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Birmingham, Mastercard Partner to Bring Black-Owned Businesses Online

From left, Tanesha Sims-Summers of Naughty But Nice; Ursula Smith, owner, Ursula Smith Company; Coreata Houser deputy director of Birmingham's Department of Innovation and Economic Development, Mayor Randall Woodfin; Michael Froman, Mastercard vice chairman/president for strategic growth and Linda Kirkpatrick, Mastercard president North America. (Ryan Michaels, The Birmingham Times)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

To support minority-owned businesses in Birmingham, Mastercard and the city have partnered to provide equipment for cash-only businesses to take digital payments, as well as assistance with building online presence.

“So many small businesses in our city are not set up to receive credit or debit payments for their products,” said Mayor Randall Woodfin on Tuesday. “In addition to that, many of them do not have websites, web presence, that we believe…is critical in today’s marketplace.”

The city’s initiative to bring businesses online, named Ascend Birmingham, will allow small business owners to complete six online courses focused on the digital side of business. One such business is Ursula Smith Company, a dance organization, whose owner Ursula Smith, said going online helped her business, particularly in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Woodfin, MasterCard officials and other small business owners gathered Monday at Smith’s business to announce the Ascend Birmingham initiative which is meant to help Black-owned business with the problems faced last year from the pandemic and also provide them the tools of grow.

For example, after completing virtual classes, participating businesses will receive free Square terminals, which allow for credit and debit payments in-store, as well as software for both bookkeeping and website-building, cybersecurity and data tools from Mastercard and business advising through Accion Opportunity Fund.

“The City of Birmingham is thrilled to partner with Mastercard on this key initiative, which will go a long way in reaching our goal of making Birmingham a hub for minority-owned small businesses,” Woodfin said. “Allowing these businesses to flourish in digital spaces not only increases their reach but their creative potential as well. It’s an incredible opportunity for our business community.”

To take advantage of the program, business will have to meet several requirements—they must have fewer than 50 employees, be located within the city of Birmingham, have a current business license and be at least 51 percent Black-owned.

This initiative is important because the World Games require businesses to have some web presence, Woodfin said.

Woodfin also said this new initiative is meant to help Black-owned business with the pandemic-related and social justice problems of the last year.

“So many of our Black-owned business were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, then you had the civil unrest brought on George Floyd’s untimely death,” Woodfin said.

Smith, owner of Ursula Smith Company, was particularly affected by the pandemic, she said. Just a month after her business’s one-year anniversary, she had to close down.

“Literally March 13 of 2020, I had to shut my doors…and my parents looked me in my face and they said, ‘Ursula, is this real,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know, let’s just see,’” Smith said. “Then, you literally see the world crash and close down.”

Smith was forced to convert to digital classes. After her temporary change, Smith’s company was selected, along with crafts store and studio Pinspiration and Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co., by Mastercard as one of three Birmingham businesses to showcase in its Priceless campaign, which highlights how businesses “are connecting with their communities, providing unique experiences, and motivating others.”

From March 2020 through April of this year, Smith said she led 127 virtual classes and even converted her company’s annual theatre performance, “The Brown Sugar Nutcracker,” into a video format, which was shot across the city.

Smith said she feels a part of the “thread” of the legacy of other Black business leaders in Birmingham like business icon A.G. Gaston, who once owned the building her company operates from. She added that it’s important that Black business owners have more access to resources necessary to be competitive.

“It’s the capital, access to capital, access to wealth, so we can build a legacy, not just for our city, but for our families, our children, our children’s children,” Smith said.

Michael Froman, president of strategic growth for Mastercard, said he was happy to work with the city in its efforts to help small businesses.

“We applaud the efforts of Mayor Woodfin and the city’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity to ensure the endurance of Birmingham-based small businesses and are proud to partner with the city to ensure that owners have access to the tools and resources necessary to thrive in today’s digital age,” Froman said.

The virtual classes for Ascend Birmingham will be held Aug. 23 through Oct. 4. To register, visit https://bit.ly/ascend-bham.