Standing in front of the 12-foot showcase windows with a history of offering everything from pharmaceuticals to bridal gowns and other goods as far back as the early 1900s, I can’t help but be amazed by life’s twists and turns. In only a few weeks, a Nigerian immigrant and an adopted son of the Appalachians will be opening an outdoor outfitter in the heart of one of Maryland’s most historic towns. I’m doing so in the hope of not just realizing the American dream for myself, but for all those who see themselves in me.
It’s regularly said that America runs on small businesses; according to JPMorgan Chase research, over 99 percent of America’s 28.7 million firms are small businesses. These operations not only provide an opportunity to earn a living, they also build and develop communities, and allow their creators to tell their individual stories. Most of the vibrant small towns around the country are made up of a variety of colors, ideas, races, and genres. That’s what makes them interesting.
My story is not terribly different from anyone who has a deep love for nature and understands the power of exploring the outdoors. It starts with my unscheduled encounter with the beauty of the western Appalachian Mountains in Cumberland, Maryland, while on what was supposed to be a short layover on my way up the corporate ladder. The intended destination was always a corner office with a view in the midst of concrete and glass skyscrapers. My story is of one who waded cautiously into the eddies of flat-water paddles, short hikes, and tow path bike rides, only to be sucked in by the escalating rapids of roaring whitewater runs, thrilling downhill mountain bike rides, earning turns in the backcountry skiing, and overnight solo backpacking trips. I was moved by the mountains, and among them is now where my heart feels most at home.
In these times of national self-evaluation, where race, equality, true happiness, and other values are being reassessed, I believe it may be time for people of color to reconsider the approach of asking for permission.
There has been so much discussion about promoting diversity in the outdoors, leading to many companies showing good-willed gestures like sponsoring local minority groups, shooting a few commercials or catalog covers with minority models, or hiring a person of color as a brand ambassador. But the people who will most likely do the most good are POC like myself. That is one of the driving reasons why I have decided to roll my sleeves up and throw my hat in the ring.
In 2019, while guiding on a bicycle tour from Staten Island to upstate New York, I noticed town after town featured shuttered doors and nostalgic signs of Americana, and similar scenes exist across Appalachia. I find poignant parallels between black representation in business and the region I now call home—so much potential but not enough opportunities. That’s why I have opened Wheelzup Adventures in western Maryland. I want to take an impactful step towards more inclusion in the outdoor industry, while also helping revitalize the region by bringing others into the mountains that mean so much to us.
Starting any type of business is no walk in the park, no matter your race or industry. Overall, 20 percent of all employer businesses in the United States were at least 51 percent owned by minority entrepreneurs, and that number is much less in smaller mountain towns. Securing funding for a small business has many hurdles; banks are most willing to lend to those who need it least, brands won’t approve you until you have funding and no one wants to fund you until you can show that you have brands. Everything moves so slowly with permits and licenses, until it starts moving too fast. All these are worthy challenges and hurdles worth overcoming for the potential rewards to us and our community.
Ultimately, the pandemic has challenged us all to look inward and figure out how to be our best selves. None of us are guaranteed the next day, so how do we make the best of today? I believe access to, knowledge of, and community in the outdoors are vital for everyone. I believe people of color like me need to find ways to assert ourselves in these spaces so we can tell our stories, so the next generation of kids understand that we do not need to ask permission to partake in the treasures left for us by our forebears. We need to try to teach the next generation how to be competent in the outdoors and how to make a livable wage from activities centered in and around the mountains we call home.