The entrance to SWIFF clothing boutique located in Five Points (Photos by Shakeem Jones)
Black entrepreneurs hope for success when they take the risk of opening storefronts in Columbia.
It has been a hit for some and a miss for others. For some Black entrepreneurs, it is their first business, and navigating the challenges that comes with that has been make or break for them.
Ashanti Thomas is the owner of SWIFF, a clothing boutique and bar located at Five Points on Harden Street. Thomas opened the business in February 2022 after starting it online in 2017.
He said he got the idea to combine a clothing store with a bar in Columbia after visiting New York clothing boutiques that have built-in cafes.
Thomas said he opened his storefront to give customers the experience they cannot get online or at other retail clothing stores.
“I know the clothing I have is nice online, but in person it’s even better,” Thomas said. “You can feel the quality, you can feel the fabric. I’m big on giving people that experience.”
But having quality clothing produced in America rather than overseas comes with more higher production costs, Thomas said.
He said funding the store is the biggest hurdle he has.
“Sales are alright, they are not exactly what I projected,” he said. “Sometimes when you take a large step like this, you just guess. Hopefully, it picks up. We are a new business, so we’re trying to spread the word.”
In West Columbia, JAAS Boutique was another Black-owned clothing store that Shonna Williams opened in 2013. She closed the shop in December 2021.
“COVID was really hard, we barely made it through,” Williams said.
She said she saw the economy take a plunge, and people weren’t shopping as much.
“I decided to go ahead and get out before it got even worse,” Williams said.
Her experience being a Black business owner in Columbia was difficult, she said.
“I’ve had customers walk into the boutique and see I’m an African American business and wouldn’t buy anything,” Williams said. ” They would literally walk out.”
Although her time in business was difficult, Williams said her greatest joy was meeting different people.
“The customers that would come in, they became friends to us — more than customers,” Williams said. “Meeting those authentic people, that was the joy.”
After closing her doors, Williams decided to shift careers.
“I became a preschool teacher,” said Williams with a laugh.
A piece of advice she gives to other would-be Black business owners is to not compare yourself to other local businesses.
“Once I looked around and saw other people with a boutique, that sparked a desire in me to have one,” Williams said. “But I realized a storefront comes with more responsibility and more bills.”
The S.C. Small Business Development Center works with minority small business owners to expand their knowledge of what it means to be an entrepreneur, said Allen Brown, the Midlands coordinator.
“We help them go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset — where failure was once a limitation, to where failure is an opportunity for growth,” Brown said.
Thomas said everything is a risk when you open a business, but he thinks now is the time to pursue his dreams, while he’s young.
“I don’t have much to lose, which is why I did it now, and I have a lot to learn,” Thomas said.
Thomas sees a bright future for SWIFF past the initial hurdles of opening a brick-and-mortar business.
“We want to open up more stores in larger cities,” Thomas said. “We want to expand our online presence and be stocked in different stores across the nation. … That’s how you reach more people. That’s our next steps.”