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How a Black Entrepreneur Funded Her Community-Minded Business

by King Williams |September 8, 2022

On a leafy street in Savannah, GA, The Culturist Union, a welcoming space with exposed brick and botanical accents, recently opened its doors.

More than a place to pop in for an espresso drink, it's an artisan marketplace and a creative incubator for local Black creatives. It also happens to be the first Black-woman-owned coffee house in town.

"I knew that we couldn't just do a coffeehouse," says its owner, Elbi Elm, who first launched The Culturist Union with virtual workshops and pop-up experiences pre-pandemic. "We, as a community, needed more than that. I also knew that we couldn't just be a retail shop.

Image of a man wearing a suit and smiling to the camera

A Black-owned bank with a legacy

Elm's mentor sent her to Carver State Bank because it is a Black-owned bank with deep roots in the community. Robert James Jr., the CEO of its holding company, Carver Financial Corporation, remembers his first interview with Elm. "She walked me through her business plan and I asked her critical questions about it," he recalls.

"And [then] she went through various twists and turns with the pandemic and with building out a location." Throughout that process, Carver State Bank had her back. "We provide not just transactional support or accounts or loans, but also a lot of consulting services and advisement to our customers."

That kind of high-touch banking service to the Black community is central to Carver's mission. "The partnership between Carver and The Culturist Union is symbolic of our history," says James. "[It's about] finding entrepreneurs like Elbi who have a good idea, who have the energy and the talent to get it done but maybe need some additional guidance."

James, a second-generation banker, believes a key to addressing the racial wealth gap in America is to finance Black entrepreneurs. But just as Black entrepreneurs need greater access to capital, so do Black-owned banks.

"If you look at the entire banking system in the United States, there are about 4,800 banks," says James. "There are only 19 Black-owned banks. And from an asset perspective, it's even starker."

Carver has been working to drive Black wealth and entrepreneurship since 1927, but was able to further scale operations in part due to a recent strategic relationship with Citi. In 2020, Citi made a $1 billion commitment as part of its Action for Racial Equity initiative to expand economic opportunity for communities of color. One focus for this funding has been on Minority Depository Institutions (MDIs), a historically trusted source of financing for Black communities.

Two people sitting on chairs discussing

Taking a chance on an entrepreneur

When Elm approached Carver, it wasn't an automatic yes at first ask. But she pitched not only her idea but also something else she knew would be of value: a network of young entrepreneurs in need of a local bank.

"When I was in the military I was an intel analyst, and I learned very quickly how to do an exchange of information," she says. "I came into the conversation saying, I know that you traditionally don't consider clients like me. However, I do have this unique vantage point. You might want to take a chance on it."

Carver, in part due to the commitment from Citi, was able to take that chance. "Our relationship with Elbi and The Culturist Union is paying dividends for her," says James. "But it's also paying dividends for the bank in terms of really exposing our bank, which is a 95-year-old institution, to a younger generation, an audience that maybe doesn't see Carver as being as creative and as flexible as we are."

Customers browse items at The Culturist Union store

Advice from a rising entrepreneur

Elm founded The Culturist Union with the goal of expanding opportunity and prosperity for the Black community in Savannah and beyond. "My goal is that The Culturist Union can grow into a nationwide space," she says.

"Because Tulsa needs a place like this. Birmingham needs a place like this. I'm from Pontiac, Michigan, so Detroit needs a place like this. All of these cities where Black people are centered need a place where all kinds of artists can sit and gather together."

Having made it to a position where she can now think about growth and scale, Elm has advice for other budding Black entrepreneurs at the start of their journey: "Connect with your minority-focused bank wherever it is and just explain to them what's going on," suggests Elm. "And even if they can't support you, I am pretty sure that there is some sort of nonprofit or resources that could be available to you."

Most importantly, says Elm, "Don't let lack of resources stop you. There is always a person that you can connect with, a community that is here to support you and resources available to you if you 'crack your teeth,' which is what we say down here — it's Gullah Geechee — which means speak up. Ask for what you need."

Watch the video above for the full story of how Citi and Carver State Bank are partnering with the next generation of Black entrepreneurs.

King Williams

is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Atlanta, GA.

The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.