New Haven Entrepreneur Will Never Stop Showing Up
I feel good today because the drive to IKEA in New Haven, Connecticut, from Greater Hartford was under forty minutes. Only a few cars are in the parking lot when I arrive. It’s Tuesday, May 10 at 10:20 a.m.; my meeting with Samantha Williams is in ten minutes. This is our first in-person meeting since our telephone conversation in late March 2022.
IKEA is the world’s largest furniture retailer. Entering the store is like falling down an Alice-in-Wonderland-like rabbit hole into a world full of furniture you probably don’t need, but the magic lures you in. Ninety minutes later, you’re happy as can be, eating a cinnamon bun as you lug an oversized box to your vehicle.
I say good morning to the man in a wheelchair with a bright yellow IKEA shirt on, waiting like a Buckingham Palace guard next to the escalator. I avoid the conveniently-placed free catalogs, paper measuring tapes and blue bags. Our meeting is on the second floor where the 300-seat restaurant is located, reminiscent of a high-school cafeteria, but with better furniture, Swedish meatballs for $5.99, and a cart that holds your tray as it glides on the concrete floor. I love it here.
Samantha prefers to be called Sammi, which I learned in our first conversation. From twenty feet away, she apologizes for arriving a few minutes late. For larger-than-life figures like Sammi, the scale of IKEA can make them seem small. But this is no mirage. Standing at 5’-1 ½”, she is shorter than I recall. But her personality is big.
Our tranquil moment fades. She lets out a long sigh to alert me that all is not well. The drama has started. She describes how a woman betrayed her personal trust by telling another woman something she wasn’t supposed to share. Trust has been violated—even the drama is bigger at IKEA.
Sammi is dressed for comfort and ease of movement.
Entrepreneurship Is Necessary
Sammi is dressed for comfort and ease of movement. She is wearing an off-white North Face fleece jacket that is zipped up three-quarters of the way to her neck, dressy (no strategic rips, frays, or fading colors), blue denim jeans, and a pair of green flats with gold buckles. The finishing touch is a white quilted purse with gold accents, held by hands with bright red fingernails, one with gold accessories.
Her natural, curly hair is parted precisely in the middle as if by Moses. It flows in equal portions past the left and right sides of her face to a few inches above her shoulders. Her rectangular, metal-rimmed eyeglasses are stylish.
Sammi, 40, lives in New Haven. Originally from Queens, New York, she was one of four kids. Her older sister died in January 2021 and her brother when he was just an infant. Her surviving sister is 13 months younger than Sammi.
Her father, Kenny Brown, was a New York City police officer, and her mother, Shirley Brown, provided writing services and later was a secretary. After retiring, they built a house in Deltona, Florida and later returned to work as ground security coordinators for private charter flights with Allegiant Airlines to support their four grandchildren, whom they later adopted.
I was getting to the point where I was ready to walk away.
Sammi had held several health care jobs over the years, working her way up the corporate ladder from secretary to project manager at Yale Health Center. In 2019, after being laid off from her consumer experience designer job at UnitedHealth Group, Sammi became a full-time entrepreneur. She states, “I was getting to the point where I was ready to walk away.”
She received a bachelor’s degree from York College/City University of New York in business administration with a concentration in human resources management and a master’s degree from the University of New Haven in health care administration. Over the years, she has earned a bevy of certifications, including Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) and a U.S. Department of Transportation Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.
For many years, Sammi had been doing “the corporate side hustle shuffle,” as she calls it, prior to jumping all in. She started Sam’s Word, a business communications firm delivering written solutions for clients, as a registered LLC in late 2015. Doing the work kept her busy, so she didn’t keep track of how much money she was making. One day she calculated the numbers in a spreadsheet and realized that Sam’s Word could be a profitable business. She was off to the races building the business.
Black women starting businesses is a growing trend that is getting attention. JP Morgan reported in late 2021 that Black women were the fastest-growing demographic for entrepreneurs, reaching 2.7 million businesses in the U.S., according to The Hill article “Black-owned businesses are rising, thanks in part to Black women.”
The reason for the new business starts by Black women may be an effort to solve a problem. The Hill reported that the “high rates of Black female entrepreneurship may also reflect lack of opportunity in the traditional workforce—many start businesses to survive rather than pursuing market opportunities,” said Tosh Ernest, head of business growth & entrepreneurship at JP Morgan Chase.
Aware of the issues, in August 2018, Sammi became the founding member of Collaboration of Minority Women Professionals (CMWP), a membership organization for minority women designed to “increase the visibility, capacity, and business profitability of professional minority women.” The organization provides networking, support and training opportunities and has over 100 members, including members outside the U.S.
Not satisfied with starting two businesses, Sammi launched Melanated Business Coaching in late 2020, with the sole purpose of supporting Black women by amplifying their voices. This was around the time of George Floyd’s murder by a knee to his neck from a Minneapolis Police Officer, as other officers and the public watched in horror. The string of murders of Black people by police officers, many caught on video, led to major protests around the country. As a Black woman with a husband and young son, Sammi had to be a part of the solution.
