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Breaking New Ground as They Build Their Businesses

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In 1916, against great odds, Fletcher F. Armstrong and his wife, Maggie, opened F.F. Armstrong’s Haberdashery at the edge of downtown Youngstown. It was the first black-owned business of its kind in the city.

A century later, African-Americans in the Mahoning Valley are still breaking new ground.

From the owner of a barbershop to a businessman who is also a politician, the entrepreneurs in these pages represent the wide array of young black businessmen and women who work in Youngstown and beyond. Their stories are as varied as their businesses.

Ra’Cole Taltoan entered a field, public accounting, where few CPAs are women of color. Mike Gibson honed an interest in landscaping and horticulture to become one of the few blacks in the country to work as a topiary artist.

Jerome Franklin went from being a laid-off manufacturing worker to owning his own barber shop. Dee Michelle has set out to start her own community-focused publication and Julius Oliver left hustling to become a business owner and sit on Youngstown City Council.

Each is strengthening the black business community and helping to rebuild Youngstown.

Councilman Sets Example

Julius Oliver, a successful businessman who sits on Youngstown City Council, came close to ending up another victim of life on the streets on the South Side.

“I made the transition from the street to actually working,” Oliver says. “I always had a job, but I never really depended on my jobs for money.”

None of it came easy. After watching friends die young or go to prison, Oliver received his own wake-up call.

“Somebody tried to kill me,” he says matter-of-factly.

 

By 2003, he had gone legitimate after a stint in the Army Reserves and several jobs in manufacturing, where layoffs were the norm. That was when Oliver decided to start his own business.

“One of my buddies was watching me wash my car in my driveway,” Oliver relates, “and he said, ‘I’ve never seen your car dirty before. You should clean other people’s cars the way you clean yours.’ ”

Oliver took his advice. He began washing others’ cars in his driveway until he ran out of room, then in 2008 opened the first Kingly Hand Wash and Wax on Glenwood Avenue.

Today, he has two carwashes – one on South Avenue in Boardman, the other in downtown Youngstown. Oliver says he’s “on the cusp” of opening new stores.

Kingly offers everything from car washes by hand to interior and exterior detailing. It also has a valet service. Customers range from former Mayor Jay Williams to the incumbent, John McNally, Oliver says.

In 2015, Oliver was elected 1st Ward councilman. His focus is improving the quality of life of those who live on the South Side.

“The South Side has been held down by the same families since the ’70s, the ones that didn’t move out,” he says. “Those people deserve better than this.”

Oliver is mentoring two teenagers enrolled in the Choffin Career and Technical Center and wants his life experiences to be a model for inner city youth.

“I felt like, if I’ve made it, with my background and what I’ve been through,” he says, “that it’ll definitely encourage some other young people to go a different way.”

Numbers Work for Taltoan

The new movie “Hidden Figures” seeks to make better known the story of the black female mathematicians and engineers who played an important but little-known role in the 1960s in the American space program.

Black women who work with numbers in largely white-dominated fields are still making strides today – right here in Youngstown.

Ra’Cole Taltoan, owner of Rockbrook Business Services, is one of them. Working from an office in the Oak Hill Collaborative on Youngstown’s south side, she is fulfilling an ambition that dates back to high school.

“Because of the grades I got in math, my father figured he’d challenge me,” Taltoan recalls. “So he gave me a stack of papers one February and he told me I had until April 15th to figure them out. It was his income tax return.”

She quickly finished his return by March, surprising her father and sparking an interest in taxes and accounting.

“Once I got a concept of the laws and the rules, it was just adding and subtracting after that,” Taltoan says.

She went to work for H&R Block while she earned a baccalaureate in accounting from Wright State University in Dayton, near the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“Because of the area I lived in, I specialized in military taxes and small businesses. Those are my specialty areas,” she says.

Taltoan ran the H&R Block office on the Air Force base.

“I will say at the beginning that a lot of people didn’t take me seriously,” Taltoan says, “but I continued to do the work. I brought in extra clients, did the marketing and just improved myself in general.”

Since 2015, she’s operated Rockbrook Business Services out of the Oak Hill Collaborative, where she has also taught classes on bookkeeping and taxes.

Taltoan’s clients run the gamut from those in the creative arts to nonprofit organizations. Most of her clientele are minorities and helping them get a solid grounding in bookkeeping and understanding financial statements is one of her main goals.

“I want black people in Youngstown to be aware of their money, get their credit scores up and begin to buy assets and property,” she emphasizes.

Taltoan hopes to open another tax office in the Dayton area within the next five years, but she is also working on something much closer to home.

“One of the projects I’m working on with the Community of Faith Collaborative Union” she says, “is to bring a black-owned credit union to the downtown area in the next 12 months or so.”

Franklin Takes the Field

The spinning barber pole outside the Starting Lineup Barber and Beauty shop in the Realty Tower is reminiscent of a time when retail stores lined Federal Street in downtown Youngstown and the central business district boomed.

