Balch Commemorates Black History Month with Panel on Entrepreneurship
Celebrating Black Entrepreneurs: Catalysts for innovation and inspiration
In honor and recognition of Black History Month, Balch & Bingham reflected on the critical role Black-owned businesses play in our communities with a virtual event featuring a panel of entrepreneurs who are making history today. While we take great care every day to embrace the many different perspectives, backgrounds and cultures of our attorneys and staff, Black History Month provides an opportunity to highlight the achievements of Black Americans.
This year’s Black History Month celebration is rooted in our commitment to support entrepreneurs of color through Balch Business Boost, which aims to help women- and minority-owned businesses overcome systemic barriers to success by providing them with free or low-cost legal services.
We were privileged to host six Black entrepreneurs on February 23 who are innovating and helping communities across the firm’s footprint:
- Cheryl Brown:ZealRiver Technologies, Montgomery, Ala.
- Zebbie Carney: Eugene’s Hot Chicken, Birmingham, Ala.
- Ashley DeWalt: DivInc, Houston, Texas
- Ace Graham: Alchemy Apparel & Footwear, Birmingham, Ala.
- Danielle Martin: Smart Solution Consulting, Jackson, Miss.
- Carolyn Pitt, Esq.: Productions.com (formerly Film Connx), Atlanta, Ga.
Zebbie, Ace, Cheryl, Danielle, Ashley and Carolyn described the challenges Black entrepreneurs are facing today, how they are overcoming those challenges, and what the future looks like from their perspective. The panel was moderated by Balch & Bingham Partner Walter Boone, member of the firm’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council.
The entrepreneurs who took part come from a wide array of backgrounds. Their businesses span the entire Southeast, and their industries vary from information technologies to entertainment; and yet, they all began from a desire to improve their communities.
“It’s one thing to be a retailer, it’s another to be a good merchant. Merchants increase the value of the neighborhoods that they’re in,” Ace shared. The founder and Director of Alchemy Apparel & Footwear in Birmingham, Ace also runs the nonprofit Alchemy Cares to provide pop-up and workspace for young retailers. “We want to impact and inspire our communities.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Birmingham, Zebbie knew he needed to pivot his business model to help his popular restaurant, Eugene’s Hot Chicken, continue to serve the community. They began offering curbside and takeout options, while their two food trucks traveled through Birmingham neighborhoods. Eugene’s also partnered with nonprofit groups around Birmingham to provide food at cost for hospital workers fighting the pandemic.
Carolyn formed Productions.com, based in Atlanta, to help studios, music labels, and corporate brands invest in communities by hiring local production talent. While Productions.com advocates for production professionals from all backgrounds, Carolyn has been proud and intentional about leveling the playing field for women and professionals of color who are underrepresented in the film industry. She also has helped production professionals weather the hit to the film industry during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing alternative ways for them to generate income and by offering classes in writing, film editing and other production techniques, so people can improve their skills while they look for work.
Likewise, Danielle began her own consulting business, Smart Solution Consulting, because she knew she could leverage her extensive business experience to help other local entrepreneurs succeed. “When you have a gift, it’s not for you to keep,” Danielle said. “You have to use your gifts to give back to someone else.” To date, she’s consulted with over 400 businesses to educate them on best business practices, assist them in securing over $3 million in funding and help them obtain local, state and federal certifications.
With over a decade of experience in brand strategy and marketing, Ashley DeWalt works as the managing director of DivInc in Houston to help mobilize communities, execute programs and establish partnerships that foster diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures. Their mission is to bridge the gap between underrepresented entrepreneurs and the resources they need to build profitable, scalable companies. “For us, our programs and partnerships are essential to assisting these underrepresented founders overcome barriers to entrepreneurial success,” Ashley said.
Dismantling Systemic Barriers
Black entrepreneurs face disproportionate barriers to success when starting their own businesses. Inequitable access to resources, capital and opportunities significantly impacts the likelihood a Black-owned business will succeed.
At DivInc, Ashley says everything is no-cost for the underrepresented founders they help because it’s critical for new business-owners to have access to those resources. “Some of the barriers they have experienced include lack of access to education, resources, networks, opportunities and funding,” he said. “I’ve talked to different founders who have hired any type of attorney that practiced law; someone retained a criminal defense attorney to set up their startups LLC,” and all because they didn’t have the education or the resources, they needed to access proper legal counsel.
