When she was initially turned down for funding in spring 2020’s COVID relief bills, Syovata Edari spoke out. She thought she’d been denied because of systemic racism. The owner of a chocolate shop in Madison, Wisconsin, Edari says she makes a practice of calling out racism whenever she feels it, no matter what the cost.
“They’re saying, prioritize the smallest of the small,” says Edari, who is Black, and who eventually received $14,000 through the program. “It’s still not happening, because the people that are (distributing money) are white guys. The people behind the very programs that are charged with the duty of distributing it to the marginalized community are not from the marginalized community. And that right there is the problem.”
Then, after the Black Lives Matter movement, her chocolate shop showed up on lists of Madison Black-owned businesses, and new white customers placed large orders. The orders were OK. The attitude sometimes wasn’t. Edari sometimes thought that she was being used.
Overt racism is increasingly unacceptable. But calling out microaggressions and systemic racism can be a risky move, one that can — and does — affect business. Edari’s story shows the pressures and complexity of being a Black small business owner over the past 18 months, as the pandemic rolled over America and more white people woke up to racial injustice.
“I’m not here to be a token or used for some sort of diversity clout when they don’t even actually have diversity,” she said. “What it does is it creates this illusion that there’s some progress when there’s not.”
Being on the front lines as a business owner is far different than being in the corporate world or academia, where much of the commentary about being Black in America comes from.
Gestures, but meaningful
Paul Harper, a business professor at the University of Pittsburgh who researches the overlap of social justice and business, says some of the gestures may be symbolic — but they are meaningful and could lead to real change.
“We’ve got to be careful about saying that these symbolic gestures aren’t meaningful. They’re quite meaningful,” said Harper, who is currently researching the value of corporate symbolic speech following the protests. “Most companies chose not to say a thing. So first of all, just the act of saying something is actually significant.”
He points out the executive order signed by former president Donald Trump that made it nearly impossible for companies with government contracts to do diversity and inclusion training. Biden reversed the order.
“We have to be realistic in our mental calendar, as we think about accountability,” said Harper, who is Black. “I’m not trying to say that there’s excuses here, but what I would say is when you get to Derek Chauvin’s conviction on April 20, when you get to the anniversary on May 25, you’re really only talking about a two or three months of an open window for corporate acts.”
A May study from San Francisco-based startup Blendoor found that companies who released statements following the protests had less diversity in their staff than companies that did not release statements.
Edari, however, is tired of waiting. Her business and life is subject to systemic change that never seems to come.
Smallest of the small
Edari, who moved to Madison from Milwaukee as a teenager and has lived between the two cities her whole life,started her career as a lawyer. She quit the corporate law world after, she said, feeling like a checked box.
“I got really burned out, not the actual practice of law, which I still to this day really love, but I got burned out from all the other things that I had to negotiate that had nothing to do with my job,” Edari said. “The way judges treated me in court, the way deputies treated me, the way that my opponents treated me, the way that my own colleagues treated me.”
So she started her own law firm and eventually gave into a passion for chocolate, starting CocoVaa on the side in 2014 and spending months abroad studying from chocolatiers in Europe. Since then, dozens of her chocolates have been recognized by London-based Academy of Chocolate Awards.
20 hour days
At each turn, when she hits a roadblock, she wonders: Is it because she is Black? Is it because she is a Black woman? The weight of the question hangs on her shoulders and makes her feel she’s fighting every step of the way.
Black women funders across the country struggle to raise funding — last year less than 100 Black female founders raised $1 million in venture capital, a number that’s been increasing but is still shockingly low.
When there is a chance for funding, Edari finds it difficult to keep up with those opportunities. Like many Black women, she is a solopreneur. She’s worked 20 hour days before as she prepares for the weekends she opens the doors of her storefront, she said. There’s no time for meetings from groups that don’t benefit her business and require a monthly fee, for sifting through emails, or for digging for opportunities.
It’s a struggle many who run small businesses off their own backs face — the smallest of the small, as Edari puts it. She splits time between her chocolate shop, her law practice and raising a 14-year-old and a college student as a single mom. She would not reveal her revenue.
“There’s a saying that success for the entrepreneur is when you can work on your business and not in your business,” Edari said. “Well, that’s not a reality for most of us, we have to work in, on and around the business, our lives are subsumed by our businesses, and how we pay our bills, this is how we try to build generational wealth as much as we can.”
The funding barriers that exist for women and people of color limit the types of businesses many are able to create, Harper said. Without investments, it becomes impossible to grow. Sometimes it’s a matter of limping along, loan by loan, making enough to break even but not grow, Harper said.
