CELEBRATING BLACK HISTORY

Lee’s entrepreneurial spirit is sewn into its DNA; we’ve always adorned the doers and the makers. This Black History Month, we have partnered with four small black-owned businesses to highlight each business owner’s unrelenting optimism and sense of entrepreneurialism.

ROB JACKSON

- ROB JACKSON -

Please introduce yourself and tell us one thing that makes you original.
Hello! My name is Rob Jackson, founder of Ujamaa Lighting, which is one of – if not the only – Black-owned LED light bulb companies in the United States! My background makes me very unique. Born and raised in southern Arkansas, I come from a low-income, single-parent household. I graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Blue, and HBCU (Historically Black College & University), with a degree in Computer Science, and went on to get an MBA from Eller College of Business at the University of Arizona. An introvert by nature, with a southern, Black upbringing, and my background in IT and business brings a unique, family-oriented originality to the Ujamaa Lighting brand! Even the name its “Ujamaa” is Swahili for “cooperative economics”, an idea that one’s community thrives when its people works together. The threads that make me who I am are what sets our company apart, and we strive to leverage that originality in every aspect of our products.

 

Tell us about your experience as a Black small business owner. What fuels your entrepreneurial spirit?
My experience as a Black small-business owner has been terrifying blissful! This entire process has been very much like the old anecdote of building your plane AFTER taking “the jump” – but the freefall is the greatest feeling in the world! Every single day is a business lesson, more valuable than the annual tuition of any business school.

What fuels my entrepreneurial spirit? All of the disadvantage ancestors that came before me, who had to exhibit an extraordinary magnitude of resilience and perseverance just to survive. I was raised by a linage of strong Black women who found themselves having to support entire families on their own, while carrying the weight of the world on their backs. I was able to witness this, firsthand. I considered myself fortunate enough to grow up in a household where not only hardwork was on the syllabus, but also the importance of family, community, fiscal responsibility, humbleness, and service. Establishing Ujamaa Lighting allows me to leverage the life lessons taught to me in products that can benefit all communities. Being a business owner also allows me to leave a legacy I can pass on to my children – something they can be proud of...something that can span generations. Although this legacy is born out of struggle, it’s a struggle that so many can relate to, no matter what race, gender, nationality, or social class – and THAT’s what brings us together as a community. Entrepreneurship, in my humble opinion, gives us complete control of the brush used to paint the portrait of our own masterpieces. It allows us to leave a mark on this word. That’s what keeps us going here at Ujamaa.

 

How has your optimism helped shape your business?
Ironically, my optimism originated from overwhelming doubt and insecurity! Taking that first step in entrepreneurship is one of biggest steps a person will take in their lives. The fear of failure has halted so many dreams. However, failure’s bark is so much worse than its bite! Think of optimism as a snowball that grows as it gets rolling down the hill. At the top of that hill lies the beginning of your entrepreneurship journey. Early on, a new business owner may find themselves completely overwhelmed by the many “hats” they will have to wear to insure the business stays afloat – which will include an unfathomable number of decisions that rest squarely on the owner’s shoulders. Still, early-on, you’ll also learn that failing forward is a part of the process. It’s both eye-opening and educational. Somewhere during this process – if you feel as though you lack enough optimism in the beginning – business owners learn one key lesson that permeates every future decision they make: If you stay true to your vision, do the work, and ensure that your decisions are rooted in positivity, the Universe tends to get out of your way! Once you SEE that, it generates optimism! It gives you the confidence to try new things that have never been done before.

On a personal note, optimism has giving me the confidence to take so many risks in business. Conquering the fear of hearing the word “no” opens up the possibility of encountering that unexpected “YES”. We’ve received so many of those “Yes’s” on our entrepreneurship journey! Ujamaa Lighting has been blessed to partner with so many business and influencers that have helped mold the direction of our young business. Optimism has allowed our company to grow at a faster rate, even during a global pandemic!

