Diversity lacking among Oswego business owners

Danielle Pederson, owner of the Polka Dot Monkey in Oswego, poses in her store.  (Moraima Capellán Pichardo | The Oswegonian)
Danielle Pederson, owner of the Polka Dot Monkey in Oswego, poses in her store. (Moraima Capellán Pichardo | The Oswegonian)

While New York State has the highest number of African-American owned businesses in the nation, in Oswego County, those numbers all but disappear.

The latest United States Census Survey of Business Owners reports that from 2002 to 2007, the number of black-owned, non-farm businesses increased by 60.5 percent in New York, more than triple the national rate of 18 percent. These black-owned businesses account for 7.1 percent of all non-farm businesses in the state, and they employed over 900,000 people.

The study also found that New York State accounts for over 10 percent of the nation’s black-owned businesses, with over 200,000 establishments. The next closest state is Georgia, which houses 9.6 percent of all black-owned businesses.

The census does not, however, have any data on the amount of black-owned businesses in Oswego County, listing that the number does not meet “publication standards.” Onondaga County, which neighbors Oswego County to the south and east, houses 4.1 percent of black-owned firms in the state.

These numbers do not surprise business owners, community leaders and residents of Oswego County.

Jeff Grimshaw, director of Business and Community Relations at Oswego State, believes there might not be a market for African-American business in Oswego.

“It’s really a culture issue as far as having people want to live here and having a market for the business,” Grimshaw said. “I think it’s a challenging work environment from a standpoint of high unemployment. It’s not a place where people come because of the vast amount of jobs. Oswego County is the highest in unemployment rate in New York State. Unfortunately, I think people of color are probably more challenged in a high unemployment work because people are fighting for jobs.”

Grimshaw, who is the second vice president to the Oswego-Fulton Chamber of Commerce—a member organization that promotes small business in the area—believes there is not much the commerce can do to increase diversity.

“It’s really about the community, Grimshaw said. “The chamber is usually reacting to what are the wants and needs of the community, as far as what are the types of business they can and will support.”

He also said it is difficult to find any information on black-owned businesses in the county because the chamber of commerce does not categorize by race and often does not know the background of the owners. Grimshaw believes Oswego State has brought diversity into the area by accepting students anywhere from downstate New York to Korea. His role at the college is to spot any racial barriers and build business diversity.

Victoria Usherwood Gailinas, founder of I Heart Oswego and an Oswego native, has noticed a small growth in diversity throughout the years. Gailinas said when she was growing up, Oswego businesses were mostly Italian-based, with restaurants such as Vona’s and Canale’s and that in the past years, there has been a rise in cultural restaurants such as Azteca Mexican Grill and Hong Kong.

“It took 30 years from the time I was growing up to get it, but that’s a vast improvement,” Gailinas said. “That shows you that clearly people are coming from other places to bring their families here, because if left to our own desires we probably would not venture out past the Italian menu.”

Gailinas believes Oswego is a great place to raise a family but in order to start and maintain a successful business, there has to be a great marketing plan. She is currently the head of marketing at I Heart Oswego.

“You need an incredible marketing strategy that’s never ending,” Gailinas said. “Oswego has no through-traffic. So there aren’t people coming through here to go to somewhere else. This is a destination, whether it’s a good destination or bad…If you’re going to open a business here you have to understand completely what the business strategy is going to be.”

Although there is no data to show the amount of black-owned businesses in Oswego County, the small number is evident to local physical therapist Robert Berkley. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Berkley is one of the few African-American business owners in the county. He said the only other ones he is aware of are in the healthcare industry. This information mirrors the findings of the 2007 Economic Census that reported that “four in 10 black-owned businesses operated in the health care and social assistance; and repair, maintenance, personal and laundry services sectors.”

Berkley opened his physical therapy establishment in the city of Oswego in 2005 after working for Oswego Health. A New York City native, Berkley was convinced by his wife to move to Oswego.

