Jessica Spaulding, a Harlem native, spent more than 15 years going to chocolate shows with her mom, sampling chocolates from all over the world. When she realized “every culture had some level of representation” except for hers, she said she wanted to do something about it.
Spaulding, 33, said she started her business out of her home in 2015, after winning a start-up competition. She sold products at Hot Bread Kitchen’s East Harlem incubator before opening her store, the Harlem Chocolate Factory on West 138th Street, on historic Striver’s Row, in 2018. Since then, the Black-owned business has become a neighborhood hot spot.
Though Spaulding was able to sell her chocolates online and make deliveries during the height of the pandemic, she still needs to “restructure and pivot,” she said. Her store, which has been closed for about three months, will reopen for in-person service in November, and her website will relaunch then too.
The coronavirus has been detrimental to small businesses, especially Black-owned ones, which are especially vulnerable during tough economic times. But luckily for Spaulding, BNB Bank of New York organized a Small Business COVID-19 Recovery Challenge aimed to help women- and minority-owned businesses, and her shop was one of the top winners. She earned $10,000 to help the Harlem Chocolate Factory stay afloat during the pandemic.
According to a study by Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit organization that focuses on growing business resources, one-third of the city’s 230,000 small businesses won’t survive the coronavirus pandemic. And a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that there was a 41% decline in the number of Black-owned businesses between February and April of this year.
Spaulding said nontraditional funding for Black-owned businesses, like the grant competition, is essential because not coming from wealth will “hold you out of the running for any financial help.”
“In terms of how banking algorithms are set up, they limit… those who do not have people in their direct networks that can cosign on loans, regardless of the validity of the business plan,” said Spaulding.
Daniel Delehanty, the director of community development at BNB Bank, said it’s the bank’s mission to support small businesses through efforts like the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The bank has helped facilitate loans from $2,000 to $2 million, he said.
Despite the bank’s PPP outreach, a lot of small businesses didn’t participate, and BNB Bank wanted to better serve women- and minority-owned small businesses during the pandemic, said Delehanty. That’s how they came up with the grant competition in collaboration with the Business Center for New Americans, a community development financial institution that helps immigrants and refugees become self-sufficient.
According to Delehanty, when it comes to women and minority business owners, “The data have shown that they have had difficulty accessing financial support pre-pandemic and during the pandemic,” he said.
For the competition, applicants had to first prove that their businesses were women- or minority-owned, then pitch the viability of their businesses, how their businesses were affected by COVID-19 and how a grant could make a difference for them, said Delehanty.
Spaulding stood out as a “compelling person who presented extremely well,” he said.
Spaulding’s shop, the only Black-owned chocolate factory in Manhattan according to Spaulding, highlights the “iconic Black experience” of Harlem, she said. Chocolate wrappers feature original photography and artwork of the neighborhood, and the chocolate collections are named after Harlem traditions, like soul food Sunday dinner. She also makes chocolate bars shaped like brownstones.
“Jessica is hardworking, and she, like many of the Black women I know, is a trailblazer,” said Henry Conerway, who has been friends with Spaulding since college and is a fellow Black business owner. He said Spaulding’s grant win is well-deserved, because she’s “all about building community.” He said her shop has “a neighborly kind of vibe” that represents Harlem’s culture.
“She has a brick and mortar space, where pre-COVID, everyone gathered,” said Conerway. “We talked about chocolate, we talked about other things.”
Spaulding even packaged her chocolates with Conerway’s debut jazz album at an expo to help him make sales, he said. Conerway said it’s vital for Black-owned businesses to support each other so there’s “a more even distribution of wealth than we’ve seen.”
“One of the ways that I do that is to buy from people that look like me,” said Conerway. “So that we as a community can have a chance to compete and grow things.”
Dan Young is a professor and the founding director of the business administration program at Goldey-Beacom College in Delaware, where he said he’s the only African American administrator. Young said that Black people miss out on business opportunities, because they lack the ability for wealth transfer and mentors who are Black.
“The major ways businesses at least get started are from grants or from dollars from friends and family,” said Young. “And when you’re finding your career path and looking for someone to guide you, oftentimes, you’re looking for someone who looks like you.”
Spaulding said things like grant competitions and angel investing are the only things that will help Black business owners recover from the pandemic.
“This is no longer about how good your business idea is,” said Spaulding. “It’s how long can you survive a drought?”
(Photo by Jayna Alexandra)