By Jackie Gutierrez-Jones, contributor
As a first-generation, Dominican-American who was born and raised in Brooklyn, Jennifer Gomez understood the importance of Latinx-owned small businesses from an early age. “My mother worked six to seven days a week sometimes,” says Gomez. “And so there would be a bodega owner that, once I left school at 3 p.m., I’d have to check in with him. In my neighborhood, small businesses were like pit stops on my way back home.”
“I always say we come from under-resourced communities, but there’s no dearth of talent there,” continues Gomez, an entrepreneur and champion for Latinx small business owners. “And that was very much the case in my upbringing.”
Today, all eyes are on these Latinx-owned businesses. Why? Because Latinx are launching small businesses at a much faster rate than their fellow entrepreneurs. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, nearly one in four new businesses are owned by Hispanics, and the number of Latinx business owners has increased by 44% (compared to just 4% among non-Latinx entrepreneurs) in the past 10 years. In fact, if Latinx-owned businesses grow as fast as the U.S. average, a recent Stanford Graduate School of Business study noted that they could add $2.75 trillion to the U.S. economy.
The problem, however, is that many of these businesses are growing slowly or failing to grow at all. In fact, about 51% of Latinx-owned businesses receive loans compared to 77% of their white-owned counterparts, according to the same Stanford study. But the challenge doesn’t stop at funding. “Visibility is a real pain point for these small businesses—we’re talking both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce,” says Gomez. “How do they get customers to know about them, understand their story and know what they’re doing? How do they compete in this space and stand out?”
Gomez, along with her fellow co-founder Marvin François, set out to address these pain points for BIPOC and Latinx businesses through oneKIN, a community-driven, retail, SaaS company providing small businesses with creative and cost-effective solutions that help them compete in the digital landscape and, most importantly, grow their company.
Fighting inequity with action
Launched in 2017, oneKIN originally took root as a think tank, gathering data from small businesses to help local governments enact policies that could address these businesses’ needs. But given their extensive backgrounds on Wall Street and in corporate America (François spent 15 years in banking while Gomez cut her teeth at L’Oreal, Major League Baseball and Time Inc.), the duo soon found themselves providing advisory support to some of those businesses.
Through their research and time spent with Latinx and BIPOC-owned SMBs, a light bulb clicked: E-commerce could be instrumental in understanding these businesses’ needs, as well as potentially providing a solution for visibility and engagement.
“We were really born as a response to many of the inequities we had observed in communities of color throughout the country,” says Gomez. “And the idea that economic empowerment—as demonstrated throughout history—could be a catalyst for socioeconomic change. We thought that technology could be a great conduit for this. Communities flourish when small businesses flourish because they really serve as economic spigots in their respective neighborhoods.”
The birth of an SMB marketplace
Gomez and François realized they could do more than conduct research and provide data to other organizations and entities. Armed with their business backgrounds, experience and research, they decided to launch oneKIN marketplace, an online destination for discovering and shopping Latinx and BIPOC-owned brands, authors and creatives. The marketplace currently hosts a few dozen companies, but that’s intentional says Gomez. As opposed to Amazon or eBay, the oneKIN marketplace features a tightly curated list of Latinx and BIPOC businesses, which not only gives these companies the visibility they’re looking for but amplifies their products and stories so that they’re not lost in a sea of thousands of other competitors.
“That really was a proof of concept for us. Kind of like an extension of our research,” says Gomez. “It has informed the next big product that we’re launching soon.”
That product? A live shopping app. After witnessing the success of live shopping in China (China’s live-commerce sales are expected to reach $423 billion by 2022), Gomez and François knew they’d hit upon a way to offer BIPOC and Latinx businesses the visibility they needed while also addressing their desire to authentically engage with their customer and tell their story—and in this case, it would be in real time.
“Imagine an AI-powered, modern-day QVC, right? Or a virtual pop-up market for small businesses where you can natively live stream, chat and shop from small businesses across the country, all in one phone in real time,” says Gomez. “The idea is that we will be orchestrating programming throughout the day. At certain hours you can shop from different businesses, and they will be live, similar to QVC. You’ll be talking directly to a small business owner. You’ll be hearing from them about their product. They’ll be answering your questions live, and you can shop their products without clicking out.”
It’s a personalized experience that Latinx SMBs can use to get their product in front of customers and uniquely engage with them in an authentic way, without having to fight for attention or exposure as they might on other platforms.
Imagine an AI-powered, modern-day QVC, right? Or a virtual pop-up market for small businesses where you can natively live stream, chat and shop from small businesses across the country, all in one phone in real time.
—Jennifer Gomez, co-founder of oneKIN
A box set of children’s books takes flight
One business that’s experienced stratospheric success on the oneKIN platform is the Dominican Writers Association. They partnered with oneKIN to launch a children’s literary box featuring a collection of books focused on the stories and voices of indie Dominican-American authors from across the world. They called it ‘Lil Dominican Readers.
“I didn’t read books by Dominican authors until I was in my 20s, and it’s a shame because I feel that if I had read books with characters I could identify with, I would have felt affirmed and validated in this world,” says Angela Abreu, founder and creative director of Dominican Writers Association. “With Lil’ Dominican Readers, we hope to create a similar impact in the lives of your child.”
The gift box set was launched on the oneKIN marketplace during Hispanic Heritage Month in 2020. But the initial offering was so successful that they scheduled another limited run during the holidays, which was extended to February 2021 thanks to hundreds of sales on the site. Eventually, the product became a permanent fixture in the marketplace due to its unwavering popularity.
According to Gomez, the box connects with people. “How do we make these traditionally transactional experiences more human, more tailored, more personal and more inclusive? That’s what we’re about.”
François and Gomez’s ambitions are insatiable: Their next big plan is to enact change at the city and municipal level. The duo was recently awarded money from Arch Grants to expand their presence from New York and California to St. Louis. The hope is that they’ll collaborate with local universities and government, as well as private and public stakeholders to help digitize and reinvigorate small businesses in disinvested communities across the city. It’s a model they hope to carry through to other cities across the U.S.
“We want to leverage the oneKIN marketplace and oneKIN live as sources of community and destinations for curated shopping experiences. Then, through the type of work that we’re doing in St. Louis and in the Midwest, help digitize small businesses across the country,” says Gomez. “Latinx and BIPOC communities start from a place of deficit when it comes to resources and savings. My mom did so much coming to this country to change the trajectory of our family. I keep thinking: What legacy can I leave behind for my daughters?”
Lead photo courtesy of Touann Gatouillat Vergos/Unsplash