I'm the Boss of Me
Three Detroit business owners share their journeys into entrepreneurship
Businesses are born from ideas—from the desire to fulfill a need, perform a service or carry on a legacy.
Sheri Crawley of Novi wanted her daughters to have strong self-esteem, so she created the product line Pretty Brown Girl with them in mind. Tanya Allen, based in Livonia, was tired of ruining expensive panties each month and needed a solution. That's how Forever Fresh disposable underwear came to fruition. And Nailah Ellis of Detroit discovered that the sweet tea she savored during family celebrations was made from a recipe handed down by her Jamaican great-grandfather Sybril Byron—master chef for pan-African leader Marcus Garvey. Now she bottles Ellis Island Tropical Tea, so named because Byron came to the United States through Ellis Island.
Detroit is a bedrock for African-American entrepreneurs. According to the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, Detroit is home to more than 39,000 Black-owned companies, and the number of Black businesses in the city is growing at three times the national rate.
Ellis, Allen and Crawley all had personal motivations for becoming entrepreneurs, but their decision has implications far beyond their own agendas. It's one thing to start businesses, but statistics show most of them fail within five years. For metro Detroit and Michigan to become stronger economically, new ventures need not only to survive, but also to grow and create wealth—for the sake of the region as a whole.
Ken Harris, president and CEO of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, says he's doing all he can to support that effort statewide from his Detroit headquarters.
"We've got to get out there and get our elbows and knees dirty, because there's no greater opportunity [for] financial independence or generational wealth," he says. "Either you own your own business or you will be owned by somebody else. I would put 100 percent [effort] in owning my own."
With the assistance of many free or low-cost programs and services for aspiring entrepreneurs offered by a variety of government agencies and nonprofit organizations, local entrepreneurs have all the support they need.
"Through the Michigan Black Chamber, we create forums and strategic relationships with the Small Business Administration and the Michigan Minority Development Council," he says. "We put the mechanisms in place for Black businesses to create wealth.
"It's our goal for Black businesses to get from A to Z with the least amount of grey hair and stress," he adds.
Harris points to the fact that African Americans in Detroit spend $4.3 billion annually. Despite its woes, Detroit ranks fourth nationally for generating Black-owned businesses.
"People are at a point where they want to serve their life's purpose and they would rather do something they enjoy," he adds. "Starting a business is a way to fulfill that type of dream or purpose in life. They are tapping into their wants and needs in life and they doing it based on passion."
Tanya Allen, 54, was passionate about not ruining her Victoria's Secret undergarments each month. Long before Proctor & Gamble introduced Always with wings, she came up the same idea. But when people laughed at her, she put her disposable pad with wings away and forgot about it. When she learned her idea was on store shelves, she repented and said, "God, if you give me another idea, I won't give up."
Soon after that, she got an idea for disposable underwear that men and women could use while traveling, working out or for incontinence. She also thought women could spare their good panties while menstruating and use disposable underwear instead. Men with prostate issues didn't have to experience embarrassment from wearing a diaper when they could wear something less bulky and more discreet.
Allen had to halt her Forever Fresh business venture twice when things went terribly wrong. In 1998, when her product got into Kmart stores, she trusted the buyer to order appropriate sizes, but he ordered only small and petite. Many people in the Detroit market need larger sizes. That one mistake put her out of business temporarily.
She started up again in 2001, but she tried to market too many products at once, such as disposable gloves in addition to underwear.
Allen attended SmartStart classes, a Techtown program that helped strengthen her skills and launched for a third time in November of last year. This time, she seems to have gotten it right.
Her Forever Fresh disposable underwear, which can be worn and washed three or four times before being tossed away, are stocked on shelves at all 162 Walgreen stores in Michigan, and will soon be sold in CVS stores. With backing from investors, she expects sales to reach $250,000 by next year.
"I try to take every experience good or bad, tragic or triumphant, and learn from it, because that's how you grow," says Allen. "I knew I had a great product. It was a matter of getting the resources and knowledge to take it to market."
