3 Black entrepreneurs share their stories and tips on how to thrive in the historic city

Black entrepreneurs are vital to the city of Memphis. The city is overflowing with Black talent and their impact is making the area the new hotspot for innovative creators. From the people to the legacy to the culture, the “Memphis is continuously proving why it reigns supreme in the entrepreneurial arena.

The southern city is home to Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, world-class institutions and it is the largest logistics hub in the country. With Black residents accounting for 63 percent of the city’s population, there’s no better time for Black creators and entrepreneurs to shape Memphis’ identity as a global brand for generations to come. 

Entrepreneurs like Madeline Lyles and Dana Taylor, founders of After Life Mortuary Services and Darrell Cobbins, founder of Universal Commercial Real Estate are prime examples of why Memphis is the perfect place for Black business owners to call the city home.

Lyles and Taylor founded their funeral home company in October 2018 and it’s the first funeral home in the city’s history established, owned and operated by women. The duo provides services to families at affordable costs by performing all of the tasks needed for funeral services. They make body removals, embalm, dress and restore decedents to natural and peaceful appearances. They also meet with the families, direct the funerals, and offer additional assistance needed to provide prompt and professional services to the public. 

Cobbins established his commercial real estate brokerage firm in 2007 and provides transaction management and brokerage services for corporate, small business, nonprofit, and government clients. The transactions include lease, purchase, or sell of property. Property types range from  office, industrial, retail, medical, land and more.

The founders spoke with AfroTech about how they were able to create successful businesses in Memphis and how they plan to utilize their entrepreneurial endeavors as a path to attain generational wealth. 

This interview has been condensed, rearranged and edited for clarity. 

AfroTech: How has Memphis influenced you as an entrepreneur?

Cobbins: Memphis has a long legacy of entrepreneurs from Clarence Saunders who founded the first full service grocery store in the U.S. called Piggly Wiggly, to Kemmons Wilson who modernized a new standard for lodging with Holiday Inn, to Fred Smith who founded FedEx and changed the delivery/shipping industry, and the Walker family who established Universal Life Insurance Company and Tri-State Bank, which has spanned almost eight decades as a driving force in the Black economy of Memphis. Memphis also has had tremendous music industry entrepreneurs from the founders of STAX Records, Hi Records, and Sun Records of old to artists today like Three-Six Mafia, Yo Gotti and others, our local ingenuity put Memphis music on the worldmap.

My most direct influence was my late maternal grandfather, Samuel Peace, Sr., who founded Peace Realty in 1959 and developed Memphis’ first middle income subdivision for African-Americans in the 1960’s called Lakeview Gardens. His company lasted for almost 50 years. Seeing him work six days a week supporting a couple of generations of family from his 2,000 sq. ft. office located across the street from his home, was a daily reminder of what entrepreneurship is truly about to me.  [The reminder] is getting up every morning, suiting up for the game, and leaving your best effort out on the field each and every day in service to your clients and family. Also, my maternal grandmother’s family was made up of florists and my great uncle, Raymond Lynom, had a floral business in downtown Memphis for 40 years.

Taylor: Memphis has been an influencer of entrepreneurship for us in the essence of determination and innovation. Memphis is a unique city, because of the history that’s been established here. Also, because of the mentality that’s rooted here,Memphis is a city of grinding, persevering, and steadfastness. It’s a city full of talents and visions, that have to be fought for and dedicated to, to bring them to fruition! Memphis is a city of entrepreneurship, creativity and hustle, and above all, Black History. It’s truly a blessing to also be an actual part of Black History from this city! With that, we’ve had barriers to cross, glass ceilings to break, stereotypes to prove wrong and challenges you couldn’t imagine. Entrepreneurship is a calling that many have but without determination, trust in the Lord, and thick skin, it will take you under!  Being a pillar of any business or movement is a highly demanding position that requires strength to uphold that which you’ve created. Growing up and learning of the pillars of Memphis, (the civil rights activists and the corporation creators) and the leaders in this city is so inspiring and provoking to an entrepreneur. So many historical events have taken place here – began here, and so many historical icons started out here. So we’ve adopted the same spirit of excellence and stride for the city of Memphis by being first generation funeral home owners, and creating history here in so many ways ourselves. Memphis doesn’t just give you influence for entrepreneurship. Memphis makes you develop a certain grace for the task. 

