Busting Barriers: A Festival of Black Women Entrepreneurs

Writer: Mathany Ahmed
Photos: Duane Tinkey

Loretta Terrell envisions a world where more Black women are CEOs. Or owners. Or founders or moguls or any other titans of industry they can imagine.

This entrepreneurial spirit is one she shares with many of her peers. Black women are the fastest-growing group of business owners, according to a 2023 report from GoDaddy’s Venture Forward research initiative.

Author and festival exhibitor Glo Rose

Even so, Terrell couldn’t help but notice the systemic barriers that kept her dream from becoming a reality. A Wells Fargo analysis of women-owned businesses found that Black women who initiate new business ventures often have fewer financing options and less community support than other entrepreneurs.

So in August of 2020, Terrell set out on a mission to overcome at least some of these barriers by founding Sista Soul Fest, a celebration of Black women. Terrell and a team of co-organizers invited dozens of Black women-owned businesses to share their products and services with the community. Every year since, hundreds of guests have made their way to Evelyn K. Davis Park to eat, network and shop a unique mix of products tailored to the needs of women of color.

The festival’s guiding mission is to give Black women-owned businesses the support they need. In reality, it’s broader: It’s a daylong celebration of Black and brown women and girls. “We’re really changing the world,” Terrell said. “Or at least, we’re changing Iowa.”

At the festival, guests can find children’s books with Black girls on the covers and quilts inspired by historically Black college sororities. They can find silk bonnets, too, which the 11-year-old owners of the ABGT Shop make by hand to protect fragile curly strands.

Book by author Glo Rose

For Elisha “Lee” and Tyonda King, the married couple behind LeeTy Delights, Sista Soul Fest has become a gateway into other festivals and markets. When the pair started selling their specialty cinnamon rolls, flavored like banana cream pie, red velvet cake and other traditional desserts, Sista Soul Fest offered them one of their first chances to connect with potential customers. Since then, they’ve developed a cult-like following and now sell their products at other farmers markets and coffee shops around town. But they still make a point to attend Sista Soul Fest.

“There were a lot of doors that weren’t really open to us as female, Black business owners,” Terrell said. The festival “has let us grow as a community of businesses.”

Despite the growth of Black-women-owned businesses, the average company takes in only $24,000 in annual revenue, compared to $142,900 among all women-owned businesses. Black women are more likely to fund their businesses with their own money due to limited financing opportunities. “The wealth gap between a Black woman and a white man is 90%,” Terrell said, citing a 2021 report from Goldman Sachs. “I thought to myself, this is why we need Sista Soul Fest.”

The “Abbagabb” twins Abby, top, and Gabby George run the ABGT Shop and sell custom apparel at Sista Soul Fest.

The festival also incorporates Black culture and history, beginning each year with a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem. A central stage features dance, music and poetry by local Black women.

Kari Bassett, founder of the Iowa Black History Research Collective, made her festival debut in 2022 with an exhibit about Black women from local history. She highlighted eight notable women, including festival founder Terrell and Joeanne Cheatom, a local activist who advocated for criminal justice reform in the 1970s. Two of Cheatom’s grandkids were surprised to see their own family represented and pointed at the same time: “Look, that’s Grandma!”

It’s important to connect the past and the present, Bassett said, especially when it helps Black women in Iowa see examples of success. “Systemic racism has always left a lot of gaps for Black people in our society,” she said. “There’s a drive to identify that gap and do something about it now, since nobody’s going to do it for us.”

Earlier this year, festival organizers raised funds to support participants in other ways, too, helping them to create marketing materials or set up an LLC. More than anything, Sista Soul Fest offers women of color a chance to build confidence as business owners.

“This festival lets Black women and girls know that entrepreneurship is available, it’s attainable, and it’s sustainable,” Terrell said. “We can really do this.”

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