Black Women’s Expo offers a roadmap to financial health, mental wellness and business success

When Merry Green first decided 28 years ago to put together an expo just for Black women, she never would have guessed the massive success it would become.

Working as the promotions director for the radio station V103, she often organized events aimed at connecting business to Black customers. Through that work, she saw an opportunity to create an event just for Black women and founded the first Black Women’s Expo in 1993.

The 27th annual Black Women’s Expo was held this weekend, featuring over 400 booths at McCormick Place offering everything from business advice to hair care tips and selling products ranging from clothing to insurance. Sponsors of the expo included JP Morgan Chase, Walgreens and Verizon.

“When the expo took off, we knew we’d hit on something. Women filled the lobby at the first expo, and keep coming back year after year,” Green said. “This event really empowers women and gives them a chance to meet people and learn how to do things like grow their businesses and create community.”

From Friday to Sunday, participants explored the many exhibits and attended sessions that covered topics including health equity, financial help for growing a business and mental wellness.

“This expo not only gives women information, but it also gives them confidence,” Green said. “Women come up to me and thank me for doing this and tell me that it’s changed their lives.”

Green said she aims to make the expo accessible to anyone. Discounted tickets are available at Walgreens, and many of the exhibitors had booths at the expo for the first time, Green said.

One of the sessions on Sunday discussed Black women’s health care, particularly related to gynecology and breast and colon cancer.

Much of the discussion focused on empowering Black women to be their own advocate within the health care system, especially when doctors aren’t taking their concerns seriously.

“In this age of reckoning and empowerment for Black women … we need to make sure we are also empowered on our health too,” said Ramona Burress, a health care executive focused on equity, who moderated the panel. “We always fall into that nurturer role, but that means we end up putting ourselves last.”

One of the panelists was Donna Christian-Harris, a nurse practitioner who specializes in breast cancer at the University of Chicago Medical Center and who works on “survivorship” with patients.

She helps to make sure patients with breast cancer who are in recovery have access to all their records, stay up to date with other routine care and check in regularly to catch any recurring cancer.

“I have had many patients who tell me they’ve not been listened to by doctors and burned in the past,” said Sandra Laveaux, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Chicago, during the panel.

“It’s so important to find that doctor who will actually listen to you and hear what you’re saying when you tell them that something is off, something is wrong. But I know that can be hard to find.”

Candace Henley, a colon cancer survivor, spoke about what she went through to get diagnosed and the hardships she dealt with in the aftermath.

Henley was misdiagnosed for six months before she found out she had colon cancer. After a third trip to the emergency room, an emergency colonoscopy found a grape-sized tumor on her colon.

But after she survived cancer, Henley said she couldn’t function because of the massive financial burden that followed. She could no longer do her job as a bus driver for CTA. She had five daughters to support.

“I became invisible to the health care system,” Henley said.

Now, Henley works with the Blue Hat Foundation, a local group that helps colon cancer patients and their families.

“We need to speak up for ourselves, we need to say that we are not OK today,” Henley said. “We have power we don’t realize that we have.”

Sandra Davis, a real estate broker and financial adviser, was in the audience and said she was especially inspired by Henley’s story.

“After hearing all about the financial struggles she went through, I want to now develop a course about health care financing to help people who might also deal with those issues,” Davis said.

Davis attended the expo to seek advice on growing her business called Wealth Equity, Wealth Justice.

“This has been amazing, to explore the booths and to also come to these sessions and hear real stories from real women,” Davis said.

“It’s been empowering and inspiring. And I’ve learned some great information to help me and to help grow my business.”

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