How two enterprising Black women are reviving Black businesses in Pittsburgh

BY Ben Ebuka Oji February 23, 2024 5:30 PM EDT
Khamil Bailey and Samantha Black
Khamil Bailey and Samantha Black, the founders of Greenwood Plan (Greenwood Smithfield). Photo Credit: Greenwood Plan

Khamil Bailey, originally from East Orange, New Jersey, relocated to Pittsburgh in 2005 to pursue her education at the University of Pittsburgh, subsequently choosing to make the city her home. Over time, she became aware of the challenges faced by Black entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh. Although the precise count of Black-owned businesses in Downtown Pittsburgh remains uncertain, a simple drive through the area unmistakably highlights the scarcity of such establishments.

Bailey recently disclosed that upon her arrival in Pittsburgh, she perceived a distinct lack of a positive connection between the city and its Black community. Subsequent studies further confirmed her initial impression. In contrast, Bailey hails from a place where the situation is markedly different. In her hometown, Black individuals hold positions of authority, such as principals and mayors, and there is a significant presence of Black doctors and business owners. She witnessed Black people thriving across different socio-economic backgrounds and educational achievements, which provided her with a comprehensive perspective on the Black community. However, upon her arrival in Pittsburgh, she found that this inclusive representation was noticeably absent.

“There was no indication that Pittsburgh had a healthy relationship with their Black folks and then studies continued to demonstrate that that was true. And I come from a place where it is starkly different. Principals were Black, my mayor was Black, and doctors were Black. I saw Black business owners. I saw Black people occupy various socio-economic statuses and education levels, so I had this very holistic view of Black people, and when I got to Pittsburgh, that just was not the case.” Bailey said she was “culture shocked.”

After nearly two decades in Pittsburgh, Bailey decided to create a lasting impact. In 2018, she co-founded the nonprofit Greenwood Plan with Samantha Black to revitalize Black businesses in the city.

“I know that back in the early 1900s, there were Black businesses that operated Downtown. We want to bring that back, remind people that we (African Americans) are a part of a thriving economy just as anybody else,” said Bailey.

Bailey (founder and executive director) and Black (founder and board member) began with Greenwood Week Pittsburgh, an annual conference dedicated to fostering space and opportunities for Black entrepreneurs and businesses in the area. Since its inception in 2018, this event has welcomed hundreds of participants, facilitating access to resources that may have been previously hindered by barriers within the community.

By offering physically accessible venues, daycare services, meals, virtual attendance options, flexible payment arrangements, and clear communication, the program effectively connects organizations and individuals purposefully and inclusively.

Bailey and Black progressively introduced additional culturally appropriate initiatives, including the Black Business Conference, Black Restaurant Week, business grants, and industry-specific summits (real estate, tech, arts, etc.), centered around intentional resource allocation, economic equity, business development and sustainability, and socio-economic support.

As Bailey and Black continued to raise awareness within the Black community and its surrounding areas, an increase in the establishment of Black-owned businesses became noticeable, indicating a gradual awakening and empowerment within the community.

Emerald City Pittsburgh

In 2021, Bailey and Black took another step to bolster the growth and prosperity of Black businesses by leasing a 12,000-square-foot space in the Pitt Building at Smithfield Street, Downtown Pittsburgh. This space was transformed into Emerald City, a co-working, event, and social hub exclusively dedicated to propelling Black entrepreneurs and businesses toward wealth and regional success.

Emerald City’s mission is to prioritize Black entrepreneurship and professionals in Pittsburgh by providing resources, education, and opportunities tailored to their needs.

The three-story Greenwood Plan building in Smithfield Street, Downtown Pittsburgh.
The three-story Greenwood Plan building in Smithfield Street, Downtown Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: Greenwood Plan

Another Major Milestone

Fast-forward to 2024, Greenwood Plan, also known as Greenwood Smithfield, has acquired the historic Pitt Building for $4.075 million. This three-story structure, spanning an entire block on Smithfield Street from the Boulevard of the Allies to Third Avenue, is undergoing repurposing to accommodate more Black-owned businesses.

According to the founders’ statement on their website, “The goal of the purchase of The Pitt Building is to create an autonomous ecosystem where Black businesses, entrepreneurs, and organizations can rely on, do business with, and grow alongside their peers. By intentionally redirecting our region’s resources into Greenwood Smithfield and its tenants, this space will create a scalable and replaceable model for how to build equitable ecosystems, in which participants will springboard into success and growth that is reflective of the growth possible in Western PA and beyond.”

With ample space in the Greenwood Smithfield (formerly Pitt Building) to accommodate Black businesses, Greenwood Plan enthusiastically welcomes enterprises that can make a positive impact on the community.

“Those are the types of businesses that we want,” Bailey emphasized to the Pittsburgh Courier.

One of the key focus for the organization is to attract Black chefs and restaurateurs who are dedicated to offering exceptional dining experiences.

Bailey and Black affirm that the Greenwood Plan, named after the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, famously known as “Black Wall Street” before its destruction in a race riot in the early 1920s, will steadfastly uphold its commitment to Black economic empowerment in Pittsburgh.

With the acquisition of the 40,000-square-foot Pitt Building, now known as Greenwood Smithfield, the organization is expanding its initiatives to:

– Support and educate Black-owned businesses in starting, sustaining, and expanding within the local economy and beyond.

– Establish a network for local business owners to connect with peers and the organization.

– Advocate for and remove barriers for Black entrepreneurs, professionals, and artists.

– Promote self-advocacy in economics and entrepreneurship.

– Provide support and training to larger organizations on initiatives and equitable collaboration with Black-owned businesses.

– Enhance the lives of Black entrepreneurs through health and wellness programming with local consultancy.

– Engage and promote businesses in future industries.