Ace knows that having the right resources is critical to forming a solid foundation for a small business. When he wanted to expand his business into a new location, he struggled to negotiate lease terms without an attorney. “As entrepreneurs and people of color, people that are underserved – I was stuck in a space where I was grateful to get the lease,” he said. “You don’t realize you have leverage, and you end up selling yourself extremely short. And if I had true proper counsel, it would have been a completely different situation for me.”
When Cheryl first launched her information technology firm ZealRiver Technologies, she was without legal counsel and entered into a nebulous contractual agreement. Sharing this experience with firm attorneys and staff, Cheryl made the point that “having that face time with an attorney is so critical to the growth and foundation of a company.”
COVID-19 has only exacerbated the disparities that already existed for minority-business owners, Danielle shared. Many of her clients were unable to receive stimulus funding from the government because they did not have adequate bookkeeping or a separate bank account for their business. “Things that seem fundamental to business – a lot of people don’t have access to the education or information they need.”
“Ninety percent of black and brown businesses weren’t able to secure PPP and other stimulus funding,” Carolyn said. “And as a result, 41 percent of Black businesses shut their doors permanently in 2020. For the film industry – there has been complete devastation, as all productions immediately ceased and thousands of production professionals have been out of work for almost a year.” She believes that the government can help Black- and brown- and female-owned businesses overcome traditional barriers by providing more access to capital, to credit and to public-private partnerships.
At Balch, we believe it is imperative that we all work together to tackle systemic injustices and proactively support Black entrepreneurs. Their experiences and innovations will create lasting legacies within their communities for the benefit of us all.
“I view entrepreneurship as an extension of the Civil Rights movement,” Carolyn said. “It provides us with the opportunity to create generational wealth where we haven’t had it before.” In starting her own business and focusing it on the career development of local professionals, Carolyn is creating opportunities for traditionally underserved populations to accumulate wealth and resources that will help the next generation. After expanding Productions.com to her first international location in Canada, she is excited to begin her work in further overseas production hubs.
Cheryl began her path to entrepreneurship when a retired colonel and vice president at the first company she worked for advised her to get her degree. Attending Troy University not only helped Cheryl start her business – it also inspired her children. “My mentor told me to get my degree, not only for myself but for my boys,” Cheryl said. “Now, because I have my degree, my sons are about to graduate with their own Master’s Degrees.”
“It’s important that we see entrepreneurship as a way to build a legacy,” Danielle said. “The more I grew throughout my career, I saw that entrepreneurship was my way to explore my passions while being able to creatively solve problems for others, and without any limit on the amount of money I could make. And now I’m instilling that in my children.”
Zebbie founded Eugene’s Hot Chicken with the values of hard work and righteousness that his stepfather Eugene taught him, and now he hopes to instill those values in his own sons. He plans on growing his restaurant chain across the Southeast in the coming years with the hope of becoming a mentor for others in his community.
Ace is also looking to expand his business by opening another store and making a lasting impact on his community. He is working with REV Birmingham and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to drive Alchemy’s brand partners to invest in Birmingham communities. “I’m always trying to keep my thumb on the pulse of our community and the people who need help,” Ace said.
To close out the panel, the moderator urged attorneys and staff participating in the event to begin helping other woman- and minority-owned businesses build their legacies. “We are in the relationship business,” he said. “It’s time to reach out and engage with these businesses in our communities and figure out how we can use our relationships to help them succeed,” panel moderator Walter Boone said.
Balch Business Boost
With an understanding that minority- and women-owned businesses are critical contributors to not only America’s economy, but to the vibrant social fabric of individual communities, Balch was proud to launch Balch Business Boost in late 2020. Since then, Balch attorneys have connected with more than 100 entrepreneurs – a number that will continue to grow.
“We launched Balch Business Boost because we thought that supporting woman- and minority-owned businesses was a good way for us to make a positive impact on the quality of life of all the members of our communities, and to promote racial equality and social justice,” Stan Blanton, managing partner, told the panel. “Balch Business Boost allows us to use what we do best, as business lawyers, to serve businesses that might not have been as well served by the corporate legal community over the years.”
Celebrating Black Entrepreneurs Panelists
CEO, ZealRiver Technologies
Cheryl Brown is the Chief Executive Officer of ZealRiver Technologies, Inc. A graduate of Troy University, Cheryl formed ZealRiver in 2016, bringing more than 20 years of industry leadership and long-term client relationships to the company. She manages corporate direction and strategy at ZealRiver and has a demonstrated track record of delivering quantifiable results in consulting, sales, marketing, and support. The firm specializes in the areas of Configuration Management, System Engineering, Senior Cloud Engineering, Support Desk Management, Program Management and Education Advisory Services.
