California Forum

Millennials of color are reinventing small business. Now let’s invest in them

For Isaiah “Zay the Barber” Ford, far right, and The Rich Barber proprietor Chuka Torres, cutting a customer’s hair at far left, their business is as much an incubator as a barbershop.
For Isaiah “Zay the Barber” Ford, far right, and The Rich Barber proprietor Chuka Torres, cutting a customer’s hair at far left, their business is as much an incubator as a barbershop.

As a financial services executive, there is a place I go to witness innovative entrepreneurial leadership: The Rich Barber Hair Studio on J Street, near the corner of 25th Street.

There, over the buzz of razors, I listen to Chuka Torres, 33, the dynamic barbershop founder who brands himself “The Rich Barber” as he snips good-looking cuts while eloquently describing how he leverages his 110,000 Instagram, Facebook and YouTube followers and new patents to build a growing national grooming empire.

Listening to young women and men brainstorm, the Rich Barber Hair Studio often seems more like a business incubator than a barbershop.

One barber, Antione Dunn, “Dunn the Barber,” has created a line of Dunn’s Butter B Canned Smooth Hair Pomade; another barber, Isaiah Ford, or “Zay the Barber,” 19, has invested his earnings into a real estate portfolio; and Torres has launched an online store where he sells patented inventions such as the “Rich Barber 1 Minute Blade Modifier,” which has sold more than 10,000 units worldwide since May.

As our nation’s leaders overhaul the tax code and implement sweeping economic changes, they would be well-served to invest in innovative entrepreneurs, especially in communities of color such as South Sacramento, Del Paso Heights and Oak Park. Torres and other entrepreneurs are earning liveable wages, and other small businesses are creating quality jobs.

Small businesses are the economic engine for our local and national economies, accounting for 64 percent of net new jobs between 1993 and 2011. And innovative ways to invest in them are already out there.

For instance, the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, which is mandated by Congress to expand homeownership and support community economic development, has launched a $100 million donor-advised fund to create and expand good jobs in California, Arizona and Nevada. The Quality Jobs Fund, run by the New World Foundation, directs funds to companies and organizations that provide access to capital for small businesses that want to expand and create good jobs. The fund also directs capital to job training organizations that help prepare residents of underserved communities for higher paying employment.

The Central Valley Fund of Davis has received $5 million in Quality Jobs funding; the CVF, in turn, will use the money to finance growth, acquisitions, ownership transitions and recapitalizations of small- and medium-sized businesses in the area.

Access to capital is frequently a barrier for young entrepreneurs like Torres. But addressing that obstacle can help whole regions achieve the American Dream.

In the 1970s, our parents put food on the table in South Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood with paychecks from big-name employers such as the California state government, Campbell’s Soup, Aerojet (before it became Aerojet Rocketdyne), Procter & Gamble and one of the three local military bases. There was a clear pathway to middle-class prosperity.

Since my childhood, the McClellan Air Force Base, Campbell’s Soup, and Proctor & Gamble have all shut down in Sacramento. Many South Sacramento retailers we frequented as kids have struggled or shuttered their stores. Nationwide, the unemployment rate sits at 4.1 percent, but it is much higher in rural and urban communities, especially for black and Hispanic males. For The Rich Barber’s generation, underinvestment, globalization and technology have put a lid on the aspirations of too many young people, amid growing recognition of social injustice.

Torres, a fellow in Nehemiah Emerging Leaders Program, which I led in 2012, and other young people of color are often invisible to the Washington policymakers. Yet, with training, mentoring and investment, these millennials are creating jobs and restoring vitality, and not just in the Sacramento region. They are making their legacy and, with the right support, others can, too.

Scott Syphax is president and chief executive officer of Syphax Strategic Solutions in Sacramento, former CEO of the Nehemiah Companies and a board member of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco. Reach him at or @ScottCSyphax.