A Conversation with Asheli S. Atkins on Being Black in Academia and African-American Entrepreneurship
I met Asheli Atkins doing what she does best, connecting with Black-business owners. We were both attending an International Women’s Day Celebration hosted by a local group Black Girls Who Collaborate. What fascinated me about Asheli was that she originally desired to become an entrepreneur, but she came to realize her purpose was to study entrepreneurship, specifically African-American entrepreneurship.
Asheli is the Founder of Houston Black Business, an online marketing platform that promotes the various Black-owned businesses around the city we both love. Earning her bachelor’s from Prairie View A&M University and her MBA from Texas Woman’s University, Asheli did not originally set out on this path of becoming a black-business savant. However, several life experiences motivated her to pursue her Ph.D. in Sociology at Texas A&M University to prepare herself to be the vehicle of change that she wants to see within business and society.
I caught up with Asheli at a local Black-owned coffeehouse, Cafeza, to talk about her journey as a Black doctoral student studying African-American entrepreneurship.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length of content.
Name: Asheli S. Atkins, M.B.A.
Current Career: Doctoral Student at Texas A&M university; Founder of Houston Black Business
Current City: Houston, Texas
Education: B.S. in Communications from Prairie View A&M University; M.B.A. from Texas Woman's University
Connect with Asheli: Website | Instagram | Facebook
Christa: When you decided to study communications in college what was your vision for your career?
Asheli: I never came to the university with an end goal. At first, I thought this was a flaw. But, I think if this is where I'm supposed to be, I'll be here. I will figure things out and pick up experiences along the way. By the time I was finishing my degree at Prairie View, I wanted to go into journalism or corporate event planning, and entrepreneurship was also a tiny seed planted in me.
When I graduated, I couldn’t find a job in journalism or event planning. I didn’t have enough experience. I found a position working at a summer camp. Once the camp finished, the Department of Multicultural Affairs at Prairie View hired me as a recruiter for their medical academy, because I had experience working with students of different backgrounds. Over 6 years, that position turned into other positions and promotions. None of it was ever planned.
Christa: You worked for a few years before deciding to go back to school to earn your MBA.
Asheli: After about 2 years at Prairie View, I thought, “maybe I need look back at the entrepreneurship goal I had.” I went back to school in 2011, and I earned my MBA from Texas Woman's University. I felt that I needed to learn about all things entrepreneurship and business management, whatever that meant. I realize now that I really didn't have to go back to school to learn about that.
When I went into my program, I thought I was going to learn this knowledge, get out, and then start my event planning company. But when I was there, I realized something was missing. Why are they not talking about gender? Why are they not talking about race? This whole program was built around business management and entrepreneurship, but the social concepts that can influence somebody's ability to be successful or not were not mentioned. A year after graduation, I realized maybe I did not want to be an entrepreneur, maybe I really want to study entrepreneurs.
While considering her newfound motivation, an encounter with her former Sociology professor led Asheli to enroll in Texas A&M to earn her Ph.D.
Asheli: I was still working at Prairie View at this time and searching for jobs. I ran into my Sociology professor on campus. She told me that Texas A&M was looking for diverse students to enroll in their sociology program. She mentioned that representatives were coming to Houston to talk with prospective students. Then, she asked me if I wanted to go. I talked to the admissions representative. A week later, I applied. A month later, I was accepted. That's why I know, this is for me. There was no resistance. There were no barriers. My path was unfolding out for me.
Christa: You graduated from Prairie View, which is an HBCU, navigating over to Texas Woman's. You went from these two really inclusive environments, where you were part of the majority, to Texas A&M. Can you talk about some of the challenges that you’ve faced as a Black woman in academia at a PWI?
Asheli: Texas A&M was drastically different. Around the time of Sandra Bland, I had to commute past Waller, Texas during nighttime, three times a week. I often thought to myself, “What if my car breaks down? What if I have to get gas at night?” For the first year, it was a constant fear of what if somebody tries to do something? Who will help me? Who will protect me?
I would go into classrooms and be the only black person. Some classes not only was I the only black person, but also I was the only woman. For [many of my classmates] race has nothing to do with entrepreneurship; entrepreneurship is equal across the board. Therefore, I’m constantly going into these spaces, having to defend the fact that my research is important.
Someone would ask a question; and then turn to me as if I’m the black representative, for all black people ever. It puts so much weight on you. I thought to myself, “How am I going to say the right thing that when these people leave the room, they won't take my words and twist it?” The combination of fear for my safety as a woman, my body as a black person, and then the stress of having to constantly represent all Black people got to the point where I thought about dropping out.
Christa: What was it that drove you or motivated you to keep persevering?
Asheli: I went back to Prairie View to my visit my old boss. He is a doctor. He wanted to know the update. I started whining. He told me, “No one told you to quit your job and get a Ph.D. If you're going to do this, you need to do it. Suck it up, stop crying, stop whining and get it done.”
The mentality he had is very much like my father, my mother. How they raised me was that you just get it done. You're not there to make friends. Make sure you pray. If you feel afraid, realize that you're protected. Go there, and get it done. It wasn't the drive of "I love what I'm doing." It was that I knew what I was there for: Let's get this degree. Let’s get out of here.
Christa: Speaking of your mission, you're almost done with your program. Tell me about your research. Do you have any preliminary data you can share?
Asheli: I study African-American entrepreneurship, but not in the traditional sense. Most of the research on Black businesses is about the history of Black businesses and entrepreneurship during segregation or even during slavery, which is not as commonly known. Or, the research focuses on the barriers Black entrepreneurs encounter such as credit discrimination, redlining, and consumer discrimination.
