In 1994, apprentice chef Marcus Samuelsson arrived in the U.S. with $300 in his pocket. He’s since built a global restaurant empire that remains rooted in his adopted neighborhood of Harlem. During the early months of the pandemic, he turned his flagship restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem, into a community kitchen to keep his workers employed and first responders and the neediest fed.
The hospitality industry is tough even during good times, he says, with even the most successful restaurants enjoying only slim profit margins. And it’s been tougher on Black restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs of color, who often lack access to credit or generational wealth to see them through hard times.
“The term small business, sometimes I don’t feel it’s the right term,” Samuelsson says. “Because for that family, it’s their only business. It’s everything,” says Samuelsson, a Mastercard ambassador. “People are in hospitality for the love of people, for the love of expressing themselves, so it’s been a really difficult time.”
For the latest episode of “Mastercard Conversations,” CEO Michael Miebach sat down with Samuelsson over a plate of Red Rooster’s iconic cornbread to discuss the challenges small businesses continue to face, ways to bring more financial tools to minority business owners, and the entrepreneurial spirit that the pandemic couldn’t snuff out. Miebach pointed to a recent report from the Mastercard Economic Institute that showed one-third more small retailers launched in 2020 than 2019, nearly eight times the number of larger firms created.
“There’s agility, there’s innovation,” Miebach says. “What the tech industry can do … is put technology to work for good.”