By Karen Axelton

photo blackPhoto (c) Chris Strong for University of Chicago Magazine

Many years ago I was visiting a friend in San Francisco when I got a flat tire. My friend took me and my car to a local auto repair shop that was women-owned and staffed entirely by female mechanics. I was literally in awe that such a thing could exist. How did my friend know about it? From a “Yellow Pages”-like directory of women-owned businesses. The concept behind the book was to make it easy for women to support women-owned businesses.

I thought this was a great idea and thought about it again last year when I first heard about The Empowerment Experiment (then called the Ebony Experiment). Maggie Anderson (at right) and her husband John launched the project in 2009 when the couple, both upscale black professionals, realized that although they were spending a lot of money, they weren’t spending much of it with black-owned businesses. So they vowed that for one year they would only buy products and services from black-owned businesses. The University of Chicago Magazine recently reported on the results of the couple’s journey, and it’s a fascinating story.

The goal of the Empowerment Experiment was to make a statement primarily to black consumers urging them to support black-owned businesses. Specifically, Anderson targeted the some 2.5 million black households with incomes of $100,000 and up. But the task proved more difficult than the Andersons had anticipated. They ran up against perceptions that black-owned businesses are “second-rate”; some companies that were black-owned didn’t want the fact publicized, out of fear it would hurt their business. (The couple enthusiastically blogged about one upscale black-owned grocery store, only to see it go out of business; the owner blamed the publicity.)

The couple also found that there were even fewer businesses to choose from than they had expected. Many businesses they had long assumed were black-owned actually were not. To get through the year, they had to adjust their rules a bit, buying from majority black-owned companies and sometimes from Hispanic-owned companies.

Anderson chronicled the full experiment on her blog,  and is currently shopping for a book deal. With the year of buying black over, her goal for 2010 is to spread her message even further and raise awareness of the need to support black-owned business and empower black ownership of businesses that are fixtures in the black community.

Do you go out of your way to support businesses that you think are relevant? I know I make a concerted effort to buy from small companies, but I have to admit that since that flat tire,  I haven’t thought about whether or not they’re women-owned. Maybe it’s time to change.