 

Is there a historic figure or someone in your life that has been a motivating force in your career?
Ever since I was a young kid growing up in southern Arkansas, I’ve been interested in technology and innovation! There has been so many iconic figures that have molded my career! I’ve seen so many desirable traits in those who have come before me...from the overwhelming confidence of Muhammad Ali...to vision of those like Lewis Latimer (the inventor of the carbon filament) who dared to be great during a time when African-Americans achievements were being blatantly ignored, all the way to some of our modern innovators, such as Dr. Mark Dean (co-inventor of the personal computer), who’s a humble, iconic genius on the IT field! These and so many others were a driving force in the evolution of my career and entrepreneurial path!

 

Tell us something you’d like people visiting Lee’s social channels and Lee.com to learn from this conversation.
Each of us is born with a light that desperately wants to shine. Allow nothing you encounter to dim it! Be yourself...be original...and find your tribe! The world is in need of YOU!

 

What is something you’d recommend others do to be respectful and inclusive in their day-to-day lives?
I wholeheartedly believe that everyone is unique...everyone’s ORIGINAL! We are ALL different! There’s absolutely NO ONE on the planet that’s like you in every way. Cherish that. Mold it. More importantly, acknowledge the uniqueness of others. Our differences are meant to bring us together! Every person you encounter on a day-to-day basis is fighting battle that is unknown to you. However, they also have experiences, skills, and passions that you could very well relate to! So, how do you be more respectful and inclusive? Start with the person in the mirror. Continuously strive to be the best version of yourself, then treat your neighbor as if they are on that same journey as you. Once again, the word “ujamaa” means “cooperative economics” and “extended family”. We are all the same village.

Ashlie Thomas

- Ashlie Thomas -

Please introduce yourself and tell us one thing that makes you original.
My name is Ashlie Thomas and one thing that makes me original is that I am not afraid to harness my talents to address really big problems that impact people. Like using gardening to help in the fight for food security.

 

Tell us about your experience as a Black small business owner. What fuels your entrepreneurial spirit?
Many years ago, I came face to face with a very complex problem, and gradually learned about how many people were affected by this issue—- Food insecurity. I actually didn’t start out with a desire to be an entrepreneur. I simply wanted to help find a solution to this really big problem. It bothered me to witness so many people in my community develop health challenges, and many of these conditions were either caused by or exacerbated by diet. The part that burdened me most was the fact that many were expected to improve their health through diet change, yet access to healthier food options were a challenge. After diving deeper into this problem through research, volunteering, and training, I discovered that this issue of food insecurity was not just exclusive to the US.... this is a growing global issue.

So, I thought to myself, “what can I do to help people access the food they need?” And it dawned on me one day while I reflected upon my grandfather in his small garden: Build access for ourselves with the resources and skills we have. Fast forward to 2019, my husband and I built a 2000 sq ft garden behind our home (it has doubled in size since then) and learned how to grow food right in our backyard. Eventually, I created a blog to document this journey and to show others how to build their own edible gardens using whatever space they have. This led to me writing a book, which will be published in the winter of 2022.

Also while gardening, I learned how to make jams using the fresh produce from my garden and from local farmers. For a while I shared them as gifts, but I began receiving great feedback from family, friends and colleagues and many began offering money for orders, so I started a small gourmet jam business called, Jam·ologie. And I have to say, the jams are pretty good!

All in all, there is a lot of potential for profitable entrepreneurial ventures in the agriculture space. As a black small business owner I hope to bring more awareness to the need for more black small business owners in this space. This, in my opinion, contributes to more resilient communities and enhancing local foods systems.

Through all of this, I realized an entrepreneurial spirit has always been inside of me. I just needed to allow myself the space to explore it, and walk in it. I’ve learned that seeking to solve a problem can open doors and oftentimes present opportunities to forge our own entrepreneurial paths.

 

How has your optimism helped shape your business?
Many people tend to avoid entrepreneurial ventures due to the perceived risks and perhaps the unclear path. I was one of those people honestly. That is until I saw how my passion and talents could be used to provide something valuable and impactful to others. I am hopeful that the entrepreneurial steps that I am taking today will empower and motivate others to consider embarking on an entrepreneurial journey to build upon their own dreams, even when they feel that it may be out of reach for them.

