Since opening his high-end men’s store, Blue Sole Shoes, in 2007 in Philadelphia’s tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, Steve Jamison has been committed to promoting the value of entrepreneurship among minorities.
Jamison — who learned the ropes working at high-end department stores and the former Bottino men’s shoe store in the city — said that, over the years, he’s given presentations to groups at his church in North Philadelphia, where he grew up, focusing on financial literacy. “I’ve done numerous speaking engagements talking to kids who are interested in fashion,” said Jamison, adding that he’s tried to help those in disparaging situations “think beyond where they are.”
Last weekend, though, Jamison faced his own setback after his store suffered damage from looters amid demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd. Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old black man, was killed by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis after Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. His death has sparked widespread national outrage — leading to protests in all 50 states as well as numerous other countries. While many protests were peaceful, some demonstrations have been disrupted by looting, which has been having an impact on businesses large and small.
“We get crazy in Philadelphia about sports,” said Jamison, recalling that he had some minor damage after the Eagles won the 2018 Super Bowl. “There had been demonstrations in Philadelphia before, but it never got like this. I thought Philadelphia was better than that.”
Jamison, who was home at the time of the break-in, caught the incident on the store’s surveillance system and rushed downtown to his store.
“They broke my glass door before I got here,” said the retailer, who constructed the interior of the store himself. “They took some merchandise — socks, shoes, belts, bracelets. I got here just in time. Merchandise was on the ground outside, and on the floor in the store.”
While Jamison expressed disappointment in the conduct of some, he said it didn’t come as a surprise. “There’s so much anger and pent-up feelings,” he explained, about the city’s racial disparity.
Here, the entrepreneur talks about the challenges facing African American youth today, the opportunities for black business ownership and how government can help create change.
In what ways can communities and government help promote black entrepreneurship?
Steve Jamison: “What’s important is mentorship. The city has to do [more] outreach and engage [students] by creating programs where they allow kids to be introduced to different aspects of retail. There’s such a knowledge gap since [African Americans] own fewer businesses. We have fewer people to talk to and have access to. It’s not enough to graduate from high school or college. You have to get in and get experience. Even when you do get the experience, you have to have the opportunity to excel, where you can become a store manager and be able to know how to create and own your own business.”
At what level can the financial community support black-owned businesses?
SJ: “Loans. For capital-intense businesses, you have to have the money. It’s [then about] mentorship and guidance. Even if you have the money, you have to know [what to do]. If you never had the opportunity, how are you going to learn? Even if you think you have a great idea, you’re going to fail.”
Should black-owned businesses focus on black communities today?
SJ: “A business should be a business anywhere. The problem I typically find is a hurdle black businesses cannot overcome, and that’s positioning themselves in affluent areas. I’m the only black retailer in Rittenhouse. There are businesses a couple of blocks up, but in the core area, I’m the only one. For a city that has about a 44% black population that speaks so much to people. It should not be that way.”
How has your business helped introduce African Americans to a career in retail?
SJ: “Most of [my employees] have been African American. My first was a guy a few months out of prison. He’d been there for two years. He was young. We stay in contact today and he’s a good friend of mine. The day after the break-in, he was here to help me clean up and get things back in order. [Currently], I have two African American employees: a young lady and man, both in their [20s].”
Is there anything you might do differently going forward in your support of the black community?
SJ: “I’m not going to be so afraid to speak out against issues. After the death of George Floyd, I [felt] I had to say something. But as a retailer, you’re afraid that if you do, people [may have] the wrong interpretation and disagree with your support. [If so], they’ll [trash] you on social media and you can lose support. There’s such a fear. But I have to say something, so I decided to create a poster with George Floyd’s image and messaging and place it in the store’s window without any shoes. It’s a way to encourage other retailers that we have to do something better.”