Small Business How a Black Entrepreneur Funded Her Community-Minded Business

by King Williams | September 08, 2022

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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.

She had a compelling business idea, and a loyal following. But translating a vision into a brick-and-mortar business requires capital. A mother and former United Air Force staff sergeant with a background in the arts and marketing, Elm realized that she wasn’t the most obvious candidate for small business funding.

“I went to, I don't know how many different banks, and everyone was like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” Elm recalls. Her experience is not uncommon.

Black owners get turned down for bank financing at twice the rate as white business owners, and they only receive 3% of venture capital funding “Finally,” says Elm. “A mentor was like, you need to go to Carver State.”

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But translating a vision into a brick-and-mortar business requires capital.
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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 we also provide 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.

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Robert James II, Director of Strategic Initiatives, President, Carver Development CDE - Photo courtesy of Somi Studios, Savannah

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 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.”

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Robert James II & Elbi Elm - Photo courtesy of The Culturist Union

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.

Customers browse items at The Culturist Union store

Photo courtesy of The Culturist Union

King Williams

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