How a Minority Business Owner Found Success During a Pandemic

15 mins read

Columbia, SC – Darrin Thomas started South Carolina Black Pages 29 years ago. Over the years, the annual publication became the go-to source to find and support Black and minority-owned businesses; everything from restaurants to physicians, lawyers, financial services, and beyond could be found within Black Pages.

During the growth and expansion of Black Pages, it spawned Black Expo, an annual economic empowerment summit that takes place in Columbia, Charleston, Greenville, and Jacksonville, Florida. But as technology advanced and print publications became less prominent, it became clear that a decision had to be made.

A Time to Change

“After 29 years, Black Pages has closed its operations. It no longer exists,” Thomas says, with a palpable hesitation, as if admitting it for publication makes it real.

At the end of 2019, Thomas could no longer deny that the print industry had taken such a turn that publishing the directory no longer made business sense. The cost to go fully digital would take more of a commitment and vigor than Thomas was willing to dedicate. So, he made the tough decision to cease operations.

“I went away for a weekend and thought and prayed. By the time I returned home, the decision had been made. It was clear in my head.”

Thomas’ path forward was to no longer publish Black Pages. He would, however, continue with Black Expo and Greek Traditions, an eCommerce business that provides paraphernalia to the nine Black Greek-letter organizations within the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC).

“I saw my greatest opportunity as the business I started in 1988 as my side hustle. This was clearly a case where my side hustle had become my dominant opportunity,” Thomas says.

Thomas had worked hard establishing Greek Traditions over the years, building solid relationships and goodwill. He started realizing great success before making the decision to discontinue Black Pages. In fact, it was a Greek Traditions opportunity that brought Thomas face to face with the coronavirus pandemic, its damage, and opportunities.

In February 2020, Thomas had a contract with an NPHC sorority. He was to supply them with paraphernalia for their national legislative day in Washington, DC. When it was nearing time for the order to be delivered, his suppliers in China made him aware that they were not able to do so because of the novel coronavirus. He thought, Coronavirus? What is this? What’s going on here?

Thomas lost that deal with the sorority because everything coming from China had been halted as the supply chain and logistics had been frozen. He soon would have to cancel the Charleston Black Expo because the same virus would eventually make its way to the United States.

A Time to Grow

Over the years, Thomas had become such a force in the Greek paraphernalia industry that officials from Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, the organization to which he belonged, approached him with the concept of the Alpha Ice Box. The monthly subscription box would contain custom-made fraternity paraphernalia and gear, unavailable anywhere else. Thinking that was an interesting opportunity, Thomas started playing with numbers to see what a deal would look like. When he was satisfied that he could yield a modest profit from each sale, he signed the contract, thus starting a new entity to operate his subscription box business.

“When I started the subscription service, my goal was to have a thousand subscribers by the end of the year. But when COVID hit and people had to quarantine, we exceeded that goal within a few months. We started with 400 subscribers when we launched in June. Now, we are at more than 2100 subscribers.”

Thomas passed his goal by making sure that the first box launched with great fanfare. He included gear that was made especially for the organization and packed the box with gifts valued at four times the subscription price. When social media influencers opened their Ice Box live online, they were blown away by the contents, and other members rushed to subscribe.

The success of the Alpha Ice Box took Thomas by surprise. He had planned for his staff to assemble the boxes in his office and ship them monthly. When the orders increased beyond his management, he partnered with Babcock Center, which empowers people with lifelong disabilities by providing employment opportunities and independent living and life skills. Participants of the Babcock Center program began assembling the boxes monthly.  

“That is perhaps the best part of this story,” Thomas says. Through this operation, we’ve been able to help about 10 of our neighbors with disabilities earn money and utilize their skills. They are truly providing a valuable service for us.”

A Time to Pivot

In March, Thomas finally canceled the Charleston Black Expo, one day before it was to occur. It became clear that COVID-19 was too much of a risk to continue the event. Around that same time, Thomas’s suppliers in China began contacting him offering to supply him with masks. He declined, not yet recognizing their demand and importance. 

It wasn’t until Diane Sumpter, operator of South Carolina MBDA Business Center, reached out to him seeking minority manufactures in the state. He gave her the information she requested and asked why. When she mentioned the need to produce masks for local municipalities and other entities, he remembered the offer from his Chinese suppliers.

To gauge the need, Thomas reached out to a local hospital official. I asked, “If I can get N95 masks, how many would you need? He said, ‘all you can get’. I said, 5000? He said, “ALL YOU CAN GET!”