When the research talks about Black people, it is talking about everybody. Black people who non-U.S. born. Afro-Latinos. Anybody who is racially Black. You cannot properly study race when you group people together like that.
My research focuses on U.S.-born Black business owners and how they make the choice to either emphasize or de-emphasize that their business is Black-owned. For example, The Breakfast Klub. When you walk in the staff is Black. When you look online, you will see Marcus Davis, the owner. He's Black. The Breakfast Klub cues to the public that they are Black-owned. If you go to the social media, they are using certain hashtags like #BuyBlack, #BlackOwned. Marcus Davis, he sits with the Greater Houston Black Chamber and is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. Affiliations to these Black organizations emphasize to the public that The Breakfast Klub is Black-owned. As a result, he is able to gain support from the Black community. But, when a business promotes the fact that they are Black-owned, they might not get support from people who are not Black because of discrimination and stereotypes about black businesses.
On the opposite end, you have some businesses who de-emphasize that they are Black-owned. They don't have a Black staff. They don't have pictures of themselves online. They do not signal to the public that they are Black-owned through social media. It's not selling out, and it's not a bad thing. It's a way to gain customers of all racial groups. I've interviewed a lot of Black business owners. Sometimes they do not even realize that they are de-emphasizing that they are Black-owned. It's unconscious. During our conversations, they realize, “Oh wait! I don't have a picture up! I'm not a part of any Black organizations!”
My research explores the two different ways that Black-business owners navigate the market.
Christa: What is a research result that has surprised you?
Asheli: People hiring white men, not to run the company, but to be the face of the company. When the owner has face-to-face meetings with a client, they would send a white guy to represent the company. It was a strategic move. If the owner figured a client will not take them seriously or let them in the door because of their race, then they will send a white man to do the talking so that they can still have that customer.
Christa: What would you say is the biggest challenge or mistake that you see Black-owned businesses making as they navigate a very whitespace while trying to achieve success?
Asheli: The one mistake that I realized is this need to overcompensate for being Black-owned. I realize that in certain industries you have to do it. You have to be 10 times better just to get on the same level as your white competitors. But sometimes business owners spend so much time trying to overcompensate that they do not focus on the actual product or service that they are offering. They focus more on perception, on a surface level, of an image of that they are great and everything is perfect. The day-to-day levels such as how the employees are interacting with customers or the business processes are in shambles. If you have to be 10 times better, do it all the way through on every level of the company and not just on the surface.
Christa: Being Black, our community can experience collective traumas from the experiences of another community member, even one who we may have never met. Responses to this collective trauma have sparked social movements such as Black Women At Work, Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name. Due to your type of research, you may hear stories recounting situations that are racist and detrimental to Black community members and their ability to make a livelihood. How do you take care of yourself? Destress? Heal from that shared trauma that you may experience simply because of the topic of your research?
Asheli: Since 2013 or 2014, I have been going to therapy. I realize how essential counseling is in getting things off of you. I can't properly do my research, if I'm always going in with all this trauma, all this hurt, versus just hearing it and being unbiased. I know that when I'm hearing these stories, even as shocking as some of them are, I have to push it to the side and say, “Ok, Asheli. This is your research. This is not the burden for you to carry.” Some of the stories do stick with me, but not enough to affect my everyday life. I’m learning about self-care. People act like its so easy. It’s not.
Christa: Why did you start Houston Black Owned Business and why is it important?
Asheli: I started Houston Black Owned Business during the time that many police brutality cases were gaining attention and #BlackLivesMatter was rising. Obama’s was President. People wanted to boycott, boycott, boycott, Target, cars, everything. But they didn't have a backup plan. I started seeing posts on Facebook like, “Does anybody know a Black-owned grocery store?” I'm passionate about black businesses but not everybody is. There was a void.
We have a tendency to want to connect to the person behind the business. Knowing their story will make us want to support them because we know she's a single mother or he saved up his money from the time he was 13 to start this company. I wanted to create a platform where I'm not only telling the public about these Black-businesses and why they should go to support them, but I'm sharing the story of these entrepreneurs.
Christa: Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. Black women are also pursuing higher education at higher rates. How does this make you feel, to be part of this group? How do you hope your journey will inspire Black women and girls?
Asheli: I didn’t think anything about it until I realized the world’s perception. You have everybody rooting for you. “When are you going to finish?” “Dr. Atkins, Dr. Atkins!” It puts pressure on you, even more than you already feel because so many people are watching. So many people are so proud of you. You have to do well for your community, for the people that are rooting for you. It hit me recently that I should be proud of myself. I’m trying to be more proud of myself. It’s hard.
I do hope that other women realize from watching me that there's no right way to do this. People think if you’re earning your Ph.D. that you should dress in suits all the time or have this certain image. There's no look to being educated. No look to an entrepreneur. There is no right way to go about it. It's not too late. It's not too early. I hope I empower people. Whatever you are going after, to do it your way. Whatever your way is, do it your way.
Christa: You’re nearing the end of your degree program. What is next for you?
Asheli: I want to keep building Houston Black Owned Business and grow the platform. We are creating documentary promo videos, telling the stories of local Black entrepreneurs. I want to do more of that.
I’m currently an instructor. I want to become a business school professor who teaches why race is important in entrepreneurship. I also want to share my research with the public. One issue about academia is that the research you publish in academic journals, the public never sees because it costs to read the articles. Sometimes it can cost $20 for one article. Through the research, Black business owners can learn how to navigate barriers such as getting a loan. I went to the public to get the research. Why would I not return it to them?