was first published in 2017.

VIVIDA

One business that’s helping to create more diverse teams within organisations is VIVIDA, a tech company that uses immersive storytelling to conduct training for companies. Topics include cybersecurity, as well as diversity and inclusion.

It’s an award-winning company, sharing accolades such as the Cross Border Risk Management Award and the Business Continuity Awards: Transformation Award with its partners.

VIVIDA has worked with Barclays and the London Office of Rapid Cyber Advancement on cybersecurity projects. And in 2019, it worked with EY to create a Virtual Reality (VR) experience that enabled team members to simulate everyday interactions as a black person.

This technology could help even more people to understand what the challenges facing black professionals are like, and further drive the need for change throughout organisations – but especially at senior levels.

VIVIDA

Simeon Quarrie, founder and CEO of VIVIDA

Simeon Quarrie, founder and CEO of VIVIDA

Describe the impact your business is having in its sector.

“At VIVIDA, we are creating a radically different approach to corporate training – particularly in the D&I and cybersecurity spaces. We have all sat through corporate training seminars or computer-based training modules and wished we weren’t there. The message doesn’t sink in and it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

“Now imagine you are able to fully immerse yourself in a scenario, whether that be a black man looking to enter a corporate environment, or dating a cybercriminal that is trying to glean information from you for an attack. It is much more engaging, and that is what we create through our unique blend of storytelling and technology.”

What advice would you offer to aspiring/new entrepreneurs?

“Diversify. We hire people from numerous different backgrounds for our projects, which brings a totally fresh perspective to our experiences. Cybersecurity is generally seen as a white, male, technical pursuit, but we employ voice actors, designers, camera people and creatives from a range of ethnicities.

“Suddenly, you get ideas bouncing around that the cybersecurity industry would traditionally miss out on. You get people from outside the industry contributing fresh ideas – bringing not only diversity of ethnicity and gender, but also diversity of thought and understanding.”

As a business operating in the technology space, what more do you think could be done to promote change in your industry?

“I think tech companies must do more to reflect the community they are trying to serve. Tech is dominated by white men, which for a young black woman might be enough to put you off ever working in tech. That is a real shame as the industry is missing out on a lot of much-needed talent.

“There are some encouraging signs of diversity – such as Women in Tech, which is a global initiative aimed at getting more women into tech careers – but we must build on this and do much more to promote diversity throughout the industry, across gender and ethnicity.”

Are there any myths about running your own business and/or your industry that you’d like to bust?

“Loads, but I think the main one is that a career in tech or cybersecurity is dull or uncreative. I don’t think for a minute that it is for everyone, but I am a creative storyteller at heart. A decade, or even less, ago I would’ve laughed if you’d told me I would end up working in cybersecurity or tech, but I love it.

“Tech is no longer about being the guy sat behind a bank of screens – there is enormous scope for creativity and fun. To flourish, the industry needs to not only fully realise this, but also promote it, and make noise about how great a career in tech can be.”

“You get people from outside the industry contributing fresh ideas – bringing not only diversity of ethnicity and gender, but also diversity of thought and understanding.”

– Simeon Quarrie, founder and CEO of VIVIDA


Marketing and advertising

One of the most visible reactions to this summer’s BLM movement has been on social media, with a plethora of individuals and organisations around the world posting images and sharing hashtags to show their support.

However, when looking behind the scenes of social media, there’s an ongoing issue with a lack of diversity – particularly among influencers – and it has been reported on by major publications, including Forbes and Vogue Business.

As well as this, The Colour of Power report shows that media and advertising agencies have some of the least ethnically diverse leaderships in the UK. This suggests a fundamental disconnect between these decision-makers and some of the audiences that they’re trying to reach.

Yoke Network

Yoke Network is a community of TikTok influencers. It offers performance influencer marketing and content creation, as well as full-service brand and music marketing, to businesses that are looking to reach consumers through the platform. And impressively, it offers the highest number of TikTok influencers outside of the actual platform.

This is made even more remarkable by the fact that Jidé Maduako and Mustafa Mohamed launched the business just two years ago.

Since then, the company has grown to include 2,000 influencers, along with a total audience of 600 million and 150 million total views each day.

Yoke Network has also worked with the likes of Prettylittlething.com, Revolut, and Shpock, as well as featuring in the Startups 100 2020.

yoke network

Mustafa Mohamed and Jidé Maduako, co-founders of Yoke Network

Jidé Maduako, CEO at Yoke Network

Describe the impact your business is having in its sector.

“We’re having a huge impact. We’re building a Gen Z brand with the launch of the Wave House. It’s currently home to six creators from our network, and serves as an environment for them to develop their craft – and it already has nearly three million followers on TikTok.

“We’re also helping creators build and generate an income on TikTok through the Yoke App. We’re really proud to be bringing new brands into the industry, and, in a way, that we’ve now got competitors trying to copy what we do.”

What advice would you offer to aspiring/new entrepreneurs?

“Solve a problem: that’s my number one piece of advice. There are lots of opportunities if you’re a person who wants to solve problems and help people – especially with the current crisis and all the uncertainty it brings. If you can facilitate some kind of certainty, you can make a really valuable contribution.