“Part of the problem of the undercapitalization of minority women and minority firms is that they generally are depending not on investment capital, but on loans, and on personal income– they’re more income based, even if they come to replace that income,” Harper said. “So they end up making business models that at a later point, even if they’re successful, aren’t really built to grow.”
Edari directs her energy and time to customers and people she feels genuinely support her and her business. It means saying no sometimes.
She has channelled her fearlessness into speaking out for other Black women entrepreneurs in Madison, too. Edari mentors a small group of people in the community, including Sylvia Jones, owner of Miss Ella’s Cake Bar in Madison.
“She is the fuel behind the support myself and other small businesses have received,” Jones said. “She stands up for the little guys that have no voice or resources. She has been a blessing to our business.”
An award, but no cash
In the spring, Edari received an email from a Madison women’s entrepreneurship group called the Doyenne Group. It had named Edari a reward recipient for their Crave Award. Selected from nominations, the recipients received no money, only recognition as women entrepreneurs in Wisconsin.
Edari received the email a little more than a week before the ceremony for the awards, which took place the weekend before Mother’s Day, a busy time for CocoVaa. At first, Edari was anxious — a mixture of caught-off-guard and nervous for the ceremony. But then she thought about it for a second longer. She replied to the email, asking what type of funding was attached. When she learned it was none, she became angry.
So she rejected the award, writing a lengthy email to the group’s head, Heather Wentler, expressing that she felt recognizing her was benefiting Doyenne much more than her business.
Soon after, Edari took to Facebook, posting her frustration. “Once you’re ready to put your money where your mouth is with regard to my business, let me know,” she wrote in the April 19 post. “My door is always open for authentic support.”
A social media hero
When she clicked “post,” she felt the risk of speaking out — she was nervous of how her friends would respond, especially her white friends, she said. But the opposite happened. Her post received 9,100 likes and reactions and was flooded with comments and messages of people relating to the frustration of receiving support they feel benefits the provider more than them.
The Doyenne Group responded on Facebook: “I take these messages very seriously and not without lengthy internal reflection both at an organizational level and on a personal level,” Wentler wrote. “We appreciate this opportunity to learn and grow, and acknowledge that we have not lived up to our mission when it comes to supporting Black women and women of color over the years.” The group declined to comment further.
“People that really want to help, they will do it quietly and secretly in the background,” said Edari, whose fiery voice has also drawn the attention of The New York Times, which quoted her in a few stories. “They’re not going to be advertising it.”
Many companies and organizations responded to the protests last summer by creating new efforts to uplift people of color, but their outcomes and productivity are being held accountable by the public more than ever, Harper said.
Programs that work to support women and people of color have set goals and ensure their partners are truly increasing the number of firms hired — one that does it well is the Minority Business Accelerator in Cincinnati, Harper said.
“Some of them are effective, some of them are not,” Harper said. “I think in a lot of ways, they have an annual gala and they kind of bring a lot of people out, but there’s the dark side of it. I don’t know that a lot of entrepreneurs really feel like those minority supplier diversity, those networks, past the gala, past the networking event, are actually doing more concrete advocacy.”
Risking customer relationships
Her decision to speak out has been a double edged sword at times, Edari said.
“She’s got a chip on her shoulder and she is bound and determined to bad mouth, not only us, but … anyone else that doesn’t agree with her,” said Colin Murray, the head of Dane Buy Local. The organization distributed much of Dane County’s COVID-19 relief funding.
The criticism has not stopped Edari, who at times has spoken out even at the cost of damaging a relationship with a customer. Take an order that she received last winter from another woman entrepreneur who was seeking to support Edari.
The white woman wanted to honor Black History Month by sending women CocoVaa chocolates. Edari recommended her drinking chocolates, a treat she created inspired by Black intellect and Black scholars. It was the customer’s second large order with CocoVaa.
But after the order grew even larger, Edari worried she couldn’t fulfill it because of product shipping delays and her own workload. The customer offered to pack shipments herself and noted that the size of her orders made her an important client.
In the ensuing exchange, frustrations rose. Edari felt belittled and canceled the order. The customer apologized, but the damage was done.
“While I agreed to this to help you with your project which I initially admired, this latest response comes as a slap in the face and a wake up call for me to the reality of your mission,” Edari wrote hotly in an email. “A mission which seems more rooted in making yourself look good as opposed to the Black history recognition you seem to disguise it as.”
Edari said she canceled the order because of the the customer’s inclination to say such a thing, and the weight of instance after instance of offenses by other people over the years. She doesn’t regret the decision.
“What you’re doing by doing that is you’re stealing my narrative, you’re stealing my brand’s identity from me,” she said. “I put in a lot of work. I trained to master this craft, to not be put in some box.”