Getting her product to market also was a challenge for Ellis, who had been selling her sweet tea out of the trunk of her car for years. Last year, she got brave enough to approach decision makers in Detroit stores and restaurants about carrying her beverage, and now she's off and running.
Ellis says determination has played a key role in her success with the secret recipe her father only partially shared with her. For example, when she decided to get the tea sold at Starter's Bar & Grill on Woodward Avenue in Midtown Detroit, she waited tables on weekends for two months until she could figure out who the owner was. Now it's her top-selling account.
Her all-natural herbal tea with a fruity kick also is sold at Avalon Bakery, Honey Bee Market, University Market and several gas station convenience stores around the city. She's seeking accounts at grocery store chains, and plans to branch out nationally.
"I started with zero," says the 24-year-old native Detroiter. "The only thing I had to go off of was the stuff my mother told me like 'When there's a will, there's a way,' and 'Don't take no for an answer.' My motto is 'Pray like everything depends on God and work like everything depends on me.' I used that as an inspiration to create my own reality."
The reality for Sheri Crawley was, despite already having experienced entrepreneurial success and living in a beautiful suburban home with her husband Corey Crawley and their children, Laila and Aliya, her own daughters preferred White dolls over Black dolls. She felt it meant they didn't feel good about being Black, and she needed to do something about it.
"I wanted to send a positive message to them," the 38-year-old says of the August launch of Pretty Brown Girl, which she says is more than a product line. "We need to give ourselves, our community¸ our girls a different message. Since launching the Pretty Brown Girl movement, the response has been overwhelming." People from the east coast and the west coast have called to find inquire about Crawley's event coming to their cities. And churches, schools and other types of organizations have inquired about customized Pretty Brown Girl events.
Online Crawley sells t-shirts, backpacks and other items branded with the words "Pretty Brown Girl." "Before this, we didn't talk about ethnicity with our daughters," she says. "Now they know our hair is pretty, our skin is pretty and we have our own style and we love our community."
With proven marketing skills, Crawley knows her business will be successful. She enjoyed a skyrocketing career in corporate America working at IBM and ADP, until she was downsized. Although she did briefly own a little Southfield café, Dreams of Cream, that wasn't profitable, it was there that she established relationships of great value. She met the women who introduced her to Melaleuca, the network marketing wellness company that sells hundreds of products containing tea tree oil.
Crawley became the top seller in the region and was asked to relocate to Chicago to expand the company's reach there. She remained in the Windy City eight years before returning to Michigan to be closer to her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's. Now, only a few months into this new venture, she's already making a mark and she loves it.
"It started with a product, but God is showing me the energy is around this movement," she says. Crawley has become aware that girls of various ethnicities who have dark skin tones face challenges developing a positive self-image. Pretty Brown Girl's mission has evolved into celebrating and uplifting brown girls of all cultures.
Similar to the launch held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Crawley's company will continue to host empowerment events. They feature inspirational girls of color like 12-year-old Detroit entrepreneur Amiya Alexander. The next one, entitled "Pretty Brown Girls Dream Big," takes place in Southfield next month.
Love is essential for doing business, says Harris. He means not only having a passion for your business, but also loving yourself and your community enough to want and do more.
Harris, who sits on the board of the United States Black Chamber of Commerce, says he is striving to foster more national and international relationships for area Black business owners, to "take businesses out of the one-mile radius attitude" and to see them through the entire growth curve from start-up to scale-up.
"African Americans have no choice but to grow our own businesses and support each other," he says. "Since the economic recession in Michigan, and in Detroit, we see an increase in African Americans starting their own businesses and leaving corporate America due to the potential and the market. Detroit is one of the best markets for African-American entrepreneurs."
According to Harris, "If you're Black and can't find success in business in Detroit, it's nobody fault but your own."
KIMBERLY HAYES TAYLOR IS A DETROIT-BASED AUTHOR AND INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST.