Where Black Enterprise Gets A Booth And A Boost

It's a little after 2 p.m., and Ahmad Sandidge is busy laying out hats and leather bags at his booth. In front of the display, a tall model wearing an orange-and-black African-print jumpsuit hands me a flyer describing the Sandidge Design Group, a garment-manufacturing company. Around us are some 350 other booths covering 119,000 square feet of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. A few look like miniature art galleries, exhibiting paintings and posters of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. At others, dark-suited salesmen hawk the latest software packages.

Over 75,000 New Yorkers will turn out for this trade fair, which, in its direct appeal to consumers, is more like a street fair than the usual, business-to-business show. But this is a trade show with another key difference. At Black Expo USA, which stopped here on its summer tour on the way to Cleveland, Oakland, Washington, Dallas, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and finally New Orleans in the fall, most of the exhibitors are black-owned businesses.

BLEAK OUTLOOK. Advertisements for the New York expo urge black consumers to vent their frustrations over the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles by turning out for black entrepreneurship. And the community is responding. "This is what we should've been doing in the first place," says Bob Merrit, who has been coming to the expo since its 1989 debut. "Why should I buy from Macy's if I can buy from black businesses?" he asks.

Judging from the hustle and bustle of the expo crowd and the number of dollars being exchanged, it looks as though black capitalism is flourishing. But in fact, the situation hasn't changed much since the 1960s, when Harlem Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. shouted slogans such as "Earn, baby, earn" and "Don't buy where you can't work." Today, blacks own only about 3% of U.S. businesses, and those businesses account for a mere 1% of the nation's sales. And, as many of the fledgling businesses here attest, most black-owned enterprises are too small to offer many jobs. Black Expo is an attempt to do something about that state of affairs.

Walking through the glass doors of the convention center, I'm swept along by the weekend crowd, weaving in and out of the narrow aisles. Free samples of everything from perfume to soda are being pushed toward me from every direction. It's as noisy as rush hour at Grand Central station, as vendors scream out their sales pitches over the loud bass of a rap song that's being broadcast by a local radio station.

What is it that has drawn these entrepreneurs to the four-day Black Expo? Part of the answer lies in its history, described by Jerry Roebuck, its 38-year-old chairman and founder. Roebuck says he was inspired by other black entrepreneurs who "couldn't afford high-priced advertising, so I organized the Black Expo to bring people out to meet them."The first expo, which drew 156 vendors and a crowd of 20,000, was held in a passenger-ship terminal in New York City in 1989. It took two years to put together, with a lot of help from PepsiCo Inc. By 1991, the expo was enough of a success that Coca-Cola Co. offered $1 million to $2 million over three years and became its primary sponsor.

After talking to Roebuck, I fight my way back into the stream of people attached to shopping bags, only to come to an abrupt halt. Everyone in front of me is stopping at a booth displaying T-shirts, jeans, and shorts. On top is a jazzy red, black, and green sign that reads "Cross Colours." The Los Angeles-based apparel company, just two years old, is owned by Carl Jones, 37, and T.J. Walker, 31. The company's sportswear, carrying messages such as "Stop the Violence" and "Love Sees No Color," can be found in Japan, Europe, and at large retail chains such as Macy's, Merry-Go-Round, and CODA.

So, what brings Cross Colours to Black Expo? With success came rumors that the company was part of a big corporation. Says Davide Stennett, director of marketing: "We use the expo to let consumers know we're black-owned."

`BE LAWLESS.' Next is an elaborate display for a fragrance company--a modern twist on the personal-care products field that has long been a staple of black enterprise. A huge designer bottle of cologne with the word "Lawless" printed boldly across it is on top of the brightly lit booth. Charles Perry, 45, standing next to a sign that reads "For once in your life be Lawless," is handing out samples of his men's cologne.

The company, PVJ Fragrances Inc., remains small. For years, Perry has employed Black Expo and similar events to attract business, but he is just beginning to see a measure of success. After starting with 1,000 cases of cologne in 1985, "Lawless" can now be found in stores in Northern California. Texas may be next.

Beyond the swarms of consumers, there is a real trade show going on, as distributors stalk the expo looking for promising new businesses. Sandidge, smiling, tells how a Denver boutique owner who was looking for garments stopped by and said he would call to set up an appointment. And Jason Sims, the 28-year-old whose Big City Comics is dedicated to improving the image of blacks in the media, tells how last year he met a Japanese distributor here. "Now, BrotherMan: Dictator of Discipline can be found all the way in Japan," he says.

A show featuring Phe Zula's fashion collection has heads turning. Models wearing brightly colored gowns glide down the runway to the beat of African drums. All eyes are on one model as she throws off an African-print drape to reveal a stunning minidress.

Over in the kid's corner, children are romping on the indoor jungle gym and playing with board games while their parents are shopping. The exhibit is sponsored by Olmec Co., a black-owned toy company, and Toys 'R' Us Inc., which distributes Olmec toys.

Olmec employees are using their booth to hand out market-research surveys. "We ask consumers what kind of people they want to see as a doll, and we keep their suggestions in mind," says sales coordinator Renau Daniels. It's an approach that works for Olmec: Last year, the toymaker raked in about $2 million in sales. Its best seller is Imani--an African girl doll dressed in a brightly colored Kente-cloth dress. Of course, Olmec still has a long way to go before it's a threat to the likes of Mattel Inc.

But the toymaker's success inspires hope in others. In the basement of the Javits Center, expo visitors can take in a range of business seminars. John Raye, an executive with Dudley's Products, a maker of personal-care and hair products, is discussing "The ABCs of Starting Your Own Business." His advice: "The best businesses start at home, and the best finance is self-finance." His seminar ends with a final warning: "Remember, black people must become job makers, not job takers."

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