CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Guidant Financial's 2023 Women in Business Trends report found the number of Black women owning businesses has increased by 33%.
But some experts say a number of Black entrepreneurs face hardships, such as funding, when launching a business.
Folks nationwide are spreading awareness about the successes and challenges of being a Black business owner throughout August, which has been designated as National Black Business Month.
It's a time to celebrate Black-owned businesses, while highlighting ways the community can support them year-round.
A Gastonia businesswoman says one key ingredient to keeping Black and small businesses thriving is continuous support from community members and business owners.
Dara Bess is the owner of EJ's Soul Food and Vegan restaurant. It's located right off Interstate 85 at Exit 21.
Bess, an experienced soul food restaurateur and caterer, named EJ's after her biological son, Elijah Jace.
"Elijah is everything to me, because I did not think I would have children," Bess said. "The good lord blessed me on my 35th birthday to have Elijah. He is my world, sunshine, he is my motivation. I was also blessed to have two bonus boys who are 12 and 15, they are very supportive also."
Part of what makes EJ's restaurant unique is it's a soul food restaurant offering vegan options.
"That's why it's called the best of both worlds," Bess said. "People ask what's soul food. What pleases my soul may not please your soul, everybody's soul is different. When we say soul food, it's a cultural thing. It should be food [that] when you eat it, you feel it in your soul. Whether it's the fried chicken, the fried fish, the yams, the macaroni, we want our food to touch you, so it feels like it's home. It takes you back to your grandmothers or your aunties or the people that cooked in the home, we want you to enjoy that same experience with us. We want it to be great for all, whether you're vegan, vegetarian or you're on a regular diet. You can come to EJ's and still share that same experience with us."
Part of Bess' team includes vegan consultant Dawn Hilton-Williams, founder of Herban-Eats, LLC and author of a clinically endorsed cookbook.
Hilton-Williams, a nutrition-focused, plant-based chef, ensures all of EJ's vegan options are being served to the customer's satisfaction.
"We're keeping the vegan separate but delicious," Hilton-Williams said. "I make sure [they're] on [their] vegan toes."
"We do not cross-contaminate," Bess said.
Bess is proud to be a Black business owner and is excited about the support she's received from her Gaston County neighbors.
But she says at times, finding resources to support Black businesses was a bit challenging.
"It was a little difficult, because if you're not aware of resources and you don't know, you're already behind. Not only were we behind, it took us about five weeks to get open just to kind of sit and wait," Bess said.
Bess expanded her support by networking within the business community. She says it's helping her restaurant to flourish.
"I did join the SBA," Bess said. "They've been great with the Gaston Business Association."
Bess says it's important for aspiring Black business and small-business owners to have access to similar resources in their communities.
Bess added, it's critical for small-business owners and residents to support one another for the long haul.
"We have to stick together, because we need each other," Bess said. "When they say it takes a village, [it does]. It takes all of us. Budget, once every other week, come out and support your local businesses so we can continue to give back to the community. It's more than a meal, it's a ministry. We are here for our community."
Bess says her restaurant is looking to fill several positions with people who are excited and passionate about cooking.
The data shows EJ's is one of many Gastonia businesses hiring.
The Gaston County Economic Development Commission provided Spectrum News 1 the latest Economic Overview Report, utilizing JobsEQ.
It shows employment in Gastonia is expected to expand by nearly 800 jobs over the next year. Around 150 of those positions will be in accommodation and food services.