Since 2014, more than 7,000 people of color have moved away from Pittsburgh. Many who’ve left cited “lack of opportunity” as a key reason.
Summit Drive resident Art Robinson, founder of start-up BLK DYMND Rewards, a shopping rewards application scheduled to launch in September, sees opportunity instead.
Robinson, who moved to Mt. Lebanon four years ago from Madison, Wisconsin, aims to help Black entrepreneurs find more customers for their products and services through his app.
As a successful finance professional, Robinson had long harbored a desire to help Black-owned businesses compete against better-financed competitors. He published a directory of Black-owned businesses while still living in Madison. But after moving to Pittsburgh, the idea went in another direction.
“I noticed that my wife would buy things and get rewards from the credit card company. She’d use those rewards to buy other products,” recalled Robinson. “I wanted to know how that model worked, so I analyzed rewards companies like Rakuten, Fetch Rewards, and others. I noticed their list of merchants didn’t include many Black-owned businesses.”
Which meant there were hundreds of thousands of Black-owned businesses not represented on these rewards platforms. And an opportunity for Robinson to address that disparity. “That’s the idea for BLK DYMND Rewards—a way to highlight Black-owned businesses and incentivize people to buy from them, whether they physically go into a store or buy online.”
While Robinson has a team handling the technical aspects of app development, he remains responsible for sales, marketing, content, and probably his biggest challenge—finance. “Black-owned businesses have historically had access to only 1 percent of the venture capital in the world,” Robinson said. “That’s an obstacle. Outside capital will be necessary to scale this to a national business.”
Still, Robinson retains his contagious enthusiasm. “I think this can be scalable to a billion-dollar business because the market opportunity is massive.”
How massive? The Selig Center for Economic Growth indicates Black consumers wielded $1.6 trillion in spending power in 2021, while Black-owned businesses only generated some $200 billion in revenue.
“That’s a $1.4 trillion spread,” Robinson said with a smile. “Just from that target group, BLK DYMND Rewards can really grow.”
But can he do it in Pittsburgh, which ranks in the bottom 10 percent of U.S. metros for Black-owned businesses? Only 1 percent of businesses in Pittsburgh are Black-owned, while the national average is 2.4 percent.
“I knew nothing about Mt. Lebanon before we moved here. But I’d heard about the outward migration of Blacks from Pittsburgh after I got here,” recalled Robinson. “And I learned that Pittsburgh ranked low for Black-owned businesses.”
Robinson prefers to concentrate on the positives. “We looked at three things before moving here. I worked downtown so being near the T was very important. We wanted a small city feel. Here in Uptown and over on Beverly we can walk to lots of shops and restaurants. And the third was the school district. With five children in school, good education was extremely important. Mt. Lebanon offered that. I love my neighborhood.”
All of which reflects on Robinson’s philosophy for attracting, encouraging and retaining aspiring minority entrepreneurs. “People want to work. They want to build things. They want to take care of their families. They want to live in safe neighborhoods,” he notes. “When you invest in the community, and make sure people have opportunity and a safe place to live, they’ll want to stay. And I believe BLK DYMND Rewards can help with that by helping Black entrepreneurs grow their businesses.”