Why you should care
Because the biggest Black population outside of Africa is ready for their paper revenge.
It’s midday on a Saturday in Rio’s north side neighborhood of Madureira, and the AfroAtitude salon has been full for hours. Women are getting box braid and Senegalese twist hairstyles to a soundtrack of gossip and Alicia Keys. Alessandra Rodrigues, who left a job at a hamburger chain to work in beauty full time, applies blue-laced nagô braids to health insurance agent Mayla Santos, who forgoes $70 in entertainment spending every three months to pay for the style. Salon owner Juliana Marinho sends a client who wants a natural haircut upstairs to see Lola Monteiro and schedules makeup artist Ana Priscila Vasconcelos for a workshop the following weekend. Rodrigues, Marinho, Monteiro and Vasconcelos are all Black. “We’re taking care of each other,” Marinho says.
Downplaying Black identity in Brazil has historically brought socioeconomic gains. But a new generation is embracing it — not only to campaign around issues like education and police violence, but also to exercise choice on spending money and creating new businesses. Like those behind Black Lives Matter’s Backing Black Businesses initiative in the United States — and in the tradition of Malcom X’s concepts of Black economics — they believe in patronizing Black-owned enterprises in order to address gaping racial inequality. It is “a concrete, short- to medium-term step while we fight for larger transformations,” says entrepreneur Vítor Del Rey, co-founder of Kilombu, an app that catalogs Black-owned businesses countrywide. “These ideas have taken hold in the United States, but only 13 percent of their population is Black,” he adds. “Here it’s 54 percent, enough to make Black Brazilian billionaires” — for the first time.
Five years ago, the discussion around Black economic empowerment in Brazil focused on government incentives for one-person “microenterprises.” Now the Black business movement rolls forward in the private sector, despite a recession, to include networking hubs, incubators, venture capital funding and an effort to create a Black-Brazilian Silicon Valley in the northern city of Salvador. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of Black small business owners in Brazil grew 13 percent.
To Paulo Rogério, one of the minds behind Salvador’s Dendê Valley (dendê, or palm oil, is a key ingredient in Afro-Brazilian cuisine), this moment emerges from a decade of economic growth and university affirmative action policies for Black Brazilians. “We’ve seen more progress in the last five years than in the last 20 as far as sophistication of the Black business movement,” Rogério says. Anderson França, who has long coached entrepreneurs of different races from Rio’s poor outskirts, credits the arrival of smartphone Internet access to Brazilians who have newly risen to the middle class and began to discuss racial identity in wider circles than ever before. In 2016, a social media campaign with the slogan “If I don’t see myself represented, I won’t buy” attacked racially homogenous advertising.
The representation is coming now in varied ways: Some Black entrepreneurs, like owners of hair salons, serve a particular need for Black people. But others serve a wider demographic. For example, in Brazil, the U.S., Europe and Africa, travelers can book rooms on diaspora.black, which serves people curious about Black culture (regardless of race) or who have experienced racism on other travel sites.
The commonality across the varied new ventures is “valuing Black Brazilian history and sense of community,” says Rosenildo Ferreira, one of the partners in the Dendê Valley initiative. All these qualities are visible in França protégé Thais Ferreira, who chats race and politics with visitors to her fried chicken food trailer in North Rio’s Vila da Penha neighborhood; she offers jobs to Black Brazilians who haven’t found work elsewhere. In nearby Madureira, Black-owned recording studio DUTO is the first record label to sign a multi-artist urban music contract with Universal Music Brazil. Both companies can be found on Del Rey’s Kilombu, the Yellow Pages app for Black businesses.
Those who want jobs in the emerging ecosystem can sniff around São Paulo-based AfroBusiness Brazil and BlackRock accelerator. Venture funding for Black-owned startups now includes a 2016 round of $500,000 from the Inter-American Development Bank and a portfolio in development by VC Grana Preta (Black Cash), which hopes to announce $1.5 million to $3.5 million of investments by the end of the year.
And yet, obstacles stand in the path of this momentum. Brazil’s economy is emerging from a two-year recession, with unemployment at 13.7 percent. Unelected president Michel Temer’s solution includes pushing dramatic changes in labor laws through Congress and slashing health and education spending. Some of these labor reforms might help startups like those that allow new companies to easily hire and fire new employees, says Bruna Barros, who worked as a financial analyst for PricewaterhouseCoopers before entering Brazil’s ProLíder fellowship program, where she co-founded Grana Preta. But, she adds, large companies will continue to benefit from dramatic tax breaks unavailable to their smaller peers, “which hurts entrepreneurs and continues to contribute to one of Brazil’s biggest problems: low productivity.” She adds that heavy education cuts that are underway will be a “serious setback” not only to Black entrepreneurs, but also to the Brazilian economy as a whole.
Monique Evelle, a well-known commentator on race and business, warns Black Brazilians to think critically about entrepreneurship and not worship it for its label alone — especially when a 2011 study found Black entrepreneurs on average earned 51 percent of the salaries of their white counterparts and 77 percent of the average national salary. Taking a more conventional career path should not be frowned upon, Evelle says, especially in this economy. Still, she remains enthusiastic about transforming unequal numbers in both entrepreneurial and more conventional workplaces, titling a recent article, “We Will Be the First Generation to Practice Black Money.”
At the AfroAtitude salon, Santos’ visit ends with a photo shoot of her new hair, which is quickly blasted out to stylist Rodrigues’ 1,800 Instagram followers. “I’ll show my friends the page,” Santos assures Rodrigues. “See you next time.” Rodrigues smiles. Through her work as a stylist, she has saved up enough money to pay for a medical school preparatory course, which she begins next week.