Yesterday Amazon announced the launch of their $150 million Black Business Accelerator Program, aimed at getting more black-owned businesses involved in selling on their platform. You can get the details at Sell.amazon.com/bba and also read a detailed article on the announcement published here yesterday.
To learn more about the initiative I spoke with Brandi Neloms, Manager at Amazon, during a recent LinkedIn Live conversation. Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. To hear the full conversation click on the embedded SoundCloud player.
Rationale Behind the Black Business Accelerator
Small Business Trends: Why is Amazon doing this?
Brandi Neloms: Well, there’s a need, right? Historical data and experiences show us that Black entrepreneurs traditionally have had less access to capital and networks and mentorship needed to grow and accelerate their businesses. We look at COVID, Black-owned businesses have been disproportionately impacted and closed throughout this pandemic. And Black entrepreneurs are very heavily underrepresented in retail. Black Americans make up 14% of US adults, but just 6% of small business owners are Black. So there’s a disparity there. We acknowledge that. And we are intentionally pouring into making that a better situation.
Basics of the program
Brandi Neloms: The benefits of Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator fall into three primary categories. There’s financial support, and that includes credits and services needed to really build your business and accelerate growth. We’re providing advertising credits to help you promote your products. We’re providing free imaging services for up to 50 of your products to make sure that your photos look great and they’re appealing to customers. Also within that bucket, on July 1st, we are launching our initial round of cash grants in partnership with Hello Alice. And so that’s $10,000 cash grants for select program participants, and that application process to open on July 1st.
The two other buckets where the benefits lie are business education and mentorship. One of the elements there is we’re going to pair you with an account manager who is really going to walk hand in hand with you, setting strategy and goals, to help make sure that you’re really maximizing selling on Amazon and that you know all you need to know to be successful there. And that last category is marketing and promotion. So for example, we have some Black-owned business storefronts, one for consumers and one on our Amazon business side for our B2B customers. And we very regularly refresh those pages. We feature a lot of our selling partners and promote their products and campaigns there and throughout the year across other channels. So financial support, marketing and promotion, and business education and mentorship are where a bunch of these benefits fall.
The importance of Mentorship
Small Business Trends: I’m so glad you pointed out the mentorship and marketing/promotion because you can get lost in the top line of 150 million bucks. We all know how important money is, particularly to small businesses to survive. But they have to learn how to make it. It’s nice to get it, but it’s also important for them to learn how to make it and how to use it once they have it. Can you talk a little bit more about that, the mentorship and the importance of that to this overall project?
Brandi Neloms: So as far as what it takes to sell on Amazon, being transparent, I recognize there is a learning curve. You sign up to sell on Amazon and you’re one of, say, two million sellers. That’s why we’re pairing you with that strategic advisor and that account manager for at least a year at no cost to make sure that you know what it takes to be successful on Amazon. We’re also developing a network of mentors, third-party advisors, small business thought leaders, Black-owned businesses, entrepreneurs, people who have been successful to come in and put on education and provide mentorship opportunities for participating sellers. We’re very fortunate that we don’t have to go at this alone. We have two amazing strategic partners here at launch, that’s U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency, as well as U.S. Black Chambers, Incorporated. Alongside them, we are reaching out to the community, developing the education and engagement that we need to make sure that our participants are successful.
Branding and marketing assistance
Small Business Trends: And the other thing, you need mentorship, but you also need the marketing pieces. Because like you said, there is what – over two million sellers? So how do you help them not only get off the ground but also build up their brand and be able to have a little bit of name brand recognition to what they’re doing?
Brandi Neloms: There are a couple of ways that participating in this program will help, and I’ll mention a few. Amazon itself has a number of brand-building tools available to our third-party selling partners, to help advance their brand within our stores, build that customer base, and outside of our stores, beyond our stores, be successful at capturing that attention. And then through mentorship, we’ll have these third-party advisors, like I said, be able to teach everything from branding basics to accelerating your brand and growing your brand and what does it really take to have a brand that has recognition across your desired customers. So there’ll be a lot of investment in brand building and opportunities to help these sellers really know what it means to be successful in Amazon and beyond.