That demonstrated the desperate need for the masks, so Thomas reconnected with his suppliers in China and began working to import masks.

While Thomas was able to get the masks, the supply chain had been disrupted and everything coming from China was being delayed, especially items flying on commercial airplanes. Thomas was able to get through customs because he had been using FedEx and UPS international logistics for years. He knew many of the station managers in regions in China; therefore, he was accustomed to getting products through customs. As a result, Thomas was able to skirt the commercial plane logistical breakdown and have products delivered while others stalled.

Adjusting to the new COVID-19 logistics was not without its problems. Thomas has had his products confiscated by US Customs to make sure they met CDC or FDA guidelines. “So, it was very much a learning process for me,” he says.

After a few successful PPE deliveries, Thomas was thrust into the supply business. As word traveled about this access, he used his newly established company, GT Supply, to begin supplying PPE to municipalities, hospitals, and school districts across the state. He supplied hundreds of thousands of masks to the City of Charleston, City of Columbia, and City of Spartanburg. He offered masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and thermometers. When schools began using partitions to separate student desks, he located and supplied 50,000 clips to Richland County School District One to hold the plastic partitions in place. 

Expanding his company beyond SC borders, Thomas answered a bid for the State of Ohio to supply PPE. His status as a minority-owned firm was advantageous to Ohio, but they required the masks be produced in the state. Thomas worked with an Ohio partner to find a company that could manufacture the masks. Thomas purchased the masks from the company and sold them to Ohio. Originally, the bid was for four million masks. It later grew to 13 million reusable masks that GT Supply delivered within several months.

A Time to VOTE

As the Alpha Ice Box subscription service grew, so did the Greek Traditions website. During the quarantine, consumers were not able to leave home, but they were still able to shop. As Greek organizations began looking for ways to engage their members in voting, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity again approached Thomas about creating a special VOTE shirt. Thomas worked with his embroiderer to create a high-quality VOTE shirt in each of the nine NPHC Greek organization’s colors. In place of the ‘O’ in ‘VOTE’, he added the organization’s seal. The shirt proved to be a hit as the presidential election season took off and many organizations launched voter registration and Get Out the Vote efforts.

Using the same concept, Thomas also made a VOTE t-shirt in honor of his mother-in-law, a South Carolina State University graduate, who had worked the polls for many years. When U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn was photographed in one of the shirts, the VOTE t-shirts took on a life of their own. Thomas developed the VOTE Collection representing 50 HBCUs and the nine NPHC organizations. From June to Voting Day, Greek Traditions sold more than 3,500 VOTE shirts.

A Time to Bless and Be Blessed

To what does Thomas owe his good fortune? He emphatically says, “Hard work, years of dedication, establishing and nurturing relationships, and ultimately, sowing good seed.”

For example, when there was a PPE shortage, he posted in a Facebook group of about 12,000 Alphas to inbox him if they needed masks. He ended up shipping about 5,000 masks to members and their families.

“I got my son and some other students to spend the day putting 10 masks in brown envelopes and mailing them to brothers all over the country. We even shipped to their elderly parents who couldn’t get masks. The national president called me thanking me for being my brother’s keeper. That meant to world to me.”

Thomas said he had no expectations of this effort; it was 100 percent pure of heart. “I had masks, and I wanted to share them.” Later, many of his Alpha brothers became customers by ordering the Ice Box. Thomas states again, “That was not my intention. But the goodwill came back me many times over.”

A Time to Hope and Plan

Darrin Thomas has had a whirlwind of a year. He ended Black Pages after 29 years and started GT Supply in about 29 days. For him, COVID-19 opened far more doors than it closed. But he knows, with the grace of God and the impending vaccines, COVID-19, as we know it today, will come to an end.

“We hope to put COVID-19 behind us and pick back up with Black Expo,” he says.

He hopes to bring it back in Spring 2021. However, after surveying his exhibitors and sponsors, he realizes that only a few would be ready in March. Also, the City of Charleston says they should plan on only 30 percent capacity. So, he hasn’t decided whether to move forward or postpone Black Expo again. But he fully anticipates being able to resume it sometime in the future.

Regarding GT Supplies, he will supply PPE as long as it is in demand. He eventually will begin sourcing other products for customers, maintaining the relationships he established and nurtured through the pandemic.

For Alpha Ice Box, it is in its infancy and is an opportunity ripe with potential. But overall, Thomas says he will continue to follow his heart, put his faith front and center, and sow good seed.

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