Since her days supporting the Air Force as a young college intern, Cheryl has fostered a culture of customer satisfaction, shared ideas, diversity and inclusivity, which has formed the foundation of ZealRiver’s success.
CEO & Founder, Eugene’s Hot Chicken
Zebbie Carney is the CEO and Founder of Eugene’s Hot Chicken. He is a graduate of Tennessee State University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management. Carney made his way to Birmingham in 2010. In 2015, after much research, Carney crafted his hot chicken concept and took the leap to begin his own food truck, Eugene’s Hot Chicken, named in honor of his late stepfather, Eugene, who was a big influence on Zebbie’s life.
His popular spicy chicken with four levels of heat intensity (Mild, Hot, Hot Damn, and Stupid Hot) was an immediate success and has garnered his national attention. The food truck has grown to be one of the most-loved food trucks in the Birmingham area.
It was in 2017 that Carney decided to open his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Uptown Entertainment District. In 2021, Carney opened a second brick-and-mortar location in Hoover. He is still just as passionate about taking care of his customers and staff and crafting delicious, fresh food from the heart.
Managing Director, DivInc
With over a decade of experience in brand strategy and marketing as a management consultant in sports and entertainment, Ashley serves as a mentor and investment advisor with Stadia Ventures, a globally recognized early-stage sports- and esports-focused venture capital firm with an accelerator. Ashley also provides his subject matter expertise on brand strategy and marketing, entrepreneurship and startups as a lecturer at the University of Houston.
He’s worked with leading startups, talent, brands and properties throughout his career, including NIKE, Adidas, Under Armour, INFLCR, Houston Outlaws, Texas A&M University, and the University of Houston. His award-winning work has been featured in national media, including ESPN, Forbes, Fox Sports, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, Bleacher Report, Sports Business Journal, HBO Real Sports, USA Today Sports, and local media, including the Houston Chronicle and Houston Business Journal.
Founder & Creative Director, Alchemy Apparel & Footwear
For over 15 years, Ace has been an entrepreneur holding various positions in the fashion industry gaining knowledge and insight. Ace earned eight years of experience as an international business consultant assisting brands and retailers with entry into the North American market. During his stay abroad in Bologna, Italy, Ace worked with brands extensively. He served as Creative Director developing and controlling online platforms, while also operating as lead buyer bridging the gap between American culture and European style.
Upon returning to the U.S. in 2015, Ace continued to focus on fashion and retail. Ace aligned himself with brand partners that include Ralph Lauren, New Balance, Nike, Puma, and more. He has curated some of the most unique events to push the culture forward to solidify Alchemy’s place in the industry. Ace has been operating his footwear and apparel stores for the last five years while devoting efforts to the community via his nonprofit organization. Through Alchemy Cares, Ace highlights fashion, art and music through the community. He leads the charge and advocates for community unity through partnership with fellow business owners and organizations.
CEO, Smart Solution Consulting
Danielle Martin is an Accredited Small Business Consultant with a diverse background in retail, banking and business ownership. She has a passion for entrepreneurship and seeing others succeed in their own endeavors. She has served over a decade in the retail, sales, and financial industry as well as 8 years’ experience in consulting small business owners. She holds a Bachelor's of Business Administration, with a concentration in Marketing, along with a host of Continuing Education certifications.
To date, she has consulted with over 400 businesses, ranging from funeral homes to construction; assisted clients in obtaining over $3 million in business funding; conducted 600+ hours in educational business seminars; and helped countless individuals obtain local, state and federal certifications.
Founder & CEO, Productions.com
Carolyn Pitt is Founder and CEO of Productions.com, a job marketplace for production professionals that connects studios, music labels and corporate brands to vetted local production talent.
Productions.com is headquartered in Atlanta and partners with clients nationwide. The company advocates for production professionals of all backgrounds and is proud to help level the playing field for women and professionals of color, who are underrepresented in the entertainment industry.
Immediately prior to the passage of the CARES Act, Carolyn addressed the U.S. Senate and House Subcommittee for Small Business and Entrepreneurship to advocate for stimulus funding for the film industry and underrepresented founders. She also participated in two small business roundtables at the behest of the Biden-Harris campaign. Carolyn was recently recognized as a recipient of Google’s inaugural Black Founder Fund and was named 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year by Envolve Global.
Carolyn is an Intellectual Property and Entertainment Attorney with significant experience in Management Consulting, Strategy and Business Development. She previously practiced at Alston & Bird LLP and received her B.S. in Psychology from Vanderbilt University and her J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law.