Entrepreneurs of color like Bernadine Desanges are making intentional choices about inclusion in the workplaces they create. We spoke with Bernadine about the inspiration for her growing business and what can be done to support entrepreneurs of color who are recovering from an economic downturn while also working on closing the wealth gap.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you talk about some of the dreams you had growing up?
Bernadine Desanges: As a Haitian American growing up in Boston, I always wanted to become an attorney and advocate for all people. From the beginning, I was in a position to advocate for people whether they were my age or not, and I could really, really understand the impact of social justice and the implications of being silenced and not being able to share your voice.
Can you explain in your own terms what the wealth gap is?
BD: The wealth gap is an intentional separation between class, race, gender, and ethnicity. I think it's a focus and understanding that there is a higher tier of economics that one can earn, and then there's a lower tier of economics that one can earn as far as a dollar amount goes, and that there are clear discrepancies between racial breakdowns and between gender breakdowns—and even between immigration breakdowns.
At what point did you realize you had to create this business for yourself? What made you realize that you were ready to make this happen?
BD: I was friends with people who were in law school, medical school, friends with people who work at Fortune 500 companies, friends with individuals who worked in the world of nonprofit and others who are entrepreneurs. Yet we still struggled for upward and professional mobility. We were still really struggling with who we were in all spaces, struggling with wearing our hair out naturally, struggling with being able to have our nails designed in different colors. We were struggling with our language and our vernacular and the ways we grew up in our own communities.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic made the already-visible wealth gap even more apparent, in your opinion?
BD: A number of small business owners have had to close their doors. Whether they're restaurants, retail, speaking engagement type of private consulting companies, et cetera, a number of us had to close our doors to our business and have really had to rely a lot on the government's response to what's going on in the pandemic in order to sustain ourselves, whether that's through the stimulus package or through other opportunities that have provided entrepreneurs and business owners [with] financial support and, in some ways, liberties to still be in existence, to pay those who are currently on our payroll or even pay ourselves.
What steps do you think Boston policymakers need to take to ensure that minority businesses make it through this pandemic?
BD: We need to recognize, first and foremost, that those who are historically marginalized in the black, brown and Latino community are those impacted by this pandemic at higher rates than others. And so in understanding that, I think in order for us to really understand the importance of sustainability, we need to provide funding to these organizations, to these entrepreneurs, to these restaurants, to these businesses so that they can keep their doors open when it's time to open back up again.
I don't think that it's within our best interest to open all of our doors prematurely without having safety plans and precautions in place [without really understanding] what the impact of the spread will continue to have once folks are no longer socially distancing themselves from one another.
And so if we're able to provide financial supports and sustainability to these companies and to these business owners, then they'll be able to really manage what they have to in order to keep their businesses afloat and keep employees on payroll, ensure that they have enough of their products on supply and stuff, and are really in a position to better respond to supply and demand requests that are moving forward.
What does success look like for you, your peers, your employees, and your community?
BD: I think success looks different for different people at different stages of life, to be honest. Success for me depending on the day might be just waking up and getting ready and going to work because I've experienced a lot of challenges the day before. Right? Sometimes success might be landing that contract that allows me to continue to do my work consistently within an institution or for a group of students.
Boston is perceived as more progressive than other cities in the nation, but a lot of people overlook the city's history with racism. In your opinion, in what areas is there still work to be done?
BD: I think that when it comes to the work that Boston needs to do, we need to truly recognize just how much economics plays a role in displacement, in disconnection and disconnectedness, lack of access to resources, lack of access to schools that are truly providing students with the best education, and really recognize just how much economics separates individuals with regard to progression, professional opportunities, and achievement gaps.
Can you tell us one or two ways you would encourage others to share their stories?
BD: If any of you are out there really wanting to truly impact systems and institutions particularly focused around discrimination, implicit biases, microaggressions, and opportunities that hold people back, to you I say, value the importance of authenticity and being who you are in all spaces.
Place value on vulnerability and being able to share your story and share your narratives, even if it doesn't sound like the best story or narrative to share, even if it is one full of pain, even if it is one full of heartbreak, even if it is one full of despair, and even if it is one worthy of celebration and acknowledgment and empowerment.
Learn more about the work Bernadine Desanges is doing and how you can get involved today. Visit Know Your Truths. Speak Your Truths.