Diversity & Inclusion
Black in Tech / Business development / Small businesses

More than marketing: Inside Cocoapreneur’s support ecosystem for Black business owners in Pittsburgh

Founder Khamil Bailey, one of the forces behind the Greenwood Plan, believes systemic change is needed to truly sustain the growth of the city’s Black business ecosystem.

Khamil Bailey, founder of Cocoapreneur (Courtesy)

When Khamil Bailey moved to Pittsburgh for college in 2005, she noticed a lack of community support for Black businesses in the city compared to her New Jersey hometown. 

Ten years later, the now 36-year-old CEO sought to fill in the gap. She started Cocoapreneur, an organization that aims to promote Black-owned businesses in Pittsburgh and provide them with resources they need to prosper. It focuses on supporting the entrepreneurs, not just bringing in customers, Bailey said, emphasizing that systemic change is the goal. 

“When we impact the business owner positively, it snowballs into the business and then outward into the community,” Bailey told Technical.ly.

Cocoapreneur has evolved from what started as an Instagram page into an LLC with up to 300 paying members to date, according to Bailey. 

Black entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh pay a tiered fee ranging from $12 to $30 a month to get their business information added to Cocoapreneur’s online directory, which includes local storefronts, restaurants, service providers like accountants and attorneys and nonprofits.

The directory’s goal: To serve as a resource for locals looking to buy products or services from Black-owned businesses. 

Building a brand by supporting business owners

Cocoapreneur aims to be more than just an online marketing tool. It’s also a community that Black entrepreneurs can turn to for support, Bailey said. After all, Black entrepreneurs continue to face obstacles like accessing capital, which could make it harder to keep their ventures afloat. 

“Business is great, but I’m more interested in the business owner,” Bailey said.

In the fall of 2020, the organization raised $100,000 to support Black businesses struggling during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bailey says. It later split that pool of funds into microgrants worth up to $5,000 each that were given to small business owners to keep their operations running. For example, an ice cream shop owner who used the loan to buy a new freezer. 

On top of that, Cocoapreneur has led in-person and online classes, sessions, and seminars with help from its partners over the last few years that offer business advice to Black entrepreneurs. 

Bailey said that she’s a “little disappointed” by the current level of engagement among members at Cocoapreneur as she has shifted her focus on ventures like the Greenwood Plan, an initiative she cofounded that aims to convert the downtown Pitt Building into a Black business incubator. 

Cocoapreneur doesn’t have any events planned at the moment. But moving forward, Bailey said she hopes to hold more meetups to foster connections between Black business owners. 

Pushing for systemic change to uplift Black businesses

Apart from individual endeavors, to support Black entrepreneurs, systemic change is needed to truly sustain the growth of the Black business ecosystem in the long run, according to Bailey. 

In fact, Bailey thinks Pittsburgh entrepreneurs across the board can better support their Black peers by simply changing their perspective.

“I think people just have to realize that when you are supporting or uplifting a Black business that it does not take food off your table,” Bailey said. “We’re not splitting pies, we’re just making more.” 

Non-Black business owners should not see Black businesses as competition, she said, but rather, complementary to the Pittsburgh community. At the very least, she said she wants to see more training programs beyond college degrees that teach Black residents how to develop their businesses across industries. 

With that perspective in mind, Bailey believes embracing Black business – whether through food, arts, or entertainment — can create a more vibrant community in Pittsburgh. 

“There’s perspectives that Black people bring just by virtue of being Black,” Bailey said, “that I think is going to move our entire society forward.” 

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