“My wife said the best place to raise kids, since she grew up in Oswego, was Oswego and that’s how I ended up here,” Berkley said. “I’ve been here 18 years now.”

Danielle Pederson checking stock at The Polka Dot Monkey, her store.  (Moraima Capellán Pichardo | The Oswegonian)
Danielle Pederson checking stock at The Polka Dot Monkey, her store. (Moraima Capellán Pichardo | The Oswegonian)

Berkley said he has never experienced any racism in the community.

“There has not been a single incident as far as race or anything like that,” Berkley said. “I am interracially married. So my wife is white and I’m African-American. We had one incident in third grade: a little girl was playing with my daughter’s hair because she had never seen African or mixed hair before…obviously that’s not a bad thing, just kid curiosity.”

Berkley said his experiences in Oswego have only been positive and he is aware of his place in the community.

“Obviously being one of the very few black businesses on this town, people do recognize you and I don’t mind that,” Berkley said. “I don’t mind someone stopping me at the grocery store and saying ‘Hi Robert, I got this ache’ or ‘Hi Robert, how are you doing?’ As a matter of fact, I think it’s funny and kind of cool.”

Berkley is interested in opening another business in the city: a barbershop.

“The only thing I have to say is it’s very difficult to get a haircut in Oswego, N.Y. for an African-American,” Berkley said. “ I think that’s definitely an underserved population here in Oswego, especially with the African-American community growing on the campus.”

Danielle Pederson, an Oswego resident and owner of The Polka Dot Monkey with Berkley has experienced a similar struggle.

“There’s no one in town that can do ethnic hair,” Pederson said.

Like Berkley, Pederson is also in a interracial marriage—her husband is white.

Originally from Texas, Pederson moved to Oswego with her family in 2004 when her husband got a new job.  Looking for something to do in a new city, and encouraged by her husband to follow her fashion dreams, she started selling purses at the farmer’s market. Her business has not only expanded to a retail store, but she has a second business called Not Just Dance, which provides dancing apparel and custom items for dance schools.

“I’ve had customers say to me ‘You’re the only person of color I know personally,’ little things like that,” Perderson said about her race playing a role in her business. “But—as far as my business—I don’t think it has [race] affected it.”

Pederson has experienced prejudice outside of her business, however. She explained the questions she is asked when signing a check at a store and the racism experienced by her sons.

“They’ve been walking down the streets and people have rolled down their window and yelled ‘nigger’ at them,” Pederson said. “My kids also experienced a time when they were at a park playing basketball and there was a group of them and the security guard assumed that they were up to no good…So he took the net down, stopped them from playing basketball, and it was because it’s a group of black kids.”

Barbara Bateman, the vice president of NBT Bank and president of the Chamber of Commerce, said Pederson’s store is a great asset to the community.

“Danielle’s has a great little business for a number of years,” Bateman said, who used to shop for her grandchildren there.

“We would love everyone to maybe open a business or go to work and find opportunities here,” Bateman said about diversity in Oswego. “But I don’t know if the opportunities are there for anyone in particular.”

Berkley believes that upstate New York does not have a climate for business that attracts diversity.

“When you look at it, most African-Americans settle in bigger cities, but you go to a small area such as Mexico, Fulton, they are not industrial areas,” Berkley said. “I don’t even think African-Americans even think about coming out of the city.”

According to the latest Census findings, Oswego County has about a one percent population of African-Americans. Latinos make up 2.2 percent and Whites make up over 95 percent of the population.

“I don’t think it has to do more with a color or an African-American issue, or Hispanic issue, I think it’s just New York State itself does not promote owning a business,” Berkley said. “New York State is not a business-friendly area.”

Grimshaw agrees that opening a business in New York is tough.

“New York State government has one of the highest tax rates in the nation,” Grimshaw said. “There’s lots of regulations, lots of taxes, lots of costs to doing business in New York State. It’s a challenging environment.