By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Lauren Crisler launched her new candle business, Bashford & Pitt, in April 2021. Although she had been making candles for a couple of years, the business was a way to move beyond just her family – who Crisler joked had become “saturated” with her candle-making – and hopefully into a larger market.
The burgeoning candle company quickly caught on, and more than one year later carries a variety of hand-poured soy wax candles – each scent inspired by a different moment in history. Although Crisler’s candles are predominately sold online, they can also be found at several Old Town shops such as Made in ALX and the Old Town farmer’s market.
Crisler has both found success throughout the past year and faced challenges during her ascent. She’s had to navigate the travails of starting a business during and coming out of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, for example, which Crisler said was exacerbated by the fact that candles are an inherently sensory experience.
“Candles very much are a tactile experience and doing that during COVID when you have social distancing, [it] definitely impacted people being able to try the product,” Crisler said.
Crisler is one of many Black business owners who braved the COVID-19 storm in pursuit of entrepreneurship. While not all have made it, she said that due to the assistance of Visit Alexandria and the Old Town Business Association, as well as ample support from community members, Bashford & Pitt is in good shape.
With August marking National Black Business Month and the national number of Black-owned businesses around 30% above pre-pandemic levels, according to NPR, it appears that progress is afoot. Still, Crisler emphasized the need to keep momentum going and said that celebrating Black-owned businesses is more important than ever.
“There have been studies that consistently show that Black businesses don’t receive the same financial benefits as other businesses, everything from loans to venture capital,” Crisler said. “There are definitely societal barriers in place, so it’s wonderful to have the reminder for people to support Black-owned businesses as parts of our community.”
Joe Haggerty, president and CEO of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, said that while there has likely been “some growth” of Black-owned businesses in the city, the city does not keep these statistics.
Currently, it is not required to disclose racial and ethnic identity when applying for a business license, which makes logging that information difficult. However, the city is working with several organizations to make the data more readily available.
“People don’t want to be put in a box, so they don’t fill that out,” Haggerty said. “I think it’s going to continue to be a challenge, but with everybody working together we can get better information. But there’s definitely been some growth in Alexandria, and certainly some growth among African Americans as senior executives in large companies.”
There are likely many contributing factors to the rise in Black-owned companies and visibility. Crisler, who has several friends in the city’s business community, hypothesized that the economic slump at the beginning of the pandemic caused many people to search for new revenue streams. She also suggested that it could be due to boredom from being stuck indoors.
“I do put a lot of it to everyone being stuck in the house and getting stir-crazy. You can only binge Netflix for so long,” Crisler said. “… That definitely breeds some creativity, just out of ‘I need something to do.’”
Haggerty speculated that this growth stemmed from many people reflecting on their larger goals and, as a result, leaving their pre-pandemic jobs in order to embark on new business ventures. Many entrepreneurs were able to do this because of the encouragement of spouses with secure jobs, he said.
“A lot of restaurants, different people opened sports training facilities, lots of different things people can afford to do with some savings and try to make a go of it, and that’s what they did,” Haggerty said. “… It’s a whole reprioritization of their personal life.”
While the national numbers of Black-owned businesses are skyrocketing, they were more stagnant in Northern Virginia during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a 2021 report by the Northern Virginia Minority-Owned Businesses Working Group, at the end of 2019, Northern Virginia was home to approximately 128,000 minority-owned businesses, with 27,000 under Black leadership.
By 2021, Northern Virginia was home to approximately “just under” 128,000 minority-owned businesses, with 27,000 under Black leadership – nearly the same as pre-pandemic figures. Notably, the overall number of minority businesses makes up 42% of the total establishments operating in Northern Virginia, well surpassing the national average of 29%.
In 2021, the year after the pandemic struck, the total number of businesses with paid employees remained flat across the region, the study noted. This means all businesses, not just minority-owned businesses, experienced a nominal net change during the first two years of the pandemic.
“[This trend also ] has been observed nationally and holds true even among industries considered particularly at risk of failure, such as retail and accommodation and food services,” the study reads.
“The lack of a net change in business establishments with paid employees is likely due to a spike in new business formations balancing out closures, a trend driven in part by the increased number of unemployed individuals pursuing entrepreneurship as a means of generating income,” the study adds.
The report also indicated that businesses under minority ownership that existed pre-pandemic have experienced the economic effects of COVID-19 more acutely. This could be due to several risk factors, such as the fact that minority-owned businesses tend to be smaller, clustered in elevated-risk industries and have less access to capital.
City Councilor John Chapman owns a business in the city called Manumission Tour Company, which sheds light on the city’s rich history through walking and bus tours. During the pandemic, the business’ profits decreased by 90% – even with the benefit of being outdoors.
“Tourism took a major dip across the region, and I think our business went along with that trend,” Chapman said. “It was a tough time.”
Manumission Tour Company relies heavily on school groups as a source of revenue, which are just now starting to schedule field trips again. While margins have not yet returned to where they were pre-pandemic, Chapman said, they’re back on the rise.
The City of Alexandria has currently categorized more than 250 Black-owned shops. It is actively working on learning about and highlighting as many of its businesses as possible in order to increase the general public’s knowledge as well as add variety to the business community.
National Black Business Month is one of many ways to elevate Black entrepreneurs, many of whom have popped up during the pandemic, Chapman said.
“In lifting up any type of entrepreneur and their background, you not only understand who that entrepreneur is, but you also lift up and recognize the barriers of what those entrepreneurs go through. That’s what I think the benefit of acknowledging Black Business Month is,” Chapman said. “You not only talk about the types of businesses African Americans own, but some of the challenges they’ve had to get through, whether it’s being able to raise capital, not having access to certain types of support and seeing the need for additional support.”
The city received $29.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding last year, of which $500,000 went to expanding audiences, awareness and regional marketing to accelerate small business recovery. This particular tranche emphasized supporting “visitors and entrepreneurs of color” and includes advertising videos and photography. As of April, the project is 80% complete.
For Crisler, who is in the process of cooking up a new Bashford & Pitt product, the future is uncertain but bright. In her eyes, the pandemic may have brought a great deal of hardships, but it also brought one silver lining: a marked pivot among community members toward supporting local businesses.
“I would not have expected a year ago to be where I am now, and it’s been such an exciting journey,” Crisler said. “I can’t wait to see what comes next, what comes around the corner, but it’s definitely an exciting time to be starting a business in Alexandria in this community.”