By Andrew Brown
The Charleston Gazette, W.Va.
Belle Manjong has lost countless hours of sleep as a result of her work schedule, and refers to her event planning business as her baby.
As the owner of B. Belle Events Custom Planning and Design in Charleston, Manjong has transitioned from practicing law to managing accounts and marketing efforts, and the mental and emotional weight of operating her own business has taken a toll on her at times.
“There were days when I said, ‘I can’t handle another ounce of stress,'” she said.
But the small-business owner told a large crowd of current and prospective business owners at the Charleston Civic Center that her experience with entrepreneurship has also been rewarding, even if it has pushed her limits.
“It will consume you,” she said. “It will take over every aspect of your life.”
On Wednesday, Manjong was among a handful of speakers at the West Virginia Office of Minority Affairs’ second Minority Business Expo.
At the event, more than 300 registered attendees at the expo were able to network with local, state and federal business development officials and pick up the skills necessary to operate a business.
“If you are failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” Manjong said.
Carolyn Stuart, the Office of Minority Affairs executive director, said the event gave small and minority business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to learn about aspects of operating a business, like financial lending, business accounting and targeted marketing.
“We know there is a small minority population across the state, but we don’t need to be small minded,” Stuart said.
The expo was designed to take new and prospective business owners from start to finish, teaching them the ins and outs of operating a company day-to-day, Stuart said. She said people should leave the event saying, “I didn’t know that existed.”
“We try to make sure there is something here for everyone,” Stuart said.
Those who made it to the event were also able to hear from other minority business owners like Manjong, who have taken their ideas and made them a reality.
Clinton Arnold, the owner of the AAMCO Transmission and Total Car Care center in South Charleston, explained his transition from an employee for Verizon to a self-employed business owner.
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Arnold described the day-to-day challenges of dealing with employees, customers and financing. He told the crowd how important accounting and money management was.
“You can be profitable and broke,” Arnold said. “If you don’t know how to manage cash flow, you can be making money and go out of business.”
Arnold didn’t down play how difficult it can be to own a small business, but he said perseverance can pay off.
“Be persistent,” he said. “There are going to be bad times, and there’s going to be good times.
Geoffrey Cousins, the keynote speaker at the event, grew up in McDowell County as the son of a coal miner and has gone on to become an accomplished surgeon at Charleston Area Medical Center and a small business owner who operates Massage Envy in Kanawha City.
Cousins began his speech by asking the African-American community to remember the generations that came before them and to appreciate those people for the battles they fought. “There are many who fought, bled and died so we could be here today,” Cousins said, adding that black and minority business owners should remember they are standing on the shoulders of generations that came before them.
He laid out the long struggle of African-American communities to create successful businesses in places like Oklahoma, North Carolina and Detroit, and he described how communities prospered where others would have had them fail.
“They made a way out of no way,” he said.
Cousins emphasized the importance of black communities helping to support the businesses that are owned an operated by their neighbors and emphasized the lack of reinvestment within black communities.
Paul Gilmer, another speaker who operates a business tax accounting service on the West Side, told any prospective business owners that they couldn’t just expect to have customers breaking down their door, but he said self employment can be worth the risk if they are willing to work and continually learn.
“Pay attention. Develop your niche, and you will be working for the best boss you ever knew,” Gilmer said.
Stuart, the minority affairs director, said fostering entrepreneurship in minority communities and among diverse classes of people is a benefit to the whole economy.
“The more businesses we have open up, the more people we can put to work,” she said.