Take a deeper look into the Black Business Experience this summer

In this file photo, shoppers at My People’s Market, a pop-up marketplace sponsored by The School of Business featuring entrepreneurs of color. (Photo credit: Christina Dong | Flickr)

Black-owned businesses have long faced more obstacles in creating and growing their businesses than their white counterparts — issues that the pandemic has only exacerbated. 

If you want to learn more about the historical, political and social experiences of Blacks doing business in the U.S., you can take a new course being offered for the first time at the graduate-level this summer:

Black Business Experience (BST 510) | CRN 81703
2 credits

Black Studies Professors Ethan Johnson and Walidah Imarisha came up with the idea for the course, and after meeting with faculty and students in The School of Business, instructor Opio Sokoni put together the course content. 

Sokoni, who has a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of North Florida and a law degree from Howard University, brings 20 years of experience owning, creating and managing media businesses to the classroom.

Sokoni agreed to answer a few of our questions recently:

What do you hope students take away from this course?

The material is really exciting and gives a broad look at the Black business experience in this country. It allows students to contextualize what they see today. They get to learn about some of the most incredible and unbelievable business stories through the real lives of Black people and historical events. Topics include:

  • Black jockeys and horse racing after slavery
  • Madam CJ Walker’s empire
  • Black businesses as tools against oppression
  • Other diaspora markets (Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica)
  • Blacks and the music business
  • Black college athletes creating brand ambassador businesses using their name, image and likeness (NIL)

We also want students to understand their role as educated members of the community. Students are encouraged to use their knowledge to understand and support Black businesses – from global to local. There is a strong focus however on local Black businesses. So, the students get to actually learn about Black businesses in Portland.

In 2020, amid the protests after George Floyd’s murder, there was a nationwide movement to support Black-owned businesses. What larger changes are needed so Black-owned businesses can thrive year-round?

George Floyd protests brought on a comfort to use the word “Black” in the boardroom around the country. We all know that there is a huge correlation between crime, violence and poverty. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said riots are the voice of the poor. Economics is how we got here. What is needed is more than talk. Every entity that pays a check, hires people, or employs businesses should be aggressive about Black inclusion and participation on all levels. Government and private businesses have to tap Black businesses for lucrative opportunities. We see too many tricks when it comes to treating Blacks fair in business. The great part of the protests of 2020 is to see that we got some awesome allies. That means there is potential. 

What are you passionate about in your work?

To be a Black business after the slave era in this country meant to be in direct conflict with white supremacy that controlled all levels of government in this country. I’m an activist first. As I got to be an older activist, I began to see the fight that was needed in the area of economics. The old debates of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington on whether we need to place our focus as Black people on political gain or economic gain, respectively. We now see that you can’t have one in this country in any stable way without the other. My passion is to find cool and creative ways to pass the positives on to the next generations. They can take the good from our movements, as we have from our forebears, and build upon them.

When you are not teaching, what do you do in your free time?

When I’m not teaching, I’m teaching more in a variety of media businesses that I own, manage, or provide content. 

What does “redefining business” mean to you?

Those of us that are activists understand the importance of using business as a tool. The Black Press in the United States, for example, is this country’s best kept secret. The victories it has won over the last century and a half fighting against economic oppression and racist terror is remarkable.

“Redefining business” must mean understanding the big tool in social entrepreneurship that good people have for social engineering.

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