Owner Jerome Franklin sees some of those bygone days returning. “Youngstown is on its way back,” he says, “and we’re a part of it.”

A business owner more than 10 years, Franklin never envisioned himself owning a downtown barbershop.

After losing his job at Bliss Technologies Inc. in Newton Falls, he reinvented himself and graduated from Akron Barber College in 2001.

“A guy I went to church with told me that I should go to barber school,” Franklin recalls. “I took him up on his advice and now I’ve been doing this for 16 years.”

Franklin started at Ryan’s Chair on the south side of Youngstown before opening his own shop in 2006. But he always dreamed of moving downtown.

“I had my eye on this space for years,” Franklin says.

Today, the Starting Lineup employs 12 in the 1,600 square feet on the first floor of the Realty Building.

Coming from a background where he knew few businessmen, especially black businessmen, Franklin was his own guide on the path to becoming a business owner.

“A lot of things I really didn’t know,” he says. “I didn’t have a business background. I didn’t have people to look up to or talk about what I should do or expect.”

Beyond a $4,198 wastewater grant from the city, Franklin has financed his business on his own. Fear, he says, initially proved to be his biggest obstacle.

“You wonder if you have enough clients that will follow you when you go out on your own,” he says. “You wonder if you’re doing everything the right way, advertising the correct way.”

He must have because the customers he developed and nurtured followed his business downtown.

“Just look out the window,” he says as he points at the Stambaugh Building.

“You can see the DoubleTree [hotel] going up across the street. The amphitheater is going up. Now is the time that everything is coming together.”

Dee Michelle Launches Youngstown Sophisticate

Youngstown resident Dee Michelle is one of 14 women chosen last year to be part of the Women in Entrepreneurship program at the Youngstown Business Incubator. Her goal: Start a publication about local entrepreneurs and small-business owners.

“I always wanted to run my own business,” Michelle says, “but I never had the particular tools until the YBI helped me get them.”

Now she’s looking to give back to others in her shoes with the monthly publication The Youngstown Sophisticate, of which she is editor.

“We feature five to six articles a month on local entrepreneurs,” she says. “Our mission is to honor those who are giving their gifts, time and talent for the benefit of this community.”

When she was a child growing up on the East Side, Garland’s Bar-B-Que was one of the few black-owned businesses she knew about. Michelle sees that the number is growing.

“Minority-business development in the city is now something that is catching on,” she says, despite the higher hurdles minority enterprises face.

“Sustainability, especially in our minority business community, is very important right now,” Michelle says. “Access to capital funding is a real challenge, so you have to be really creative when it comes to funding your business.”

The Youngstown Sophisticate covers more than just the minority business community, she emphasizes.

“My publication is diverse across the board,” she declares. “We want to highlight all of our entrepreneurs, no matter what background or ethnicity.”

The Youngstown Sophisticate is looking to gain new readers by expanding its coverage of the Mahoning Valley.

“We are trying to branch out of our borders, so we are going to do a Warren Sophisticate,” she says. “There might be a Columbiana Sophisticate in the near future. Who knows? We’ll see what inspiration hits.”

Gibson Practices Topiary Art

Youngstown native Mike Gibson’s had no idea he was taking his first steps in preparing for his future career when he was a small child.

“My father was a self-taught artist,” Gibson says. “When I was 5, I’d sit in a room with a pen and a pad and he’d tell me to draw squares, circles and triangles. Over and over again.”

By the time Gibson turned seven, he was pruning the family bushes into perfect spheres. Now, years and several occupations later, he runs Gibson Works Property Art LLC in Youngstown.

“Property Artist” is how he refers to himself. And to Gibson, property art is the work of topiary.

“Topiary is the art of pruning and shaping trees and shrubs into any shape that you can think of,” he says.

After moving to Columbus, Gibson took the lessons he had learned selling door-to-door for AT&T and applied them to his lawn cutting business. He expanded into mulching before moving into topiary.

Discovering the work of nationally known topiary artist Pearl Fryar encouraged him to pursue topiary work full-time, he says. Gibson eventually traveled to Fryar’s home in South Carolina to meet him.

“I got there and showed him my work,” Gibson recalls, “and he told me that after over 40 years of doing topiary, I was the only African-American, other than himself, that he knew was doing this type of work.”

Since moving back to Ohio three years ago, Gibson’s work has popped up all over the Mahoning Valley and as far north as Shaker Heights.

Every project requires careful planning and vision, Gibson says.

“Sometimes I’ll go out a day ahead,” he says, “and stare at the project for 45 minutes – or maybe hours. You have to see how it grows. Every tree is different.”

Gibson wants his topiaries to be part of the revitalization of Youngstown: “I want my work on the corridors, all throughout downtown. I want Youngstown to be known for beautiful topiary.”

Pictured: Julius Oliver, a successful businessman who sits on Youngstown City Council.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.