Every great dream begins with a dreamer.” — Harriet Tubman
The seed of a new business begins with not only a dream, but also a recognition of an untapped need. Behind every successful business is a tenacious entrepreneur who believed they had something unique to offer.
That’s especially true of Black business owners, who are an integral part of Huntsville’s economy. Their backgrounds and life experiences may not mirror those of Fortune 500 CEOs, but they share an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Black business owners are important threads in our diverse economic tapestry,” Mayor Tommy Battle said. “I hope Black entrepreneurs continue to flourish in the Rocket City, and I hope their efforts are supported by our residents.”
There are resources available for Black business owners at the federal level and locally. The North Huntsville Business Association fosters economic growth and serves as a resource for business in North Huntsville. There’s also the Huntsville Black Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit organization that connects Black business owners with marketing and educational resources.
Jerry Mitchell, president and CEO of the Alabama State Black Chamber of Commerce, said there’s been tremendous growth among Black businesses, especially in terms of Black-owned employer businesses. He’s also seen a rising number of new startups, some of which opened during the pandemic.
“We just continue to work with business owners and try to help them grow so we can improve the overall numbers in Alabama and the City of Huntsville,” he said.
A few Black business owners recently shared their perspectives on owning a business and shared advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.” — Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire
One of Huntsville’s newest Black-owned businesses is Design Realty Solutions, located at 1334 Washington St., NW. The real estate brokerage and interior design firm was started in August 2021 by real estate brokers Jessica Dudley and Amanda Otieno.
Otieno, a California native, moved to Huntsville in 2006 to attend Oakwood University. After school, she worked for a NASA contractor, and then for NASA directly as an equal employment specialist.
“Starting a business came naturally,” she said. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Getting the business off the ground wasn’t without challenges, but Otieno and Dudley forged ahead. Otieno said Dudley handled most of the administrative tasks, including applying for the appropriate City licenses and permits. Both described the process as smooth and described City official as helpful.
Finding a location took time, but the women found available space in North Huntsville. The area was attractive because there were no similar businesses. They also found a supportive business community.
When asked what advice she would give to other entrepreneurs, Otieno said trying is half the battle.
“Some people wait years and years to line up every single thing,” she said. “For me, that fear can get in the way. You just have to step out there and do it.”
Success isn’t about how much money you make; it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.” — Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States
“Huntsville is a great place,” said Shamekia Hill, who opened 1 on 1 Technical College in August 2021 and serves as dean. “I lived here before, then moved to Atlanta and came back. I saw how the medical field here was growing and changing, so when the opportunity presented itself, I hopped on it.”
1 on 1 Technical College offers courses in medical billing and coding and phlebotomy, and those are primarily aimed at women looking for a new career path. The phlebotomy course is a 12-day boot camp.
“So, it’s 12 days to a new career,” she said.
Hill opened her technical college in North Huntsville, in a shopping center at 3400 Blue Springs Road. She said the Huntsville business community has been welcoming of her, and particularly praised the North Huntsville Business Association, led by Executive Director Judy Hardin.
Hill also spoke highly of City officials who helped her get her business up and running.
“The fire inspector was very helpful and made sure everything was up to code,” she said. “We did a lot of renovations, and even though we did them during the pandemic, they went smoothly.”
When asked about her advice to other minority entrepreneurs, Hill said it’s important for people to do their homework.
“They should have an entrance and an exit plan,” she said. “Run the numbers, and then run them again and again. There are a lot of resources out there for African American business owners.”
The harder you work, the luckier you get’’ — Mike Adenuga, Nigerian billionaire
Most entrepreneurs have a unique story, but few as unique as Sarah Douglas and Carlos Burwell. The mother-and-son team are the owners of Sac’s Kitchen at 6008 Mastin Lake Road. On July 12, Sac’s will celebrate its ninth anniversary.
While many businesses struggled through the pandemic, Burwell and Douglas continued to serve the community they love. He said people needed food, and Sac’s was more than happy to meet that need.
“We came up on the north side of Huntsville, and we have a lot of support in this area,” Burwell said of the decision to open their restaurant in North Huntsville. “We wanted to give back to this community, and everybody knows it’s growing like crazy.”
He and his mom are also proud J.O. Johnson High School graduates.
Like Hill and Otieno, Burwell said he’s had good experiences dealing with the City’s permit and license officials. He also had some words of advice for Black entrepreneurs.
“I think the biggest thing for Black business owners is you have to be dedicated, but you always have to find people who want to work,” he said. “You have to roll up your sleeves and be ready to wear different hats, but you need dependable people; people who are willing to swing the bat with you.”
Are you an aspiring entrepreneur wanting to start your own business? Click here to visit the City of Huntsville business page, which includes links to license and permit applications.