Sean Hollins knows all too well the challenges of being a Black business owner – the search for funding, the wealth disparities, the lack of access to materials at a fair market rate.
“Some of those challenges are still in front of me, but funding was the biggest,” he said.
Hollins, a graphic designer, bought RJ’s Printing in Kalamazoo in February. He’d first worked with former owner Ralph Jones in 1995, helping Jones move into the computer era. They’d kept in touch throughout the years and, in 2019, Jones mentioned he wanted to retire soon and would Sean like to buy the business?
“So that’s how that ball got rolling,” Hollins said. But the ball needed some pushing.
Hollins started with the SCORE chapter at Western Michigan University, who helped him get his story out through the Kalamazoo Capital Consortium, a group of nonprofit and for-profit commercial lenders. At least three lenders, including Venard Roberson, Northern Initiatives commercial lender, jumped on it. Northern Initiatives then partnered with Rende Progress Capital, a CDFI with a mission to help excluded entrepreneurs, on a loan. LISC Kalamazoo, a community development organization, also loaned Hollins some money. He got a $25,000 grant from the City of Kalamazoo. The “final piece of the puzzle” came from the United Way of South Central Michigan, using its Kalamazoo Business Loan Fund, intended for reducing disparities in communities of color.
Hollins is grateful for the support, and appreciates the big picture. “What owning a business is going to help do is close that wealth gap,” he said. “The two best areas of upward mobility are home ownership and business ownership. Now the capacity of what I can make is literally up to me. Instead of sitting at the table eating someone else’s meal, I’m able to prepare the meal.”
“We were pretty excited about Sean buying this business,” said Roberson. “The funders who came together to make it a reality shows the community is supportive too.”
“When we were able to go with Northern Initiatives and they started walking me through the process, it was huge. It was during Covid. I was like, ‘I’m buying a business during Covid? How do you do that?” he smiled.
RJ’s Printing has four employees, not including Sean and his mother, who helps accounting, as she did at his previous businesses. His philosophy as a business owner comes from years of experience as both a manager and an employee: Treat people how you wish to be treated.
“I think it’s important when you’re building a team that everyone feels part of that team, everyone is contributing to the team, and it’s not about an individual winning, it’s about the team winning,” he said. He likes the philosophy of a former employer: Run it like you own it.
“If you have a global hospitality mindset, everybody feels important when they come here,” he said. “We’re making sure our customer service is five star.”
He also sees no need for competition with his fellow printers in what has long been known as “The Paper City.” He’s partnered with them for years through his graphic design business, plus a publishing company, Season Press Publishing, he and his wife Sonya own. “There’s enough work out here for all the printers. I don’t need to take something off someone else’s plate to be successful,” he said.
He’s looking forward to getting involved in the Kalamazoo Promise’s Higher Promise program, which matches interns with business partners. “It’s a win-win on both ends,” he said. “They can help us with their new and innovative ideas and we can teach them business practices and standards.”