February’s celebration of Black history gives us a chance to celebrate the many contributions African-American business owners have made to their communities and society.
FranCine Gadsden owns Sticks and Stones Tees & More, a collection of apparel and accessories featuring inspiring words and thought-provoking images meant to give hope and elevate self-esteem.
As is the case with many business owners, Gadsden’s company had its beginnings in a project she undertook to make her community a better place to live.
“I live and work in an area of Oakland, California called Deep East Oakland. Many people in surrounding communities look down upon the area,” says Gadsden. “I reached out to the organization Keep Oakland Beautiful, applying for a grant to use artwork to beautify the traffic light electrical boxes covered in graffiti.”
Once she received a grant, she worked for two months convincing the City of Oakland to allow her to paint the electrical boxes with inspiring images and sayings. She decorated the electrical boxes on traffic corners near schools where children regularly walk with encouraging words such as "I Give You Life" and "I Give You Hope."
“My company name, Sticks and Stones, comes from the saying, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me,'” says Gadsden. A design in her collection, Afro Puff Gurl, came about when she saw a little girl being teased by two other girls calling her "nappy head."
“I told the little girl that I tell my friends that I am happy I am nappy. She thanked me for telling her that her hair was beautiful,” says Gadsden. “That encounter showed me that I want all little girls with natural, textured or curly hair to feel empowered.”
As a result, Gadsden prints Afro Puff Gurl on a variety of her products, including tees, hoodies, onesies and vintage metal lunchboxes.
“No one should be put down for what they look like or where they live,” says Gadsden. “I’ve found that my collection transcends generations and appeals to multicultural children and their families. Their parents and grandparents will tell me that I have a collection that helps bring awareness to children, allowing them to celebrate all the races that make up their family units.”
Charessa Sawyer is president and CEO of Charge Up Campaign, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting, educating, empowering and celebrating people who have experienced health, social and economic concerns as a result of cancer.
Charge UP facilitates programs and events that celebrate and assist cancer survivors, caregivers and oncology medical professionals.
“One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of is Charge Up Campaign’s ability to provide mental health wellness support for those affected by cancer, including caregivers who we recognize as our silent warriors,” says Sawyer, whose background is in social work.
To support cancer survivors outside of the cancer diagnosis, the organization has formed strategic partnerships. These include local companies that offer fashion and beauty esteem-building resources for individuals as they adjust to life after cancer.
“Through our Charge Up Cares initiative, we support those in the cancer fight by providing care packages, holiday toy drives and items for family and home care,” says Sawyer, who founded the organization in 2013. She started with small events focused on celebrating cancer survivors, and soon expanded to help caregivers, support organizations and healthcare professionals.
BBBSM exists to ensure that all youth in our community are never surprised by success. They can be anything they want to be, including African-American business owners.
—Gale Nelson, president and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami (BBBSM)
“I created Charge Up Campaign after my own experience as a caregiver for my mother, a breast cancer survivor,” says Sawyer. “Caring for my mother taught me the importance of providing care to those in need, as well as spreading joy and encouragement to the person and all involved.”
Sawyer finds her work to be especially gratifying.
“I enjoy shining a light on the person rather than the cancer,” she says. “Seeing the smiles on the faces of those we serve, including the caregivers who glow when they are able to step out for a day of self-care, is a wonderful experience.”
Giving a Mentoring Hand
Gale Nelson sees himself in many of the children his organization assists. Nelson is president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami (BBBSM).
“Seven out of ten children we serve are Black or brown,” says Nelson, who was raised by a single mother in the inner city of Toledo, Ohio after his parents divorced when he was two.
“Growing up, the mentoring I received from caring adults shaped me and enabled me to attend college on scholarship and earn a master’s degree,” says Nelson. “Prior to joining BBBSM, I ran a successful boarding school for juvenile delinquent boys for 12 years. Just like Ernest Coulter, founder of Big Brothers Big Sisters, I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children before they entered the juvenile justice system.”
According to Nelson, since its inception in 1958, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami (BBBSM) has served more than 65,000 children. The mission of the organization dovetails with Nelson’s desire to support one-on-one mentoring relationships that unlock the potential of the youth being served. Those children mentored (“Littles”) show improved academic performance and avoid the criminal justice system.
“Mentoring is not just nice, it’s necessary,” says Nelson, who joined BBBSM in 2006. “Compared with the cost of incarceration, mentoring is a wise investment of our time and treasure. When one person mentors a child, two lives are changed forever. This is not work for me, it is my passion to instill in each ‘Little’ that they can be anything they want to be.”
This lesson was reinforced when a “Little Sister” saw Nelson’s photo and was told he was president and CEO of BBBSM.
“The girl didn’t believe I was president, so someone brought her to my office during a meeting,” says Nelson. “She was visibly moved when she saw I was president. BBBSM exists to ensure that all youth in our community are never surprised by success. They can be anything they want to be, including African-American business owners.”
Inspiring Inclusivity and Self-Acceptance
From her vantage point as a Black woman CEO, Lisa Williams understands the importance of inclusivity to effect change. She also knows that in order to encourage forward-thinking societal shifts, the seeds of acceptance must be planted at a young age.
As CEO and founder of the World of Entertainment, Publishing and Inspiration (World of EPI), Williams has developed a successful line of books and toys focused on empowering and encouraging young people to build their self-confidence and self-worth through representation.
“As a woman of color, I experienced the lack of diversity in the toy aisle from childhood to motherhood,” says Williams. “I wanted to fill the gap, so I started The World of EPI's doll lines. Consisting of authentic dolls and accessories representing African American, Latina, Asian and Caucasian children, the focus is to show children their beauty and brilliance and see it reflected in the toy aisle.”
According to Williams, the doll collection came at a tipping point, when calls for diversity in the toy aisle were getting louder.
“Now, more than ever, inclusivity and representation in the toy aisle is an important component to helping children establish a healthy, positive view of themselves and others at what is a critical time of growth and development,” says Williams.
“In fact, studies show toys can help instill acceptance and self-love in youth, empowering them with the knowledge that it’s okay to be themselves,” continues Williams. “The purpose of EPI is to help children of all ages and ethnicities to empower them to feel uplifted, important and beautiful as they are.”
Williams started her career in academia. (She was the first African-American professor to earn tenure at Penn State University.) At the height of her career, she left the academic life to become an entrepreneur.
In 2003, Williams founded EPI with the mission of providing children access to dolls that encourage dreams, promote intelligence, challenge perceptions and open their hearts to all types of beauty.
“Nothing is greater than effecting positive change around you,” says Williams. “Like many African-American business owners, I’ve found that while the journey to success is a winding road, along the way you leave a lasting impression on the next generation.”
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