In early 2021, Sam’s Word was folded into 628 Digital Design, “a full-service digital content design and marketing agency.” The 628 (June 28) was inspired by Sammi’s eight-year-old son Donny Jr.’s birthday. His job title is Clerical Strategist. “He fills the paper in the printer,” says Sammi. “He does stapling and all that stuff.” It’s a family enterprise.
I think it’s so important to specify Black.
Sammi doesn’t stop; she is perpetually in motion attending meetings—she possesses the energy of five people (prior to our meeting, she asked that I send her a calendar invite so that she wouldn’t forget). She is involved in so many things. Somehow, she finds a way to fit it all in.
There’s no doubt Sammi is using her platform to support Black businesses, which is at the heart of everything she does. When asked the question ‘Do you consider yourself a Black business or are you a Black person that is in business?’” she references Jay-Z’s famous quote: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” Sammi says, “I’ve seen my thoughts and ideas grow and evolve and become new things all the time. And just putting effort into some of the thoughts I have inspires new businesses. It’s something that can’t be turned off. I’m constantly thinking about the business, growing the business.”
“I have all of the certifications to say that I’m minority-owned. I think it’s so important to specify Black. I show up Black; like Issa [Rae] says, ‘I’m rooting for everybody Black.’ I unapologetically, and intentionally, promote and just amplify the blackness of it.” She says that 95% of her customers are Black, and her team is primarily Black women. She struggles with trying to find more Black women creatives.
In terms of strengthening Black businesses, she says, “Learning and development are critical to the success of any entrepreneur, especially Black entrepreneurs, Black women entrepreneurs. But it’s also even more important that you are learning and receiving input from people who look like you; that means Black-owned organizations, Black-led organizations, Black-taught organizations.”
Sammi is skeptical of organizations that receive local, state or federal monies but are not led or owned by Black businesses (we go back and forth via text about a specific organization that is helping Black businesses but has few blacks in leadership positions. This is a great concern for her). She states, “So when you start to see organizations, companies, whatever they may be that is not Black, but Black is who they only want to support, I would look further into that.”
With the probing mind of a detective, she continues, “I would want to ask, why are you here? Why are you in that space? And I’ll go look for Black-led, owned, and taught, Black-operated organizations.”
Sammi is happy that Black women seem to be in demand, considering the historical lack of diversity in corporate America. She knows because she has experienced it. When George Floyd was killed, Anne-Marie, the executive director of the Black Business Alliance, reached out to her. They had a two-hour conversation, and Sammi became a board member.
She has been a board member of the Black Business Alliance since September 2020.
“I show up for everything Black.” She is on six boards right now. But she has no intention of giving up her seat on the Black Business Alliance Board of Directors. “I love what the BBA is doing.”
Her 30-second pitch for Black businesses to join is “the BBA has created an atmosphere for a Black business owner to grow, learn, develop and heal, in the Black community together.” She continues, “healing from the disenfranchisement, from the continued racism and discrimination that we continue to face as Black business owners, creating a safe space for us.”
Through her various business entities, she still finds it hard to access capital and for her organizations to win local, state and federal contacts to assist Black businesses. She shares an example about a bank branch evaluating her loan and violating its own policy by requiring documents not needed for loans under $250,000. After meeting a banker, she was able to get the capital she needed at the same bank but a different branch in Madison—23 minutes from New Haven. Sammi feels this was discrimination.
I think one of the biggest lessons I have learned in 2021 is to continue my own thing.
She has the expertise, knowledge and skills, yet Black businesses and organizations continue to lose contracts to what may be less qualified entities. There have been some small contracts she worked on, including being an Entrepreneur In Residence for the New Haven Free Public Library. She built the Knownpreneurs program at the Knownpreneurs Growth Lab for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC)-owned businesses (she is no longer affiliated with the lab due to a dispute with the owner).
Her face expresses frustration when she discusses the contracts that she has applied for but didn’t get. In her gut, she feels she should have won those contracts. Often, her proposals are rejected without an explanation. The status quo is difficult to change and will not change unless people speak up.
It’s hard work to always show up as Sammi does, especially as a wife and a mother of a young son. When asked about her support network and her inner circle, she says, “My ladies, my ladies.” It has been helpful. There have been learning lessons. “I think one of the biggest lessons I learned in 2021 is to continue my own thing.”
“I don’t need to partner with every organization that wants to partner with me. I have my own organizations that I am building, and I have undying support from the people within those organizations; these are the people who are advocating for me and giving me the support. First and foremost, it is my husband because I couldn’t pursue entrepreneurship without him.” And she also mentions her mother.
Sammi names five Black, women-owned businesses that have helped her, and Diane Winston, 70, who, after five years, finally admitted she was Sammi’s mentor, as she explains it with a laugh. Sammi calls Anne-Marie Knight of the BBA a “living legend.” And then, she mentions Howard K. Hill, one of the founders of the BBA. She refers to Hill as “the Malcolm X of our lifetime” with pride.
An hour and forty minutes later, Sammi looks at her cellphone calendar in disbelief; she is late for a networking event in Hamden. I get a glimpse of her phone, and all I see are blocks of time in color carefully stamped into her day. She looks at me and smiles. I know what that means. She is off to her next meeting—she’ll never stop showing up.
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise stories for people who are curious about the world.