Rita Forte grew up on Olive Street in deep East Oakland and spent most of her youth pursuing a music career as a BackSide DJ. Forte produced a slew of mixtapes during the Hyphy era of the 2000s, performed at house parties, and worked as a DJ for hip-hop radio station KMEL.
Forte also had a side business of making graphic t-shirts, which included a “Got Bay?” t-shirt inspired by the famous “Got Milk?” advertising campaign. Forte initially saw this as another side hustle.
“I really didn’t think I was a small business owner. I was just doing it for the love of the culture,” Forte said. “And I thought I could make a living from it, which I did for many years.”
Fast forward about a decade, Forte owns Olive Street Agency, a screen printing studio and marketing agency on MacArthur Boulevard near Mills College. She named the business after the street she grew up on, a tribute to her East Oakland roots.
“My family has owned property here for over 30 years and my mother grew up around Olive Street, so I wanted to use that as my business name because it’s my heritage,” Forte said.
Forte was finally able to secure the necessary funding to open its first physical space earlier this year and it hosted an opening ceremony on Saturday, July 9. Friends and family came out to celebrate, and even council members Treva Reid and Loren Taylor stopped by.
His business has grown over time. Forte slowly built up a team capable of screen printing shirts and doing embroidery work, creating logos and shirt designs, as well as filming promotional videos. The most profitable part of his business remains screen printing and t-shirt design, which dates back to his days as a DJ.
An old friend from the music industry, DJ Aebel Dee, played music at the grand opening. “It’s really great to see her doing this now,” Dee said.
Forte’s mother, Mary, who also does administrative work at Olive Street Agency, is proud to see what her daughter has accomplished. “I feel like it’s taken 20 years to get to this point and she’s been through a lot of different things and it all came down to this accomplishment,” she said. “We are also still dealing with COVID and so many businesses have closed so for her to open a brick and mortar store is a big deal; I’m proud of her.
Forte said part of her decision to move into marketing and screen printing stemmed from the misogyny she faced in the Bay Area hip-hop scene. She spoke about this experience in 2018 when it was featured in the Oakland Museum of California’s 2018 exhibit. “Respect: hip-hop and wisdom”, and interviewed about his contributions to the Hyphy movement. “I would say being a female DJ was a love-hate relationship of being who I was, and that’s just to be completely honest,” Forte told museum curators.
She also faced funding issues as a black small business owner. Forte considered opening her business in San Leandro, as opposed to Oakland, because she found there were more reasonably priced spaces there. “I wanted a space that could be both a production space and something that also felt like a retail store where you could walk around and see the shirt making process,” Forte said. “We weren’t going to have that neighborhood retail store feel to San Leandro.”
Forte tried for years to get a loan from a bank to open a brick-and-mortar store, but no one would lend her the money. “For four or five years, I was refused by the banks. We’re talking about your major financial banks – Bank of America, Wells Fargo, etc. I’ve had a bank account with Bank of America since I was 16, but they didn’t give me a loan to grow my business,” she said. .
According to Forte, dealing with banks got easier in 2020 after the George Floyd protests forced big business to think more about supporting black-owned businesses. Forte was finally able to get a loan from Pacific Community Venturesa nonprofit financial institution that provides loans and technical support to black and POC businesses, as “they specifically offered a loan to BIPOC business owners,” she said.
Forte is grateful for this opportunity. “People have to look at the history of who they are lending to. Do you lend money to a black-owned business, to a woman-owned business? There are different types of people in this society, and we are supposed to be on the same level as everyone else.
The following Monday, after its grand opening celebration, Forte and his team immediately got back to work printing dozens of shirts for their customers, which consist of Oakland-based organizations and businesses such as Red Door Catering. and Black Women Organized for Political Action. And nearby business owners and residents stopped by to let her know they were thrilled she had set up shop in the community.
“A few people from the neighborhood came into the store and said, ‘We’re glad you’re here,'” Forte said.