Not quite colorblind: Loudoun’s black business people face difficulties, triumphs

Her accolades include enterprising woman of the year and top minority business leader. But as recently as the 1990s, Wanda Alexander didn’t feel like she could be taken seriously in certain circles of Loudoun’s business world.

Although Alexander considers herself a “successful, easygoing woman that has something to say,” she admits that it made a difference if her white male business partner accompanied her to meetings in the 1990s – “especially with financing,” she said.

Alexander is president and chief executive officer of Horizon Consulting Inc. in Leesburg. She purchased a majority interest in Horizon in 1995 for $20,000. By 2002, the company landed the ranking of No. 312 on the Inc. 500 list and was operating in five states. Alexander also happens to be one of the county’s few black business owners.

“I don’t know people would say, ‘Oh, Wanda is a black woman.’ I think they would describe me in different ways,” she said. “I think the way I’m seen in the community is as a very dynamic, outgoing servant leader.”

Pigeon-holed

Miamah Karmo, owner of the Tigerlily Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports women with breast cancer, often finds herself pigeonholed when people applaud her for starting a “black breast cancer organization.”

Karmo said she looks at things as not having barriers or labels because that automatically sets boundaries. She said she’s not defined by her color – she creates her success neither because of it nor in spite of it.

“When I’m looking at the business environment and the community and my involvement, I don’t see color,” she said.

Before starting the foundation, Karmo worked in government contracting and consulting. She said she felt some people judged her. One coworker thought he was paying her a compliment by telling her that she “carried [her]self differently than other black women.”

“I was shocked that someone had the audacity to say that,” she said. “I don’t really look at myself as being a black woman, I look at myself as being a woman. That’s my first caveat.”

‘Good ole boys’

Purcellville retiree Reggie Simms, 76, worked in the graphics department at the Metro for 20 years before retiring in 2001.

“We were called colored people back then,” he said.

Simms started taking art classes at young age, and continued taking them after returning from war. He landed a job at a grocery store in New Jersey where he eventually designed layouts for window signs.

In the mid-1970s, Simms got married and returned to Loudoun. A few years later, he answered an employment advertisement with Metro and was hired to redesign all the bus signs in the system.

Simms chafed under his boss, who refused to incorporate Simms’ suggestions on streamlining the design process. Eventually, he noticed that one of his coworker’s sons was being trained in a back room to replace Simms in what he called the “good ole boy network.”

“I was ready to quit,” he said.

Simms had been in the art field for more than two decades, yet a man with no printing experience was being promoted above him, he said. But instead of quitting, he took a friend’s advice and transferred to the Metro’s train division. He stayed there until he retired.

Looking ahead

Alexander relocated her business from Fairfax County to Loudoun in 2003. She still only knows of a handful of black business people in the community, despite serving on numerous boards, including the Loudoun CEO Cabinet.

“I would like to see many more business owners, and of course, I would like to see African-Americans contributing to Loudoun and to Virginia. And that’s the bottom line,” she said.

Simms isn’t as optimistic. He said that what happened to him still occurs.

“It’s still like that, but it’s not as blatant as it was,” he said. “But racism will exist until the end of time.”

Contact the writer at hhager@timespapers.com.

This article was first published by Hannah Hager on LoudounTimes.com.

 

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