Last in a three-part series about leadership in the Mississippi Delta.
It’s hard to imagine two people with more different experiences than Andy Lo and Birley Gipson. Yet the two serial entrepreneurs in the Mississippi Delta both articulate a commitment to serving the Mississippi Delta in their own way – with investment in small business. Both also attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Hearing their stories and their perspectives, a reader can understand both the unique challenges and opportunities a rural area like the Delta present for a small business owner. Often the unsung leaders in a community, small business owners provide unique services and value to their communities. From food service to electronics repair, these two entrepreneurs are invaluable parts of their Delta communities.
Where do you live and where are you from?
I was born in Hong Kong. I moved to this country when I was 12, to Chicago. I moved [from]Chicago to Mississippi when I was 17. Now here I am.
Back when we were in Chicago, my parents moved us to Mississippi because we bought a grocery business. It was the American dream, like, keep trying; try different things. I still work at the grocery.
In Chicago my dad worked as a chef. I was a waiter. Then we saved money and then we were like: OK, my mom’s friend said they have a grocery store in Greenwood, Mississippi, for sale.
I have the grocery job, work in a restaurant, do photography and cell-phone repair, and have rental properties too. My parents started the grocery business, and I learned the value of being your own boss. I’ve worked since I was 14. I always say, if you can’t get a job, make a job. Make yourself a job.
When I started at Mississippi Valley State University my major was business, and I got my MBA at Valley as well. Valley improved my business skills so I can manage my businesses better. Sometimes the hard work is one thing, and how smart you work is the other. I learned the hard work form my parents, and the scientific part from Valley. I find the way they work together.
As an immigrant who has lived many places, why have you stayed in the Mississippi Delta?
I could have left, like, I don’t know how long ago. But I stay here. First, it’s my family – we are all here. I have more family coming to this country. We just try to help them. My sister just moved to this country last year and my uncle is coming in October. I take care of them.
Also, working in the Delta, for us, is like the big fish in the small pond. Whatever you do, it stands out. I’ve been doing photography here for 10 years, but I now have clients all over this country. I just use Greenwood, Mississippi, as my base. I worked my way up.
We succeed because, first of all, we have good products. We work hard to improve our product. The product speaks for itself, and our prices are competition. And I am flexible with hours; I have customers that bring cell phone at 1 a.m. and I’ll fix it, if I’m in the area. And it’s good service.
How did you start your first own business – cell phone repair?
I fixed my own phone at first. I learned it from a YouTube video and from experience. I think I’ve fixed more than 2,000 phones, and you learn from trial and error. I think a few times I’ve messed up and had to send it to North Carolina to get to a lab to work on the model and send it back.
How long do expect to stay in the Delta?
I think I’ll still be here for the next five years. I think I’m about to get another degree – either a Ph.D. in business or a master’s in mathematics.
What do you find as the challenges and the opportunity here?
Some people are still stuck in the past, which is a bad thing. Sometimes we need to learn our history and move forward. The opportunity here is that the taxation is low. Stuff is cheap here and we don’t have a lot of stuff here. So it’s good for people from out of state to bring businesses and expand products to the Delta.
As immigrants, we come from different cultures and learn from our own place in Hong Kong. We learn everything in different ways – the good and the bad. Then we learn how to deal with everything. Because people in this country look at us with a different perspective, and we use a different angle to look at them.
Where do you live and where are you from?
At the present I live at Coahoma, Mississippi. I was born and raised in Mattson, Mississippi, a town that is about eight miles of south of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Really it was on the plantation. I lived there from like 1951 to, like, ’64, in which time I moved to Clarksdale. In moving to this location (it’s like 10 acres and a house), we moved outside of city limits. I just love the country living.
Growing up in Mattson, Mississippi, as a black in the Delta, I just saw all the injustice going on as it relates to blacks and whites. After moving to Clarksdale and attending school there, I kind of got into the black movement. A lot of the things that happened around us I didn’t agree with, but when you’re an independent thinker it’s hard to get things done. After finishing at Jackson State College was when I ended up becoming involved in a black movement, and it was there I dealt with a lot of unjust things going on.
I ran for mayor a couple times, and I ran for secretary, board of supervisors of my district in Coahoma County. I was unsuccessful in all of the races, because of the thinking of the people in the community. They don’t understand what change is all about. I see even in this [national] election. Some people depend on educated whites’ opinions, and the uneducated whites will follow any Republican leader.
When I was living in Clarksdale I was running a business, and a white lady asked me if I was afraid to live in this neighborhood. I said, “Why should I be afraid to live in this neighborhood?” She said, “Don’t you know there was a killing at the liquor store?” And I said, “Do you now not go to the post office downtown? They had a killing there.There was a killing right down the street at the law office.”
What’s it like to be an entrepreneur in this region?
In the Delta, 87% of your business is coming from your neighborhood. What’s going on now, with getting tourist attraction, means that maybe 10-15% of my business is white, and then the rest is black. But, if people see you doing well, they back off – if they think they’re making good. I’m in a situation now, that the business is not paying the house note, the bills. The things we’re doing come out of our Social Security check and retirement. If the business closed tomorrow, we wouldn’t lose it all. The business takes care of itself. The people who work there get paid, but I don’t. I do barbeque, rib tips, fish, Buffalo wings, all kinds of burgers, dinner steaks – a little of everything.
What’s the greatest challenge you see in the Delta?
Our greatest challenge? Changing the thinking in the community and education. We need to look at some things that would benefit our community. A lot of times we don’t think of what will happen in the future. For example: about the highway. I said build up the old highway 61, because that’ll bring back some of these dying towns.
We need business in this town, which we could get if we get another four-lane coming into town. We need to recruit business to come here, and give them tax breaks. If people have jobs, that would offset the breaks. We also have a lot of abandoned houses in the city, so we tear them down. People out-migrated. What I propose to do is build incentives for people to invest in homes. We need to build a soccer field, so that children can play soccer here and families can move here. Families need a reason to move here. The challenge here is to get out there and show people what we have to offer.
What do you see as the greatest opportunity in your community?
Basically, where I live and the surrounding area, my attitude is that I can be anywhere in the U.S. Where I’m at, I’m like 60 miles from Memphis. Since we have the casinos, and we have Memphis right there, and Jackson, Mississippi, and Tupelo, Mississippi, then if we could do something like a Six Flags, it would bring a whole lot of things. People are looking for something to do with our year-round climate here.
Now I don’t live in the city, my frame of mind changes. I would like to see pools and things in all the communities. I would like to see the city get involved in getting children off the street. You see, they had more to do for children when I moved to Clarksdale in ‘64 than what they do now. We all talk about what the children are doing, but it’s our fault because they don’t have options. We need to start putting pressures on public officials, and make changes happen. Also, if we can get the junior college doing more things with the children, that can make a lot of changes too.
But it’s hard. A lot of times, when I make suggestions, the superintendent kind of evades. When I tell the white boy on the school board, he makes the same suggestion, and the superintendent says: “Oh, good idea.” But sometimes, it’s all about who said whether to move or not.
This article and the accompanying video were produced by Timothy Lampkin of Lampkin Consulting Group LLC and Winfield Ezell and Sean Cokes of Obsidian Creative Studios, with support from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area.