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Black Business UK: Are we the barriers to our own success?

Celebrating the Achievements of Dyke & Dryden in the UK Hair Industry

We have the power to make our own future and to carve our own destiny…

It has become a truism within the black business community that African & Caribbean entrepreneurs and start-ups often face unique barriers to success. Sure, starting a new business is never easy but it has long been reported that black businesses often face challenges when it comes to acquiring funding, securing premises, establishing supply chains and so on, which can often make it harder for black entrepreneurs to get ahead. But to what extent is our mind-set the biggest barrier which holds us back? Do we just see challenges or are we geared towards finding solutions?

Whilst filming an interview with 'Cosmetics King' Tony Wade of the iconic African-Caribbean hair empire, Dyke & Dryden for The Sylbourne Show - I now conclude the former: our mind-set can be too focused on challenges and these can hold us back. Having the opportunity to meet one of Britain's first "black millionaires", who along with his business partners, Len Dyke & Dudley Dryden carved out a multi-million pound global business from the humble beginnings of West Green Road in Tottenham - has inspired me to think otherwise. What solutions did this Caribbean trio find which enabled them to grow their business against the backdrop of Enoch Powell & the infamous slogan, "No blacks, No dogs & No Irish"?   What can we learn from the combined wealth of experience of black enterprise - past and present that can help to forge our way for the future?

New tools: the 'afro-comb' as a weapon…

One of the stories Mr Wade recounts for Sylbourne (hyperlink) is an experience he had when soliciting a manufacturer to produce a new afro-comb under Dyke & Dryden's brand, 'Natural Beauty'. Mr Wade recalls that when he arrived at the warehouse, he was directed to the back door: the security guard assumed that he was there to look for a job! When he eventually did get to speak to a sales manager, "Is this a comb, it looks more like a weapon?"

This experience is one that is shared by many African & Caribbean entrepreneurs today - perhaps more subtly, such as the "caught-off-guard" look of surprise once your emails evolve into face-to-face meetings - but still ever real. Yet, what we should be taking away is the humour and the irony in this situation: in response Mr Wade pulled out the comb from his breast pocket in true Cowboy-Western style, giving the sales manager a demo of the afro-comb in its true glory!

So the mind-set goal here - when faced with challenges turn the situation on its head - pull out your "afro-comb" - your brand, your idea or your service from your breast-pocket and use it as if it were a "weapon". Present it confidently and uncompromisingly and let your product / service speak for itself. In this particular scenario, the manufacturer went on to produce millions of 'dangerous looking' afro-combs for Dyke & Dryden - so much so, that they could barely keep up with the demand!

In another scenario, Dyke & Dryden went to meet the executives of a contract packing firm in Bradford, who in a boardroom meeting Mr Wade recalls, they flatly told the trio that they, "could not do business" with them. Later on, having second thoughts (good business sense can often override most things!) the packing firm tentatively agreed to "take a chance with you guys". This "chance" saw the packing firm grow its business space from 16,000 to 48,000 square feet just to accommodate the volume of business coming through Dyke & Dryden.

Again, the patronising tone is one which resonates from the 1960s - right through to today. Yet the voice of the African & Caribbean communities in business needs to rise stronger. Thankfully with accolades such as the Black Business Awards the profile of black businesses in the UK is increasing across a range of industries and services.

Clarity of Focus…

Mr Wade, who partnered with Dyke & Dryden in 1968, encouraging the business to streamline from selling records and cosmetics to focus on developing it's hair product & beauty supply arm, despite presiding over the most successful black business of its era, Wade deemed it "unnecessary" to have the business renamed in his honour to Dyke, Dryden & Wade.

Again lessons can be learnt here. Firstly about humility and partnership - the goal of partnership should not be to "big up" oneself. Ultimately, the good of the business - in this case perhaps brand recognition (not to mention any additional costs that may reside in changing marketing materials and merchandise) should trump notions of individual / personal success.

A second lesson that can be taken from this is that starting "small" and maintaining focus are important nuggets for success. I once worked near a Caribbean restaurant which was trying to be everything to everyone. Not only specialising in Caribbean food but in '"fish and chips" and "Chinese" at the same time - needless to say they were not around for long! This is not rocket science but is another "truism" which is often neglected. Streamlining requires firm confidence and belief in one's product or service (after-all you are proverbially putting "all your eggs in one basket"), yet doing this can also lead to growth.

By focussing on the hair products & supply arm of their business Dyke & Dryden were able to open a number of commercial outlets all over the UK, allowing them to be global suppliers - supplying both to Europe and West Africa, whilst competing against the big American giants of the day.

"WE have the power"

Dyke & Dryden recently held a 'thanksgiving' service, celebrating 50 years since their foundation. It was inspiring to hear so many stories of empowerment and personal growth from former staff as well as other businesses within the African & Caribbean community which Dyke & Dryden helped to encourage and support.

Whilst many people saw the selling of Dyke & Dryden to an American competitor in the 1990s as a retrograde step, perhaps the question we should be asking is why it is that within the African-Caribbean community we have not taken up their mantle? Why have we gone from a position of pioneers within the industry in both the African-American and UK markets to puppets?

There is perhaps a plethora of reasons - feel free to comment below - but one reason that we cannot wholly accept, is that the lack of success and leadership within the black hair & beauty industry is ALL due to rising competition from entrepreneurs within the Asian community or otherwise (a leisurely walk down any high street within a heavily populated African & Caribbean area demonstrates this!) and any perceived problems this may bring…

Surely, one possible explanation could be a lack of mind-set and a lack of will within the African & Caribbean community? How many of us raise our children to actually want to be entrepreneurs? How many of us raise our children to take pride in business ownership and to actually want to take over the family business? Or are we still focussed on the career paths of doctor, lawyer or accounting? As the job market increasingly changes over the next few generations, surely our mind-set in this regard must change too…?

To finish with a quote from Mr Wade, as a community we must acknowledge that, "we have the power". Indeed. Whilst, as a community we still face challenges perhaps over and beyond those of the average start-up, a solution-focussed mind-set grounded in the belief that we have the power to succeed will surely help us to achieve our goals.