I trust that the seeds of empowerment, education, and entrepreneurism that I am sowing today will allow the generations of tomorrow to reap the harvests of greater food freedom, better health outcomes, and stronger economic opportunities.

 

Is there a historic figure or someone in your life that has been a motivating force in your career?
No, not just one person — I have been blessed with a wonderful tribe and layers of support. First, my husband, who is also an entrepreneur, is not just my best friend and life partner, but he’s also my mission partner. We encourage, support, and sharpen each other every step of the way, and have done so since day 1.

Lastly, my family (past and present) inspires me to push further. I come from and am married into a family of hard working dreamers and doers-- and the entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in both families. I am grateful for the passion and lessons that have been passed down to me, and I am honored to be able to build upon that foundation for the next generation.

 

Tell us something you’d like people visiting Lee’s social channels and Lee.com to learn from this conversation.
Be aware of the power you have to make an impactful mark. If you don’t see a solution to a problem that burdens your mind and heart, be empowered to run and find one. Also don’t be surprised when others see your mission and want to help you run further. This is the spirit of entrepreneurship.

 

What is something you’d recommend others do to be respectful and inclusive in their day-to-day lives?
Recognize that humans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and from different backgrounds. We each possess a wide range of cultural experiences that many do not realize are our greatest assets. And when we accept one another with all of our experiences...all of our differences... all of our assets....then we are able to live authentically, think bigger, execute better, and create greater innovation together.. I believe there’s enough room at the table for all of us. And if there isn’t, then simply put we need to build a bigger table.

Vanessa Villarreal

- Vanessa Villarreal -

Please introduce yourself and tell us one thing that makes you original.
Hello! My name is Vanessa Villarreal and I am a 23-years-old visual artist based in Washington, DC. I’m also the owner of Lion’s Den Creative (LDC) where I merge my passion for sustainable fashion and art, hand-painting vintage denim, reconstructing clothing, and more. You can check out and learn all about my work @lionsdencreative on Instagram!

One thing that makes me original is my art! No one can create art the way that I do as it is an extension of myself and a product of my own creativity, skill, techniques, etc. Every artists’ work is unique to them. This is one of the many reasons why I’ve had a strong connection to art since very young as a means of my own creative expression and freedom.

 

Tell us about your experience as a Black small business owner. What fuels your entrepreneurial spirit?
Being a Black small business owner has been one of the most rewarding experiences and I am extremely grateful for every aspect of this journey. Recognizing that only a few generations ago, my ancestors could have only imagined owning their own businesses makes what I’m doing that much more meaningful. I’d say my love for art and freedom and my faith are what fuels my entrepreneurial spirit. In addition, my hope to also inspire and be a testament to Black and Brown youth that we can achieve more than society’s limitations on us with the gifts and potential that lies within all of us is another huge source of motivation.

 

How has your optimism helped shape your business?
My optimism has allowed me to take great leaps of faith as it relates to my business and my life. Never would I have imagined embarking on this unconventional (at least for my family and I) journey and really taking my art and LDC much more seriously. I do have occasional moments of uncertainty, but at the end of the day, I choose to remain expectant and have faith that all will work out for the best!

 

Is there a historic figure or someone in your life that has been a motivating force in your career?
There’s not one person I can pinpoint given that much of my motivation comes from watching a lot of other Black artists on social media grow and follow their dreams. Seeing how far their art and businesses have taken them reminds me that the sky really is the limit and that I have the potential to reach my goals and even exceed them as long as I don’t give up, keep putting in the work, and maintain faith in myself and God.

 

Tell us something you’d like people visiting Lee’s social channels and Lee.com to learn from this conversation.
I hope that people visiting Lee’s social channels and website can grow to recognize how much talent the Black community has to offer and has always offered as a cornerstone of much of American culture, even despite the oppression and inequities that has marked a lot of our history and today. There are so many incredibly talented Black people who unfortunately have very little to no access to the resources, people, etc. needed to take their talents to greater heights due to systemic and interpersonal racism. However, we can do our part in seeking, amplifying, and making space for them and their talents. There’s more than enough room for everyone to grow and everyone should have an equal opportunity to do so.

