Markeisha Harris-Minor has always liked helping people. So when she started connecting local businesses in her Richmond, Virginia, community that required each other’s services, she was just being herself. What Harris-Minor didn’t know was the network she was building would turn into a vital resource for Black-owned businesses.
Enter Blocal Search, a nationwide directory and app that not only helps consumers locate Black-owned businesses, but also provides educational resources and tools to help its member businesses thrive.
A mashup of Black + Local, Blocal was founded in December 2019 after Harris-Minor realized what she did by default daily could help Black businesses across the country. The 30-year-old business consultant said the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the company’s growth because everyone was online.
“I literally had my own rolodex in my head of people I could lean on, and all of them were African-American,” Harris-Minor told Atlanta Black Star in a recent interview. “I was starting to build this network because social media and technology was making it so easy to connect with others.”
Harris-Minor also wanted to provide a platform to help the Black dollar circulate repeatedly in Black communities to help fund sustainable community development.
“We talk a lot about recycling the Black dollar, and it’s great to do that, but it’s more important to do in your area,” Harris-Minor said. “I’m in Richmond, Virginia, so me sending my dollars to support a Black-owned business in L.A. is great, but I’m not going to see where my money is going. Spending money locally starts a good cycle of what I think is needed to really help rebuild sustainable communities and really create that generational wealth.”
A part of Harris-Minor’s The Dreamcatcher Network, Blocal had almost 4,500 businesses listed and over 22,000 downloads at the time of this writing. “Those numbers are only going up,” according to Harris-Minor, but they’re still far too low for her. She believes there are many more businesses that need the help Blocal offers.
“When it comes to Black-owned businesses, we have a lot of stigmas, we get a lot of hang-ups, and sometimes they’re true. So one of the things I want Blocal Search to focus on is … changing some perspectives,” Harris-Minor said. “We want to provide ratings, reviews and real-time feedback. I want business owners to be upfront about what they need help with. They can’t get help if they’re not willing to receive it.”
In order to provide that help, Blocal Search offers a variety of workshops, trainings, master classes and more through its namesake university. It also has a robust social media presence, through which it hosts various virtual events like the Blocal Takeover, sessions with Black professionals from various industries, and other offerings.
There are three tiers of listings businesses can take advantage of on Blocal: Bronze at $49.90 annually, Preferred at $99.99 annually, and Premium at $149.99. The company also has an Ambassador program through which businesses and ambassadors can get incentives.
“Consumers who believe in the mission of Blocal Search and want to intentionally support and buy Black-owned can become an ambassador and earn between $10 and $25 for each business listed,” Harris-Minor explained. “For each business that lists using the ambassador’s unique code, they can get a 10 percent discount.”
Janosha Bling Boutique founder Lisa Watson knows firsthand how valuable Blocal Search is. Also in Richmond, Watson has worked in banking for over 23 years and balanced her career with being a small-business owner since 2008. She said Blocal Search has helped her tremendously since she became a member in October 2020.
“I’ve gotten a lot of really, really good hits from Blocal. I’ll ask people if I don’t know them where they saw my business at, and they’ll tell me they saw it on Blocal,” Watson told Atlanta Black Star. She praised Harris-Minor’s diligence, noting how her work with Blocal University has been exactly what she needs as she prepares to transition from corporate America into full-time entrepreneurship.
“The information that’s in the university, it got me, because it’s everything that I’ve been working on. I was like, ‘Why do I have to go anywhere else and she’s doing all of it?’” Watson said. “Blocal Search has helped me in many ways. … It has actually helped expand my social media sites because I’m getting more likes and hits on Instagram and Facebook, and, from a personal standpoint, it has heightened my expectations of working with a company that’s not only interested in just getting their name out there, but they actually really believe in their mission statement to help local Black entrepreneurs.”
William Shelton — the owner of Esteam Carpet Clean and Janitorial Service — cosigned Watson’s experience. “People have actually found me on Blocal here in the metro Atlanta area. When I go to customer’s houses and I ask how they found me, they say they found me on Blocal,” Shelton, who’s been in business for 11 years, told Atlanta Black Star.
Also the founder of the Atlanta Black Business Network, Shelton said Harris-Minor’s passion inspires him. “When I first met Markeisha, I liked her enthusiasm. I’ve met a lot of people who want to do Black business directories, but not everyone is all in,” Shelton said. “But for her to travel on her own dime nationwide to meet up with local Black business leaders around the country, it actually motivated me to do more, so I actually was encouraged by her bravery because it’s a daunting task. I shared with her some of the pitfalls, and she was like, ‘I’m going full speed ahead,’ and she did it. So that’s what made me want to work with her and support her endeavors.”
Despite the glowing reviews, Harris-Minor admits the journey has not been without challenges. Initially, she wasn’t receiving the buy-in she’d hoped for.
“People just had a lot of questions. I remember talking to people who weren’t necessarily on board. With business owners, some are too worried about keeping their doors open, and this was before the pandemic. I was getting this feedback, and at first it was a little sad, but it made sense,” Harris-Minor said, adding, “People didn’t know who I was. I was this meek, quiet person living their life, so the support wasn’t there as much as it is now, so I had to grind and hustle.”
Before becoming a business consultant, Harris-Minor’s professional background was in mental health. She also holds a degree in in psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University. Therefore, she credits her success with Blocal to her passion and unwillingness to give up rather than formal training.
“I learned by doing. I learned by failing. I learned by my own research and I learned by talking to others. I definitely think formal education is good, but experience is definitely one of the best teachers and, honestly, learning and talking to others is even better,” Harris-Minor said.
In addition to satisfied business owners, Blocal has caught the attention of celebrities like rapper Waka Flocka Flame — who is a vocal advocate for the company — and author and media personality Michael Baisden.
“Waka Flocka did a lot to help get the word out. He didn’t just mention it and throw it out there. He really talked about it in depth on the Nick Cannon show, and that was definitely a huge highlight,” Harris-Minor said.
Like for many other Black-owned businesses, George Floyd’s murder served as a catalyst for Blocal getting more support. But Harris-Minor said she doesn’t only want businesses to be patronized because they are Black-owned, but also because they provide quality goods and services.
“I want both consumers and businesses to recognize [right now] it’ll be easy to get businesses in your door, but that shouldn’t be the reason they stay,” Harris-Minor said. “What should keep them is not because you’re a Black-owned business, but because you’re the best business to support out of all of your counterparts.”
Harris-Minor added that people can support Blocal’s mission by donating their “time, talent and treasure.” For her, when it comes to philanthropy, “it’s not always a monetary value, but if there’s something else they can give that Black-owned businesses can benefit from, it helps.”
Remaining authentic is also important to Harris-Minor, who still answers the Blocal Search’s 1-800 number. Her future plans include shoring up Blocal University to include more courses, establishing a nonprofit arm, and raising funds to offer grants to provide Black business owners with capital to cover important expenses.
“I want no business left behind,” Harris-Minor said. “What I envision long-term for Blocal Search is being a hub for Black-owned businesses where they can get everything they need.”
She also encourages people to avoid making buying Black a fad.
“When it comes to supporting Black-owned businesses, this is something that Blocal Search pushes to be a lifestyle change and not a trend,” Harris-Minor said. “I don’t want people to just be doing this because it’s good in that moment, but because, literally, this is something that can affect the trajectory and the livelihood of our culture, and I want people to be mindful and intentional about that.”