In 2012, two African-American entrepreneurs created a Yelp-like website for black-owned businesses called Tuloko. The online business search engine has continued to grow in its reach and popularity.
“We wanted to find a niche to support black-owned businesses,” said Tuloko co-founder Duane Johnson. “We wanted to merge the ‘Buy Black Movement’ with social networking.”
Now that Tuloko is up and running, Johnson and co-founder Sean Armstrong have moved onto a new project, the Green Book Network. The Green Book is like a dating or social networking site for minority suppliers to “match up” with government or corporate contractors.
On Saturday at the downtown St. Louis Public Library, the Tuloko team was among 46 finalists who presented their business proposals as part of the Arch Grants Global Startup Competition, which offers funding for startup businesses willing to relocate to downtown St. Louis. Selected from hundreds of applications from 21 countries, the finalists are competing for 20 non-equity grants of $50,000 each. Winners will be announced on May 21.
Johnson and Armstrong came up with the idea for the Green Book Network after realizing that many databases of minority-owned businesses are outdated and difficult to navigate.
“We decided we can create something similar so a large company could easily find a small minority business,” Johnson said. “The Green Book Network will be a conduit between all the players in the supplier diversity field. We will be a one-stop shop.”
Johnson’s hope is to make communication between minority businesses and contractors as fluid as possible.
The Green Book will have two “platforms,” he said. One side is for government agencies, large corporations and university college purchasing departments to list their “request for proposals” and contract opportunities.
On the other side, small business owners can create a profile which would include information on their certifications, finances and other aspects of their business that contractors look for. The network will be open to businesses owned by ethnic minorities, members of the LGBT community, women, and veterans. Business owners can also upload 30-second videos to introduce themselves.
Through the site, contractors will be able to instant-message or video-conference with small businesses.
“They can do it right from their office and make a match,” Johnson said about the online conferencing feature. “It saves both parties thousands of dollars. And it eliminates all the excuses of large corporations, in terms of not being able to find quality minority suppliers.”
Johnson is currently based in Minneapolis, where he is asking lots of questions to leaders in the supplier diversity field regarding best practices.
“We’ve been recruiting people from retail, construction, government agencies and getting their ideas as we build this out,” he said.
The two young entrepreneurs first met in Boston years ago, while volunteering for the National Urban League. At the time, the organization was pushing a campaign that encouraged African Americans to spend 10 percent of their income at black-owned businesses. Although it was a great idea, Johnson said it fizzled out because people didn’t know how to connect with the proper businesses.
The two had the idea to create a virtual version of “Black Wall Street,” the most prolific African-American business district in American history, which was vibrant in the early 20th century in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Today, African Americans have proven to be among the most active mobile shoppers, so a mobile app is a natural way to engage them, he said. By drawing attention to black-owned businesses and hopefully increasing their profiles within the black community, Johnson and Armstrong see a potential path to decreasing unemployment.
“Studies have shown the black unemployment rate would drop 4 points if African Americans reached 10 percent of their spending on black owned businesses,” he said.
The Green Book Network will also work towards lowering unemployment among the minority community, he said. Initially, they will offer the site’s services for free and then switch to a subscription-based business model down the road.
If selected, the Tuloko team will relocate to St. Louis, as required by the grant. Because St. Louis would be the pilot location for the project, the team would research what works best in connecting regional businesses and measure their outcomes. Johnson feels the website could have a significant impact on St. Louis’ minority businesses.
“It’s going to require us to hone in on St. Louis businesses and providing employment opportunities for St. Louisans,” Johnson said. “We are looking forward to that, because we will be able to provide metrics to success.”
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