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Kamelah Adams, owner of Mimi’s Fresh Tees
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 14 February 2023

On Sunday, Kamelah Adams opened the doors to her business at Southwest 10th and Morrison to celebrate Black business owners and creators. More than two dozen community members crowded into her welcoming retail space for the Love Your Selfie Galentine's Day Event.

For the owner of Mimi’s Fresh Tees, the event reflected her operating philosophy: collaboration with other makers and community engagement. 

“My vision is to activate and create vibrant spaces to bring people downtown,” Adams told The Skanner. “The event was open to everyone and we had a great time building community and just really being there to support and love each other, because it’s difficult times, just this world in general, for a lot of us.”

Two years ago, Mimi’s Fresh Tees was an online-only store selling clothing with original, social justice-focused designs. Adams had nearly closed her business in 2020, and still had to struggle to find the capital to fill the influx of orders amid the protests of George Floyd’s murder. A small Paycheck Protection Program loan helped, but didn’t fill the gap. 

Adams got an unexpected boost from the Portland Thorns, which sponsored her Mimi’s Fresh Tees line during the team’s fall season and ultimately scored her a $25,000 grant from the National Women’s Soccer League.

“$25,000 is a decent amount of money, but the price of cotton has gone up significantly, so if you really break it down, you can spend that really quick on inventory and marketing,” Adams said. “I’ve been getting creative doing speaking engagements and trainings just to generate more revenue, because my background is diversity, equity and inclusion, so I can use that skill set for other things as well.” 

black women owned ynique fullY’Nique Wright, owner of Y'Nique Touch Salon
Across town, Y’Nique Wright is enjoying the success of her Y'Nique Touch Salon, which opened about a month before the pandemic hit the region. She is still recovering from the four months in 2020 she had to close her business but continues paying rent and other overhead expenses. 

“You couldn’t have a business that was thriving if you didn’t have any extra cushion, because applying for grants and loans at the time was very challenging, so you had to come out of pocket with your own expenses,” Wright said. “The salon is actually doing pretty good. But it’s still not how I would like it to be. Sometimes I feel like I have to take money out of my personal or my savings account just to keep the business afloat, and it shouldn’t be like that.”

Left Behind

Like other businesses in the throes of the early pandemic, Wright sold gift cards as a way of maintaining a revenue stream. Wright also resorted to a loan through Kabbage, an alternative small business lender, which she has since paid off. Because she had such a young business when she applied, her Paycheck Protection Program loan only covered one month’s rent. 

The Brookings Institute found that the five million Paycheck Protection Program loans released as of September 2020 had been dispersed more widely and more quickly to businesses in largely White neighborhoods, with business owners of color often being last to receive payment, and being denied at higher rates. 

Gallingly, the government's Small Business Administration is now estimating that of the approximately $800 billion loaned out through the federal program, as much as $100 billion was fraudulently obtained or spent. That lands hard for Adams and Wright, especially as they attempt to recover from pandemic losses amid inflation and general economic uncertainty. 

“It is challenging, just to say the least,” Adams said. “It’s interesting because inflation definitely plays a factor, and I’m a retail business, so people are going to prioritize food over the next hoodie, and that’s what a lot of us saw during the holiday time. Our sales were down about 55% over the previous year. It’s simply because people were buying less.”

She added, “It’s just not enough resources right now to really sustain retail,” Wright said. “We need a lot of attention right now.”

“I’m still pinching pennies,” Wright said.

“I’m busy, I’m booked. But it’s like, keeping up with my personal expenses and the business expenses, that part has been kind of tricky because all the money I pretty much make goes back into the business and I have a little portion to pay myself out.”

She recently became a mother, but worries that being out of the salon even briefly isn’t sustainable. Her salon’s rent is due to increase, as have the prices on the products the salon depends on. Wright and her staff continue to wear masks and disinfect each station after use – essential to her clients’ peace of mind, but another significant budget line item. 

“I would like to have all full-time stylists and potentially get an aesthetician,” Wright said. “I love doing hair, I don’t want to stop doing hair now that I’m a mom, but I want to be able to just be a part-time stylist and still have the business thrive without me having to be there. Because I feel like if I’m not there working full-time – and full-time is Tuesday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., for me – if I’m not working like a dog like I was, I feel like it’s just not going to work. And I don’t want it to be like that. If I come in two days a week, I want to still be ok.”

Recovering From 2020

Closures and lost revenue are not the only business casualties of 2020. 

Adams secured a production space in Old Town and developed relationships with her business owner neighbors, but she was expanding her brand at a time when approximately 60% of Portland businesses have reported vandalism or robberies, according to a survey released by small business resource organization Bricks Need Mortar. In July of last year, Adams found no exterior signs of a break-in but about $6,000 worth of inventory and electronics stolen, including her laptop, which held most of her designs 

“That is a significant hardship for businesses coming out of COVID,” Adams said. “What people don’t realize, (even though) 60% of businesses have been vandalized or broken into, if you keep filing claims on your insurance, they’re either going to drop you or go up.”

Adams relocated to 950 S.W. Morrison Street, setting her alongside established shops and near Pioneer Square. With a gate and a small security detail, she feels safer in the current retail space that also houses production for her brand, and where she features products from nine other women-owned businesses. 

“It’s a really vibrant area,” she said.

“I love all the businesses that are in the row I’m in – they’ve all been in business for a while and they’re all BIPOC businesses, so it’s pretty special.”

Adams plans on hosting themed monthly events, and promoting other small businesses through pop-ups. 

“This is what it’s about,” she said. “It’s deeper than my brand. We can’t do this alone, that’s for sure. We’ve got to come together.”

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