Program initiated by an employee’s passion to help
Brandi Neloms: So there are a lot of things that are unique about this program. We could start with the fact that we know selling on Amazon is this very huge economic opportunity for small businesses. But this program is unique because it was really born out of employee passion. So Tiffany Johnson, who you just highlighted on the screen there, she is a project manager for Amazon. She works with sellers every day. She also happens to be an entrepreneur herself, and she comes from a very entrepreneurial family. And in her work with sellers, educating them and bringing them on board, helping them be successful.
She noticed a bit of a disparity between the success of who she was helping. And so she came up with this hypothesis and this problem statement, and really asked herself, what can we do to be intentional as Amazon in her role to impact and benefit her community of Black-owned businesses? And so she had an idea. She watered that idea. She went to her peers to help cultivate that idea. And now here we are, months later, with a $150 million investment in that idea and a package of truly beneficial elements for third-party sellers. So I’m really excited to see this come to fruition and know the backstory of how this came to light.
Small Business Trends: No, that’s great to hear that it actually bubbled up from a need that the employee saw. That’s great.
Brandi Neloms: That’s right. Great ideas come from everywhere. A leadership principle here at Amazon is ownership, where we really encourage all of our employees to take ownership no matter where you are in the business or where you rank on the proverbial totem pole. And ideas can flourish in this same way. She championed it. She went through the right processes and operations. And again, here we are.
Working with community partners
Small Business Trends: Why was it important for Amazon to bring in partners like the MBDA to do something like this?
Brandi Neloms: Our partners, again, are MBDA and U.S. Black Chambers, Incorporated. And it was really important for us to do that because we don’t want to assume that we know everything and know exactly what this community of businesses need. We know very much about online sales, right? That’s where a lot of our expertise in retail lies. But these partners have been doing the work in the community to support these business owners, to provide them with educational tools, to cultivate relationships and networks with them and amongst them. And so we consider it a privilege to be able to lean into that, help grow and expand that. And we’re really looking to our partners to be able to help guide us as we develop this program and as we provide education and mentorship to these participants.
Goals for the program
Small Business Trends: What does success look like? What does Amazon envision for the Black selling community on Amazon? How does this impact their ability to get on it, be successful on it, and thrive on the platform?
Brandi Neloms: The overall goal of this program, and I think we said it at the top, is to spur growth and sustainable economic equity for Black-owned businesses selling in our stores. That’s our end goal, and what that looks like is a number of things. That is increased sales for these businesses. We know that between April of last year and January of this year, our third-party selling partners saw a 55% year-over-year increase in sales. That is huge growth and opportunity. And so success looks like Black-owned businesses being able to experience that growth and tap into that opportunity, generating wealth for themselves, for their communities, for their families, and reinvesting those dollars. For our customers, that looks like an increased diversity of selection for them, new, exciting brands to get happy about and try new products to get close to and familiar with. And so success looks a number of ways. Those are just a few.
How to join the program
Small Business Trends: Where can they go to learn and a part of it? How can companies sign up or do whatever they need to, to get in there and start taking advantage of this?
Brandi Neloms: The process is very simple, and it all starts at sell.amazon.com/bba. And that’s B like boy, the acronym of the program. Sell.amazon.com/bba. There, you fill out a very quick questionnaire, give us some information about your business, whether you’re a current seller or you’re interested in joining Amazon to sell. And we have a dedicated team of people who take that intake form and reach out to you, to walk you through the steps and make sure that you meet those qualifications, which include having a professional Amazon selling account and having a Diverse Ownership Certification through an agency like sam.gov, or as you mentioned earlier, the National Minority Supplier Development Council. So it’s really simple and we do provide the support and guidance to get you through that process.
Small Business Trends: My buddy, Jeff Brathwaite, asks can you talk more about the cash grant? Jeff wants to know about the cash. Everybody wants to know about the cash…
Brandi Neloms: On July 1st, application submission is open. We have partnered with Hello Alice to administer these grants and we have a community on their site, the Amazon Black Business Accelerator Community. You can join that today. You can sign up for alerts. As soon as the application process opens on July 1st, you will get an announcement or an alert via email to let you know, and you can apply.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.