 

What is something you’d recommend others do to be respectful and inclusive in their day-to-day lives?
Especially now more than ever in my lifetime, I think it’s imperative that we think and act with the collective in mind and not individualistically in our day-to-day lives. Thinking solely about ourselves or people that look like us only holds us back from making substantial positive change and progress as a society, especially for communities who are already at a disadvantage. This may look like taking time to get to know communities around you besides the people you’re most comfortable with and showing support for them (ex. buying from small business owners and/or artists). Other recommendations are treating everyone equally while amplifying voices that are oftentimes silenced, not allowing biases, stereotypes, and prejudices to get in the way of treating strangers with kindness and grace, and not being so quick to assume the worst intentions from people. These are just very few practical actions that can go a long way if we implement them in our day-to-day lives.

Christina Degreaffenreidt

- Christina Degreaffenreidt -

Please introduce yourself and tell us one thing that makes you original.
My name is Christina Degreaffenreidt, the owner of the brand Multifaceted™ where luxury candles meet creativity & sustainability. Wrapping up myself as one thing that makes me original is a challenge because I am so many things so let’s just say I’m multifaceted and that makes me original.

 

Tell us about your experience as a Black small business owner. What fuels your entrepreneurial spirit?
Being a black business owner is a lot of things. It’s challenging, liberating, rewarding, hectic, frustrating at times but also beautiful. It’s a unique experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I’ve been driven to be an entrepreneur since I was a teenager and before it was the buzzword or trending noun. My entrepreneurial spirit is fueled by my spirit of never giving up, unapologetically expressing my creativity and talents, staying true to myself and my vision while also making an impact on the world. I’ve always had a desire to do good and Multifaceted™ allows me to do just that. I have been gifted with several talents since birth and have had the pleasure to develop them with formal education, work experience and mentorship. Thankfully over time I’ve finally figured out how to make that impact and it is through this business.

 

How has your optimism helped shape your business?
Optimism is in multiple aspects of my business. Our slogan is “making the world brighter. One candle at a time.” We strive to put a smile on people’s faces even if it’s for a moment. Our candles are like happiness in a vessel. Our signature flower top candles all have positive meanings for each flower design. We have products labeled “spark happiness” and even a celebration of humanity collection inspired to keep you, or those you gift our product with, inspired, uplifted and most importantly, celebrated. We try to find quirky, untraditional ways to approach the candle industry and bring a little joy to your day.

 

Is there a historic figure or someone in your life that has been a motivating force in your career?
I don’t have one specific person that motivates me but rather a group of women. That group of women is the women of my family. I am blessed to have an amazing family that have witnessed and conquered unimaginable circumstances. Just listening to their stories is a motivation in itself because I know I come from such a strong, fearless foundation. These women fought biased laws, limitations, and hatred a majority of their lives to help me be where I am today. It makes me less fearful of the unknowns knowing I have that DNA installed in me.

 

Tell us something you’d like people visiting Lee’s social channels and Lee.com to learn from this conversation.
I hold the Lee brand very close to my heart. Lee has always been diverse even before diversity was the new hot topic. I remember Lee being one of the few brands I could wear as a young child growing up plus size. Lee’s been doing diversity for a very long time. I have loved seeing the brand evolve over the past decade and make major strides in fashion. It’s a pleasure to witness as someone who loves the Lee brand and what it represents.

 

What is something you’d recommend others do to be respectful and inclusive in their day-to-day lives?
The best thing I can say is to acknowledge that no two people are the same. There is no one size fits all to diversity and inclusion. I would challenge people to get to know people on an individual level vs applying a stereotype or preconceived notion to an individual. I will always make the recommendation to be kind b/c you never know what people are going through (especially in our current world). I have had the pleasure to meet so many people through Multifaceted™ and I’ve never had anyone walk away frowning. If anything, I helped make their day better (which is the goal). We must be kinder to each other. Kindness is quite underrated, and it will take you a long way if you use it appropriately.

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