Devin Robinson aka “Professor Devin” is an entrepreneur, business professor and author of eight self-help books. He was born and raised in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. He served two terms in the U.S. Army before leaving in 1998 to become a network engineer at MCI WorldCom. In 2004, after surviving a series of massive lay-offs, Robinson resigned from his position to become a full-time entrepreneur. Robinson has successfully opened and operated barbershops, beauty salons, and beauty supply stores. Robinson’s business background helped him to quickly become an expert in the beauty supply industry and led to the creation of The Beauty Supply Institute. Robinson has helped black entrepreneurs to open more than 80 black-owned beauty supply stores that have generated more than $13 million in revenue. Below is my in-depth interview with Professor Devin about the beauty business.
Phillips: What led you to create The Beauty Supply Institute?
Robinson: I owned a couple of beauty supply stores. It wasn’t until after I opened my stores that I learned about the intense competition in the beauty supply industry. I didn’t know how difficult it was for black people to own a beauty supply store. What led to the creation of The Beauty Supply Institute was when people began asking me for advice on how to open beauty supply stores. I wanted to help everyone who asked for help but as a full-time entrepreneur with a brick and mortar location and employees, it was hard for me to find time. I created The Beauty Supply Institute so that I could help people learn about the beauty supply industry without disrupting my own personal enterprises. I knew that I wouldn’t be very effective helping people in a casual or informal way so I decided to create a business that had materials and structure that could be very effective while helping other people at the same time.
Phillips: What is the Black Businesses Matters movement?
Robinson: We have black people who won’t do business with black-owned businesses because of a bad experience or poor service. A few negative experiences will cause some people to end all business dealings with all black-owned businesses. But you don’t hear white people saying they don’t do business with white-owned business because of a few bad experiences. White people aren’t ending future business dealings over small disputes.
After I created The Beauty Supply Institute, I began researching to gain a better understanding of this situation. Often times, black people have false stereotypes about black-owned businesses. On the flip side, we have some black-owned businesses that aren’t operating with high standards and they expect the black community to patronize their businesses because of our race. We shouldn’t support a black-owned business because it’s black-owned. We should support black businesses because they are giving us a level of quality that is comparable to non-black businesses.
When I began to look deeper at the issues with many black owned businesses, I concluded that many black owned businesses are not owned by very financially sophisticated people. We tend to go after entrepreneurship when we’ve been rejected or grown tired of the mainstream. Entrepreneurship is not the first option in our community. Some of us may peddle some items here and there but we don’t convert our part-time peddling into a full-time business. We talk about entrepreneurship and business but at the end of the day we are waking up every morning and working for someone else. We prefer the comfort of a job because it’s easier and more financially secure. It was disappointing to learn that our businesses aren’t being run by the most highly skilled black business people.
So my journey with Black Businesses Matter was to create an environment where black businesses received the required knowledge, education, and training so that the owners could run professional operations. In addition to a lack of information, there are three main problems that black entrepreneurs face: inadequate business funding, a challenge finding highly skilled workers, and high paying customers. The goal of Black Businesses Matter is to close the gaps of these three issues.
Phillips: You’ve said that “entrepreneurship is the 21st century Civil Rights movement.” How can entrepreneurship advance our civil rights?
Robinson: We are loyal to those who provide us with jobs. If we don’t control jobs, we don’t control loyalty. A person’s behaviour is based on the job they have or what they do professionally. A man goes to sleep early enough to get up to go to work the next day and he would think twice about committing domestic abuse or a crime because he doesn’t want lose his job. On a subconscious level, black people are loyal to those that we know provide us with the economic means. We are loyal to government and we look to government to solve a lot of our problems. We also look at whites as the people that should be respected and should be tolerated because they are the group of people who employ us and provide us with our economic means.
We experience various forms of racism (which in many cases the practice is immoral but not illegal) but people aren’t arrested for being racist unless it’s a deliberate act of discrimination that is specifically mentioned in a federal or state law. We are constantly fighting and going to government to help us with the practice of racism against blacks and we haven’t seen the government solve our problem. If we are able to take our economic means and create an environment where our people are self-sustaining, over time, what we are going to see is our group being treated as equals. Entrepreneurship is a clear path for our community to gain equal rights.
Phillips: What can people who are not entrepreneurs do to support Black Businesses Matters Movement?
Robinson: There are three things that people who are not entrepreneurs can do to support Black Business Matters:
1) Open an account with a Black-owned Bank or credit union. Black-owned banks are far more likely to fund black entrepreneurs.
2) Contribute your skills to a black company on a part-time basis.
3) Support black business with your dollars and by encouraging others to support black-owned business that provide a high level of service.