Willie Sells owns and operates Tee’s Barber Shop, a staple on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, where he first began cutting hair as a job more than 35 years ago.
He’s also the recipient of a new $10,000 grant from another Black-owned business called Greenwood — but this Greenwood is from well outside of the state.
The longstanding barber shop is the first business to benefit directly from the Greenwood Gives Back Program, an initiative started by a new financial company called Greenwood.
“I was very thankful that I could be a recipient,” Sells said. “When they told me they were going to give me $10,000 to upgrade this barber shop, I said hallelujah. That was a first-time experience and a great experience.”
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Greenwood is a mobile banking platform, headquartered in Atlanta and founded by civil rights leader Andrew Young, hip-hop musician Michael “Killer Mike” Render and television executive Ryan Glover. The trio are passionate about bridging the wealth gap between minorities and white people. Their aim is to fight inequality and build generational wealth for Black-owned enterprise.
As part of the Greenwood Gives Back Program, a $10,000 grant will be awarded to one Black or Latino-owned small business across the country per month into the foreseeable future.
The Greenwood District in Tulsa was home to what was once called Black Wall Street, a thriving and prosperous enclave of African-American commerce that was destroyed by a white mob a century ago during one of the most devastating incidents of racial violence in American history.
Glover, president of Bounce TV and a co-founder of Greenwood, said protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 lent a sense of urgency to his work.
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“We needed to create a new financial platform that understands our history and our needs going forward, a banking platform built by us and for us, a platform that helps us build a stronger future for our communities,” Glover said in a statement. “This is our time to take back control of our lives and our financial future.”
Barber shops hold special meaning for another of Greenwood’s co-founders, Michael Render, who owns three “S.W.A.G.” (Shave, Wash And Groom) barber shop locations in Georgia.
“Barber shops seem to be the only place in my life that Black men in particular have been able to speak the truth and not worry about being killed,” Render said in 2015. “It’s a place where, beyond Black men, working-class men can come speak the truth without the boss cutting them off at the job.”
Tee’s Barber Shop has existed, in one form or another, in Tulsa for decades. Originally owned by Wilburt Howard Tecumseh, the barbershop (then known as Mim’s) moved in 1985 to its current location.
Tecumseh died in 2003, and Sells bought the business in 2015 from Tecumseh’s daughters.
“I’m thankful for [the] Greenwood bank, thankful that it’s Black and got the right name,” said Sells, who plans to use his grant to put in place various upgrades for his building.
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David Tapscott, chief marketing officer for Greenwood, said he first learned about the historical legacy of Tee’s Barber Shop from Freeman Culver, president of Tulsa’s Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.
“The Greenwood District was about empowerment, self-determination, helping each other, people with similar businesses giving capital to people that would ultimately be competitors because they believed that the free market could accommodate more than one movie theater, for instance, in a space,” Tapscott said. “And it is that spirit that 100 years later allows us to create a digital banking platform for today’s world.”
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As of March 2021, 500,000 people have signed up to use services from the Greenwood mobile platform, according to the company.
Digital financial platforms, like Greenwood or Chime (another similar app), are gaining in popularity because of ease of use and access. Greenwood does not have a storefront location and is all online.
Greenwood is not a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, but banking services are provided by FDIC-member banks, according to the company website.
In addition to offering online transactional capabilities, Greenwood is partnering with nonprofit organizations such as the Goodr Foundation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to combat food insecurity and racial inequality.
“By living our creed and carrying out our mission visibly to Black and Brown people, we believe that will be the first of many steps … that will demonstrate that cooperation need not be limited by ethnicity,” Tapscott said.
He said the banking platform’s advocacy for a 21st-century Greenwood vision is not meant to be just symbolic.
“We are honored to carry the name Greenwood, but equally as important as the name is the DNA and the spirit of the Greenwood District, one of wealth creation for individuals but through collaboration for the advancement of a community,” Tapscott said.
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