Progress, not perfection as landscape improves for black-owned businesses

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(WJHL) – Jerry Machen had doors nearly slammed in his face in the 1970s so that Tyrone Mitchell wouldn’t have to endure the same in the 2010s. Two black business owners from two eras took time to share different their experiences, but the same positive attitude.

Not far removed from segregated Douglas High School in Elizabethton, a young Jerry Machen found himself sent to lay carpet in unfamiliar territory.

“I would go into places in the hills of Erwin, Tennessee, that a person of color was afraid to even set foot,” Machen, 75, recalls. “But I knew I had a family and I knew I had to work, so I went in with a positive attitude and a smile on my face and just asked, ‘let me show you what I can do.'”

Jerry Machen works on a project at his Kingsport-based business, Agape Carpet & Rug.

Machen, who eventually found his niche in custom carpet creation and high-end carpet repair, even had a door nearly slammed in his face in Fort Blackmore, Va. Even then, though, he operated by the motto “your attitude is your altitude.”

“They started to slam the door and I stuck my foot in and I just asked them, ‘please, just give me a chance.’ So I did it, they loved it.”

The family tried to feed Machen dinner, and recommended him to a bunch of their friends and relations. “I was over there for about two or three months, they were buying carpet left and right,” Machen said, laughing.

The challenges haven’t been as overt for Tyrone Mitchell. The Bristol, Va. native established his own contracting company, Technically Aesthetic, several years ago in Johnson City after more than a decade working in the construction industry.

Mitchell had paid his dues and he didn’t face some of the overt discrimination Machen did. But unlike many in his field, he hadn’t grown up with family in the business.

Tyrone Mitchell

“I think the biggest obstacle for minority-owned businesses has been history,” Mitchell said. A generation before his (he’s in his early 30s), numerous factors made it harder for African-Americans than for white Americans to own and operate their own businesses, Mitchell said.

Those included difficulty accessing capital, lack of the type of social networks needed, and other overt and quieter forms of discrimination.

“You can be a (white) business owner, but it’s already established and you’ve already thrown into that, whereas I think for minority-owned business you usually have to start from the ground up,” Mitchell said.

Taking the entrepreneurial plunge

Machen had worked in the carpet industry for years when he struck out on his own in the early 1970s. For unknown reasons, he had saved all sorts of rug and carpet scraps.

“I had a rental house full of carpets with people’s names labeled on them,” Machen said. “So my wife said, ‘these have gotta go.'”

Machen happened to be installing at a furniture store when he saw a photo in a magazine and told the owner, “I can do this in carpet — I can make a rug out of this. He said ‘you can’t do that. Nobody can do that.'”

But Machen could, and he did, hand-sewing the design on his kitchen floor. “I took it back and showed it to him, and I still have it today.”

A custom Jerry Machen creation.

A business was born in that moment, but Machen had a lot to learn about the fundamentals. He remembers shipping several rugs to Chicago in the early ’70s via Greyhound bus.

“We had maybe a half dozen to send,” Machen said. “That’s when I had to learn to put them on a truck because the guy that bought them called me and said, ‘you just don’t know how far the bus station is from where I live, and you don’t ship a product on a bus.’ It was a learning experience.”

Today, Machen keeps as busy as he wants to. He repairs rugs that are worth up to $25,000 each, installs his custom designs in high-end homes around the Southeast, and provides his services to large retailers when they need custom work.

All those clients have learned the truth of his saying, “if you can think it, we can design it.”

For his part, Mitchell remembers Terry Smith, one of his football coaches at Virginia High in Bristol, instilling in him the kind of discipline and motivation required to be an entrepreneur. An uncle who was a framing contractor helped him get a summer carpentry job right out of high school.

Kevin Garrett, the owner of Sideall Construction, took a liking to young Mitchell and kept him on summers while he went to East Tennessee State University. Work dried up in the 2008 recession, but Mitchell spent three more years at Home Depot where he learned more about the business.

He followed that up with a stint as an estimator and field superintendent for a home improvement company starting in 2011. But he always wanted to strike out on his own.

A mid-century modern kitchen renovation in Erwin.

“I just quit one day,” Mitchell said. “My wife was shocked and kind of nervous, but I already had my plan put together on what I wanted — I had the vision for the company in general.”

Mitchell took out a home equity loan, bought a truck for $10,000 and began the slow process of building the business. He started with small jobs, but as Technically Aesthetic’s reputation grew, larger jobs trickled in.

Now the company has three additional employees who oversee projects as large as custom homes and commercial jobs. Technically Aesthetic’s revenues tripled in a year to seven-digit territory in 2018 and kept above that mark last year.

Progress, with work still to do

“It’s 2020, so it’s not as hard for a minority-owned business to begin and to succeed,” Mitchell said. “My two boys, my plan is to leave them with something that they can build on. They’ll have that opportunity, whereas I didn’t have that opportunity and previous generations didn’t have that same opportunity.”

Nonetheless, Mitchell said, “I can’t say (race) is not a factor, but it’s more of a factor I choose to ignore if it is there.”

Mitchell said though he can’t point to anything blatant, “I think any person of color can testify that there’s a vibe that you can get from people that really leads you to believe that they’re uncomfortable dealing with you.

“Especially as a black-owned business I feel like I have to act a certain way, because if I don’t I’ll be perceived a certain way.”

Machen said though he experienced almost know overt prejudice even as a child in Elizabethton, “even in this day and time, it’s still there.” Now nearing the twilight of his career, Machen said he takes the approach embodied in the name of his business: Agape Carpet & Rug Specialist.

“If we all pull together and just be who you are, and be who you are in Christ — that’s what agape means, the name of my company is God’s unconditional love — and that’s the gist of everything.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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