Diving into the Mainstream In observance of Black History Month, we look at black women's entrepreneurial experience in America, today and in the past.

By Eve Gumpel

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Before the Civil War, black businesses--including female-owned businesses--operated in the mainstream business community, according to Juliet E.K.Walker, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. An acknowledged expert on black business history, her published works include The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship. Walker says that black business owners before the war were generally caterers, tailors, barbers and merchants who provided goods and services to the general population.

After the Civil War devastated the South, many whites opened businesses in fields formerly dominated by blacks, and black business owners were forced to depend solely on black consumers. In fact, Walker says, blacks didn't begin moving back into the mainstream business community until the 1970s and '80s.

However, Walker says blacks haven't made the gains that other racial and ethnic groups have made in recent years. She points out that 72 percent of black-owned businesses learned less than $25,000 in 2002 (the latest statistics available). "Hispanics and Asians doing better than we are, and [so are] Native Americans," Walker says.

Despite Walker's observation that black businesspeople need to reach out to the mainstream economy, we found three entrepreneurs already doing so.

Theresa Carter
Former position: Senior brand manager for Diet Coke
Business: Ameritales, media entertainment company

Theresa Carter has been challenged for aiming at the mainstream market. Eager to spark a love for history in America's children, she created Ameritales to produce action-adventure media content based on historical characters. Her first book, Abraham Lincoln and the Forest of Little Pigeon Creek, was released in December. A second book, Amelia Earhart and the Haunted Winds of Kansas is slated for release in the spring.

During a recent radio appearance, a caller asked why she was writing about Abraham Lincon and Amelia Earhart instead of, for example, Bessie Coleman, a black female pilot who predated Earhart. Says Carter, "This is a global world we live in. We, as African-Americans, shouldn't be limiting ourselves. My passion isn't just about African-American history. My passion is about American history."

She adds, "This is a family entertainment company with a product that is viable for every family in America."

Carter says her new career is more consuming than her corporate life as a senior brand manager for Diet Coke. Her goal is to build Ameritales into a multimedia company with DVDs and interactive games as well as books.

Carter believes there are still hurdles in American business for black entrepreneurs to overcome. However, along with Jones-Hirvonen and Oldham, she is heartened by Barack Obama's run for president.

Roshelle Jones-Hirvonen
Former position: Vice president of membership services for eDiets.com
Businesses: SparklingCards.com, greeting cards that hang from the neck of bottles and vases and Welcome2College.com, which provides information and resources for college students and those headed for college.

The idea for SparklingCards.com germinated when Jones-Hirvonen purchased a giant bottle of wine that wouldn't fit it into a gift bag. Always inventive, she attached some mardi gras beads to a card and hung it around the neck of the bottle. She secured a trademark and launched her enterprise in 2005. Welcome2College.com followed last November, grounded in her strong belief in the value of education.

"Where I am today is because of education," she says. Jones-Hirvonen touts education as the solution to prejudice because it teaches you "to be more open to other cultures and resources," she says. While acknowledging that blacks have come a long way, she adds, "There's still so far to go."

Michelle Oldham
Former position: Managing high speed internet access and internet content for SBC (now AT&T)
Business: Mahdlo & Associates, interactive marketing firm

Michelle Oldham finds owning her own business a "freeing" experience. "I can use my creativity to come up with really great ideas for clients," she says. "In the corporate world, you're hindered a lot of times because there are so many levels of approvals."

Although Oldham doesn't market the company as a minority enterprise, she has taken advantage of the opportunity to have her business certified as a minority business enterprise, a women's business enterprise and a small disadvantaged business. "The certifications have helped us get our foot in the door in places where we wouldn't have had the opportunity otherwise," she says. She doesn't think about minority status when she pitches her business, though. She focuses on the value she can bring to the table. "That's ultimately why a client selects you and wants to work with you," she says.

She points to Obama's recent primary victories as proof that conditions have improved. "My father said, 'It will never happen. Not in this country.' It was wonderful seeing the joy in his face when it did happen. I think we've come a long way."

She doesn't expect prejudice to disappear completely anytime soon, but she finds an increasing interest in black culture heartening. "Some people I've met are so intrigued by the African-American culture," she says. "They find everything so interesting. I hope we all get to the stage where we are intrigued by each other's cultures."

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