“My second piece of advice is to do something you’re interested in. Do something that you’re thinking about when you go to bed and when you wake up: if you don’t care about it to that degree, then it’s probably not a career that’s your best fit.”

As a business operating in the technology space, what more do you think could be done to promote change in your industry?

“Our part of the industry is young – it’s changing constantly, and we’re partly responsible for changing it by making it more professional. But within the wider marketing sector, there needs to be a recognition that media ownership is shifting – that media is owned by creators, not the platforms.”

Are there any myths about running your own business and/or your industry that you’d like to bust?

“There’s this idea that if you’re running your own business, you get to be your own boss. You really don’t. In fact, it’s almost the opposite: you work for everyone except yourself.

“If I want to see my mum, or spend time with my girlfriend, or hang out with my little cousins, I literally can’t tap out – I have to be available all the time. If you work for someone else, you can switch off.”

“But within the wider marketing sector, there needs to be a recognition that media ownership is shifting – that media is owned by creators, not the platforms.”

– Jidé Maduako, CEO at Yoke Network


Sustainability

As big corporations around the world become increasingly focused on promoting social and environmental practices that are achievable and sustainable, it can also put more pressure on the suppliers at the frontline of production.

This is especially the case when products are in high-demand, and the food and drink sector is one area in particular that’s experienced such shifts in demand.

Just think about the increasing popularity of certain ingredients in recent years, such as almonds, avocados and quinoa, as well as the deforestation that can be caused by growing soy crops and producing palm oil.

Chosan by Nature

However, Chosan By Nature is helping to change this – a producer of baobab and hibiscus items, including jams, sorbets and drinks. These are created using African ingredients, and its range is vegan-friendly and gluten-free as well.

It was inspired by founder Eliza Jones’ aunt, as well as her own childhood experiences in The Gambia, with ‘chosan’ meaning ‘cultural heritage’ in the country’s Wolof language.

This social enterprise has been featured on The Guild of Fine Food website, as well as being included in BakeryandSnacks' 2021 trends list.

Jones created the range to not only share these flavourful products, but to also help farmers make longer-lasting goods out of their seasonal produce. Plus, the business also makes a donation to the food producers it works with in Africa, which includes contributions from its product sales.

chosan by nature

Chosan By Nature’s offering includes a range of baobab jams

Eliza Jones, founder at Chosan By Nature

Describe the impact your business is having in its sector.

“Being so closely focused on running Chosan does not leave much space for stepping back to see its impact.

“Along with other businesses, not just UK black-owned businesses, Chosan is promoting change through the introduction of novel, innovative, unique products in its marketplace that are also natural, ethical, and sustainable.

“As a business that is now starting up for the third time, we are still learning as we try to build up a retail network.”

What advice would you offer to aspiring/new entrepreneurs?

“Make sure you have a good support network – it’s very tough running your business on your own. So it really helps to have people you can turn to for advice, to sound out your ideas, and to share your frustrations with – people who may tell you what you don’t want to hear, but who will do so constructively.”

As a business operating in the food and drink space, what more do you think could be done to promote change in your industry?

“Getting your products on the shelf – getting past the gatekeepers, and getting hold of the decision-makers – continues to be a big challenge. Black business owners do not have the contacts in retail, wholesale, distribution etc. to facilitate this.

“Fortunately, there are now a number of accelerator programmes, as well as food and drink networks to help with this, but often they require financial investment that may be beyond the reach of many black startup entrepreneurs bootstrapping their businesses.

“So there’s also a need for more targeted action to help black business owners successfully access financial, business, and mentoring support that may be available – along the lines of Rich Visions.”

Are there any myths about running your own business and/or your industry that you’d like to bust?

“The belief that all you need is one lucky break to set you up and overcome all your problems is, in my view, a myth.

“The lucky break certainly makes a huge difference, but I find that once you cross a particular challenge, you find many others lying in wait. So hard work, persistence, and staying positive are all an essential part of the mix you need to run your own business.”

“So hard work, persistence, and staying positive are all an essential part of the mix you need to run your own business.”

– Eliza Jones, founder at Chosan By Nature


Black-owned businesses in the UK: The future

As the range of amazing businesses we’ve included above shows, black-owned small businesses are having big impacts in a number of sectors, as well as contributing to changing the wider business landscape in the UK as a whole.

But more can be done to further celebrate diversity in business, starting with having data that captures a full range of ethnic identities.

And from creating support within the business community, to external investment networks becoming more inclusive, funding needs to become a more open and accessible space – after all, finance is one of the most important aspects of successfully running a business.

While we’re reaching the end of the article, it’s important to remember that equality in business doesn’t stop here. Whether you’re an aspiring founder looking to start up, a customer with buying power, or a funder seeking their next investment, we all have a part to play in creating a fairer business world.

Scarlett Cook
Scarlett Cook

Scarlett writes for the automotive, energy, hosting and website sections of the site. In addition, she promotes the newest small businesses by managing the Just Started profiles, and has also contributed to Tech Donut. Scarlett is passionate about championing equality and sustainability in business.