Marsha Willis’ decade-long journey of supporting Kansas City-based, Black-owned businesses is headed to the next level — thanks to a funding infusion from Facebook and Willis’ own focused commitment to providing elevated experiences to the online community she’s built.
“Our focus is to create a centralized place where we can share resources and education for underserved members of our community, while also helping close the racial wealth gap,” said Willis, who founded the Black Owned Business-Kansas City Facebook group in August 2012 and was recently accepted into the Facebook Community Accelerator Program.
Her strategy is simple: build wealth through intentional efforts to support Black-owned businesses specifically.
The Facebook group itself launched after Willis opened her own beauty supply shop and realized that she was lacking a community of other Black business owners on which to lean, she recalled.
“I had to go to all these different outlets for business assistance — and they offered great services — but there was something missing,” Willis noted. “I wanted a friend in business and support from people who are Black and understood the unique struggles of starting or maintaining a Black business. So, that’s what made me create a community. Did I know that it was going to be this big? Absolutely not.”
Black Owned Business-Kansas City is approaching 30,000 members, Willis said — recalling her initial excitement when the first 100 individuals joined the group.
“We could have easily reached over 100,000 members by now, but we are selective with who’s coming in; because I don’t want to be the biggest group out there, but I do want to be the best group. I want to ensure that we are impactful and truly supporting Kansas City’s ecosystem,” Willis said, explaining that some Facebook users who try to join are outside the KC region or try to spam the page.
Individuals do not need to be Black business owners to join the page, Willis added. Anyone who is interested in entrepreneurship and supporting Black-owned businesses through mentorship or buying their goods and services are encouraged to join.
Click here to apply to join Black Owned Business-Kansas City.
The Facebook Community Accelerator Program works to advance individual’s skills and utilize Facebook tools to deepen community impact. Participants are given a customized curriculum and personalized coaching in order to execute an initiative of their choice. They also have the opportunity to connect with other community leaders and key players in their industry.
Perseverance pays off
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Willis realized the significant impact the group had on its members and decided to go full-time with Black Owned Business-Kansas City, she said.
“I started getting droves of messages from people who were saying that posting in the group was the only way they were making money,” Willis said. “I started focusing on this full-time because I know that we can do a lot with this group and really be a resource for the community. I’ve been doing this for a decade, but I’d say that I’m just now getting started.”
With Black Owned Business-Kansas City connecting through Facebook, Facebook officials invited Willis to be a part of official Facebook groups for feedback on how to make the platform better for those trying to make a community impact, she said.
Facebook announced in 2020 that it was launching a community accelerator program. Willis first applied in 2021, but was initially turned down, she recalled.
“So I applied again [in 2022] and even asked if there was a way to participate without being incentivized,” Willis said — noting that accepted participants receive up to $40,000 in grants.
Facebook accepted Willis alongside 134 other community leaders across the globe on Monday, Oct. 24. Of the cohort, 33 individuals are from the United States.
Black Business Ball
Through the Facebook accelerator, participants like Willis are expected to plan out an initiative that Facebook can help them achieve. Willis’ effort: Black Business Ball.
“It’s going to be an ultra Black excellence event,” Willis teased. “The objective of the ball is to have an award ceremony to uplift people in the community who are doing great things. It is also going to be something really grand for our people and an opportunity to look fly.”
The Black Business Ball is set for Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023 and will be a part of a two-day event, Willis said. Black Owned Business-Kansas City plans to host a Black Exposition for the public to check out local businesses on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.
With funding for new initiatives being a challenge, Willis is hoping the Facebook accelerator’s $40,000 is just the kick off to more funding opportunities, she said — noting she has put in grant requests to grow Black Owned Business-Kansas City.
“My short-term plan is to host an educational or accelerator program for Black business owners in Kansas City and give everyone who goes through the program a grant,” Willis shared. “Long-term, like in the next three to five years, I would like to have an enterprise center where people can office out of 24/7. It will be a place to collaborate, educate and break barriers.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.