Photo Credit: Madeline Lyles and Dana Taylor

AfroTech: What makes Memphis the ideal place to start a business?

Lyles: Memphis is an ideal place to start a business because of the culture here. It’s a city that accepts and cultivates what will be beneficial to its people now, and in the future. The history of a business is established and celebrated here in Memphis. While some hardships or challenges may come, Memphis’ people still know the importance of supporting businesses, and they do it well.

Cobbins: Memphis is both a big city and a small town. It is one of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., while simultaneously being a city where one degree of separation is the order of the day. You can most likely get to whoever you need to and if you don’t know them, someone you know does. That type of accessibility is rare and for an entrepreneur it is like gold. This dynamic allows you to build relationships that can grow your business.

Memphis also has a very low cost of living, which allows an entrepreneur to invest more capital back into their business versus having high overhead with regard to personal expenses. Memphis is often lauded as one of the most affordable cities in the U.S.  Finally, the Memphis economy is never red hot and it’s never ice cold.  When the rest of the nation is experiencing extreme high/low swings economically, Memphis’ economy just paces along with a steady somewhat predictable pace. So much about entrepreneurship early on is surviving until you can hit your stride. Memphis is a great place to start and grow a business from the ground up.

Photo Credit: Madeline Lyles and Dana Taylor

AfroTech: What are your thoughts on how entrepreneurship is a path to generational wealth?

Lyles: I believe that entrepreneurship is a great path that can be created towards generational wealth if it’s handled and executed properly.  As an entrepreneur you’re steadily making decisions that will revolve in the aspect of finances. You have to have great discipline and sometimes guidance in order to make the most profitable decisions for your business. Creating a business that will create wealth for generations is more in depth than just earning money for the time being. It’s about arranging the internal affairs and external services within your business that will provide income and education to equal wealth for yourself and your employees and their families for years to come. If your business plan is solid and flexible for any changes that may arise, wealth will be established. Managing and investing that wealth with great patience and knowledge will be key towards the path for generations to come. 

Cobbins: We can’t pass down a job or nonprofit organization to our children or grandchildren, but we can pass down a business. If you study the wealthiest families in the U.S., this has been the case for centuries. Entrepreneurship can lay this foundation by allowing for relatives to learn and grow through involvement in the business. Those relatives can stay and grow within that business or branch off and open other businesses as a result of the exposure and tutelage they received in the initial business. The wealth transfer possibilities are endless just based on the initial venture as the seed that was planted. Following generations have the opportunity to build and take that enterprise to the next level. There are numerous examples in the Black community where this has proven successful. We need more examples and inspiring stories to be told to begin a more broad paradigm shift to see entrepreneurship as a path to generational wealth.

Photo Credit: Darrell Cobbins

AfroTech: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Taylor: Although people don’t like to discuss death, After Life Mortuary Services is a company that you need to familiarize yourself with, for the  stability and peace of your own family when that time comes.  We offer education to the public about death, preplanning for that occurrence and the actual arrangements process when death does arise, so no one is in the dark about the legalities of it.  Although our company is relatively new, we’ve worked in this profession over 12 years each. We’ve seen and heard so many horrible scenarios first hand, working at other funeral homes. Part of why we started our own business is so families won’t have to suffer financially when it’s time to plan a funeral. We have the power to make things easier for families when they encounter a death. We’re here to answer any questions or concerns anyone may have about funeral services, and we’re here to provide them with excellent services that will leave a positive lasting impression. We appreciate you all for taking the time out to interview us, thank you! 

Cobbins: I would encourage your readers to explore entrepreneurship.  It is risky and rewarding. It can be frustrating and fascinating. It can be resistant and resilient. I believe that’s where the joy comes from is the fact that no one day and no one year are the same. You find out a lot about yourself on the journey. Entrepreneurship does not have to be a lonely endeavor. If you’re risk averse, spread that risk out with some partners or collaborators around a shared idea or opportunity. The ultimate reward or success is looking back to where you started and how far you have come with just an idea.  I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

As noted above, it takes hard work, dedication and resilience to create a successful business. Lyles, Taylor and Cobbins prove why fellow entrepreneurs should grow their businesses in Memphis, no matter the industry. The city of Memphis is dedicated to keeping its entrepreneurs at the center and these business owners exemplify why. To learn more about how Memphis continues to support entrepreneurs, click here.

This piece has been brought to you in partnership with Epicenter.