Black Entrepreneurs Proudly Forge Path in Wheeling
WHEELING — Janette Rideoutt stocks other people’s business cards, chocolate and pottery earrings near the cash register at her Market Street store. The eclectic mix has little to do with her own products – a two-storefront mix of hair supplies and urban fashions that reference hip-hop, skateboarding and the sports world.
It’s about supporting a network of entrepreneurs in the same way she and partner Darren McCormick were, Rideoutt explained. She pulled out one card after another and began to scroll down her phone screen when that supply ran out.
In addition to the candy and jewelry makers, Rideoutt pointed to stylists who can make skillful use of the hair bundles sold through DL’s (also known as Dee’s) Hair & Clothing in Wheeling and a similar duo of shops in Steubenville.
There’s a barber who does fades. There’s a tooth whitener, a moving company, a portrait artist, restaurateurs, even a young man who can restore the luster of pricey athletic shoes.
“It’s a lot of us,” Rideoutt said of Black business owners. And, given that 2021 U.S. Census estimates show Ohio County as 91.1% white, it is.
It also isn’t. Of the 5,680 of county businesses listed with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, only 162 are minority owned. That number — about 3% of all county businesses — is a broad mix that includes nonprofits and everything from physician’s offices operated by recent immigrants to the couple’s stores.
CLEARING A PATH
Rideoutt appreciates that what she and McCormick have done was neither common nor easy. This is particularly true, she noted, since their path to entrepreneurship was, in part, driven by stumbling blocks that dual youthful incarcerations left in their path.
While she found consistent work in food service upon release, she said the New York-born and Florida-raised McCormick soon realized business ownership was going to be a necessary part of forging a better life.
“He started selling clothes out of the back of his car,” Rideoutt said of how the urban fashion side of their enterprise began more than 15 years ago.
It was a humble start, but sales boomed so quickly, she said McCormick was searching for a storefront nearly as soon as they met. The couple opened the Wheeling store, which has since doubled in size, in 2008. The Steubenville shops soon followed.
It was a fast expansion that required intensive reinvestment, but Rideoutt said the result is they have that better life.
Their son, now 13 and in private school, was able to come to work with her in his early days. They are mentoring others in the way their former landlord, the late Robert Jones – a white entrepreneur the couple consider a father figure — did for them.
And, she said they feel valued by the community – the whole community – in a way that a discouraging note left on their store door when they first opened suggested would never be possible.
“It’s not a Black store,” she said of beauty-side customers that include white cancer patients seeking wigs and cheerleaders searching for high-volume pony tails as well as Black customers wanting to add oomph to braids or dreadlocks. “Some people just like hair.”
EVENING THE PLAYING FIELD
And some people like cars, as Jeff Johnson II found out along his entrepreneurial path. He opened Attention to Detail Cleaning & Restoration in 2016.
As with Rideoutt and McCormick, access to America’s playing field was a part of his decision to become a business owner. A 2003 Wheeling Park alumnus and cousin of homegrown Dallas Cowboy C.J. Goodwin, Johnson graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh on a football scholarship.
As he went through college and moved on to banking jobs in Chicago and Cleveland, he was well aware his circumstances were different from those of some childhood friends.
“I wish I could go to college,” he said friends would sometimes say. “That made me sad. ‘I wish you could, too.’ ”
Then, when Johnson was well into a career that eventually led to his current remote work as a quality-control manager of loan activity for a Pittsburgh bank, he said a cousin came to him for help.
“You should do it,” the cousin said, asking Johnson to lead the way into some sort of entrepreneurial activity, “and, I’ll help you.”
“I could tell it was real, it was authentic. It wasn’t some game he was playing,” Johnson said of recognizing even some of his own family didn’t have access to college and other life boosts such as a two-parent family that was faith-focused and loving.
Johnson was on it.
“I already know what I want to do,” he said, sort of joking about a smudge he was horrified to discover on the carpet of his first new car after a local detailing. “I’ve been stewing on this for a year.”
The cousin — who would triple his eventual investment before his death from a long-standing medical condition — wasn’t immediately convinced. Neither man knew anything about car detailing. But, Johnson found a property in North Wheeling and enrolled in a training course.
While the cousin debated, Johnson was hooked on launching the shop. “My mother was like, ‘You need to go home.’ I was there all night painting.”
When his first customer, a man who simply wanted a sticker removed from a car window, arrived, Johnson got out some chemicals and a plastic scraper and set to work. “I was so excited. I’m there by myself.”
He wasn’t by himself for long. The business so flourished the cousins outgrew the North Wheeling location. Johnson, who had also begun buying and renting homes to lower-income tenants around the city by that point, purchased and opened the detailer’s Wheeling Island location in 2019.
Johnson has since hired managers and staffers — both Black and white. “I don’t work in the businesses. I’m here for support,” he said of maintaining his longer-term banking career.
It’s a lot on one man’s plate – especially as he feels a commitment to the Black community that spills over into partnering with nonprofits. “You see this gray hair?” he joked, pointing to his beard. “I’m exhausted.”
‘BUSINESS IS BUSINESS’
But, Johnson said he also continues to be inspired by the way business opens doors.
“I don’t see color in business. Business is business,” Johnson said, adding he considers Wheeling’s racial narrative is a more “even keeled” one than that of other cities.
“That’s one of the things I love about it,” he continued of business. “If the product is good, people are going to support it … We do a good job and they come.”
He noted there is an irony to who it is that comes, however.
“The only time race comes into play is with customers,” he said. “My culture (largely) can’t come here because they can’t afford it. They’re concerned about rent, utilities, food. … I don’t see a lot of people who look like me.”
Rideoutt, the clothing and beauty entrepreneur, does see a racial mix, but agrees that business operates in a standalone way.
“To say that you’ve been in business for 15 years – Black, white or purple – that’s a blessing,” Rideoutt said, noting she hopes more people of color will step out. “I think most Black people don’t give themselves the benefit of a doubt, but you can do anything.”