By Casey Murray | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Ifeoma Okwu, who founded Embodied Wellness in 2021, attended the Economic Business Summit by the California Black Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 1.

In 2021, the landscape for new businesses was more challenging than ever before, but Ifeoma Okwu knew she couldn’t put her dreams on hold. 

She decided to start her holistic health and weight loss business anyway, opening Embodied Wellness’ (virtual) doors in February 2021. Okwu got her first client in December and now helps more than 50 people manage their health.

“Being able to provide holistic-centered weight loss and wellness services in a way that is personalized and in a way that is impactful is something that was really meaningful to me, and I didn’t see it out there in the way in which I deliver it,” Okwu said. “So I thought, well, why not me? Why can’t I do it and move forward in it? And it’s been really rewarding.”

Okwu isn’t alone. The financial strain brought by the pandemic had outsized effects on existing Black-owned businesses, but also created a surge in new ones. Black women seem to be a large part of the charge.

Applications for new businesses rose substantially in Sacramento County during the pandemic, and national data from a combined study suggests women of color are a large share of the new owners.

Cynthia Dees Brooks founded TAP Wine Lounge to celebrate Black wine and culture. She hopes to open TAP Wine Lounge by late October. Louis Bryant, OBSERVER

Data from software company Gusto and the National Association of Women Business Owners showed that about 47% of new businesses started by women were started by minorities.

As COVID-19 continues to affect the economy, these new business owners need support more than ever. That’s why Okwu went to the Economic Business Summit, hosted by the California Black Chamber of Commerce, Sept. 30-Oct. 1.

Chamber President Jay King said helping Black businesses in the wake of COVID-19 is a central reason the conference was brought back after the pandemic created a gap in such events.

Cynthia Dees Brooks, who opened her wine bar and art gallery right before the pandemic in February 2020, also attended. She pivoted successfully during COVID to virtual wine tastings and eventually closed her in-person location. Now she’s preparing to open a new location called the TAP Wine Lounge on Del Paso Boulevard in North Sacramento, which also will feature art from Black artists and wine from Black-owned wineries.

“I feel like it’s important that spaces are created so that all are welcome – and without microaggressions, if you will,” she said of TAP Wine Lounge. “Where one can be comfortable, completely comfortable, in their skin and expression without judgment.”

Inspired by her love of wine, and partly by racist incidents such as one in 2015 in Napa in which a group of Black women was kicked off a wine train, she went to the summit to learn how to make her business stronger. She participated in the pitch competition, where participants were eligible to win up to $50,000, and won $5,000.

Cynthia Dees Brooks stands behind the bar of TAP Wine Lounge, her business that showcases Black-made wine, on Oct. 5. Louis Bryant, OBSERVER

She’ll pitch her business again at the Global Diversity and Investment Summit later this month at Sacramento State for another shot at even more TAP Wine Lounge funding.

Overall, she said, the summit was “a learning experience” and she was grateful to gain exposure to entrepreneurs she didn’t already know.

“I’ve been involved in incubators before [and] the summit definitely was a level of businesses that I had not seen or been around,” Dees Brooks said. “I think I’m in the small business community, but these were businesses, obviously, that were from across the state. These are new faces to me in the room and I think we left with truly a camaraderie.”

Ashlee Sampson started her salon during the pandemic and also attended the business summit. She had been working a corporate job and decided she’d had enough.

“I knew that I wanted to start my own business in the beauty industry, and so I just kind of stepped out on faith and said, ‘Hey, I’m done with corporate America. Let me use these finances and this time to own my own business,’” she said. “I was doing it already. I had been doing it for years.”

Sampson is also an actress and model; working as an employee didn’t give her the flexibility to pursue all her dreams. Now she’s trying to make her Midtown salon, Five One Nine Salon Suites, a one-stop shop for all things beauty: hair, nails, lashes, make up, waxing, etc.

She attended the business summit in part to pitch her business in the same competition as Dees Brooks. Though she wasn’t chosen, she said the summit was a valuable experience.

“Even though the end goal for me was to pitch and to get that funding, I still took a lot away from it,” she said. “It opened my eyes to a little bit more of a business aspect of how to involve other resources.” 

Like many business owners, Sampson said her biggest challenge has been getting financial backing, especially through the pandemic. 

Ashlee Sampson sits in her salon, Five One Nine, in Midtown Sacramento on Oct. 7. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

“Being in this and trying to still push and to get those resources has been very hard,” she said.

But push on she does, hoping one day to turn her salon into a chain. Dees Brooks and Okwu aren’t giving up either. Both said passion for their businesses has made them persevere through difficulties.

“Weight loss is something that is personal and it is something that is an act of self-care,” Okwu said. “I persevered because I really believed in helping people reach their goals in a way that honors them.”

Dees Brooks hopes to turn her success into pride.

“After having an experience here at the TAP Wine Lounge, I hope (customers) walk away with ‘I’ve got a lot to be proud of as a Black person,’” she said.