Rayne Overall shared that quote attributed to 18th-century British nobleman Baron Rothschild when discussing business and the perils of the pandemic.
Rothschild made millions of dollars buying in the panic that followed Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. According to historians, Rothschild rejected popular business opinions and held onto the belief that the worse things seemed in the market, the better the opportunities for profit.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, Overall, a native of St. Elizabeth Bay, Jamaica, made a Rothschild-like decision. He bought a building in Wellston and decided to change the direction of his business.
Overall came to St. Louis in 2011 and created a lucrative business for himself as a DJ who hosted private events. He works full time as an operations specialist for Spectrum but hosting weddings and private parties created another steady revenue source.
That changed when the pandemic prohibited people from attending large gatherings.
“It started with weddings; that business just went away,” Overall explained.
“At first, events were postponed until the following year, 2021. Then they got postponed again. It was tough.”
Because he always required a 25% retainer on planned events, Overall said he didn’t lose much money. Still, he felt it was time to refocus his energies.
“The pandemic allowed me to go back to the table and see what I could do differently. So, I started looking at event spaces,” Overall explained.
“Although bars were closing because they couldn’t have large gatherings, I saw the private event business almost triple. They were getting so many bookings through private gatherings because people are social beings. They’re always going to want to do something and find a way to do it.”
Overall and his partner and wife, Rahale Tulu, did the necessary research and found surprising opportunities directly related to the pandemic.
“The housing market went up but commercial property [values] went down,” Overall said.
“Because of that, I got a very good deal on a more than 7,000-foot building in tip-top condition. We got it for less than $22,000 cash. With our savings, we were able to buy it outright. So, we don’t owe a mortgage or anything.”
The building is an old appliance shop at Martin Luther King Dr. and Kienlen Ave. near the Wellston Loop. The couple is renovating the building to open as an event party space in 2023.
The pandemic, Overall said, didn’t stop him. In fact, it made it easier for him to survive a historic economic downturn in business, especially Black-owned businesses.
After suffering crippling blows early in the pandemic, Black-owned firms are enjoying a rebound of sorts. Robert Fairlie, a professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, found that the number of African American businesses surged to almost 1.5 million in January 2021. An increase of almost 40% from February 2020, before COVID-19 swept across the nation. The ranks of Hispanic owners rose by 15% in the same period, while white and Asian entrepreneurs fell by 3% and 2%, respectively.
The surge in Black business owners can be attributed to multiple factors. They include people who lost jobs during the pandemic turning to entrepreneurism, especially online business ventures and expanded COVID-related government assistance programs.
However, much relief for Black enterprises came from the “Buy Black movement” that seemed to go into overdrive during the pandemic.
Make no mistake about it; Black-owned firms were initially crushed by shelter-in-place orders and the economic downturn in the United States. According to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research, there was a 41% decline in Black business ownership from February to April 2020.
But, because of police-related killings like the murder of George Floyd by a former Minneapolis police officer, the social justice movement inspired more people to increase their efforts to seek out and support black business owners.
The news of Americans, Black, white, and “other,” purposely supporting Black-owned firms during the pandemic is refreshing. But there are still many obstacles to overcome.
Even though African Americans make up over 14 percent of the population, they own only 2.3% of the employer businesses in the U.S. According to the Federal Reserve, the median net worth of white families was $188,200, 7.8 times that of their Black peers at $24,100.
The fact that Black-owned businesses opened in abundant numbers during the pandemic speaks volumes about the tenacity and resiliency of a people who’ve always had to navigate a world where they were disproportionately denied loans and capital to start or maintain business enterprises.
In May 2020, the Washington Post reported that large banks were approving around 60% of loans sought by white small business owners, 50% of those sought by Hispanic or Latinx small-business owners, and just 29% of those sought by Black small business owners.
Overall is aware of the challenges many Black entrepreneurs face.
“When things are not going your way, stop thinking, ‘this is how I want things to go’ and start thinking, ‘how can I make things work for me.’”
To emphasize his point, Overall provided another favorite quote; this one from business magnate, investor, and philanthropist, Warren Buffet:
“I’ll tell you how to become rich. Close the doors. Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful.”
Overall said he was “fearful” when he hit “rock bottom” years before the pandemic. The remedy for those fears, he said, was resiliency, creativity and changing his mindset.
“I’m not sure if it’s a Jamaican thing or what, but the way I saw it, I had to start thinking outside the box.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.