A wristwatch tells more than the time of day, says Kim Pelham, owner of Divine Adornments Boutique, a Baltimore-based luxury watch business. It also helps the wearer authentically express their identity.
“I know I’m not the only one who’s mindful of what they put on their body and use jewelry as a way of tapping into themselves more, which is a way that they show individuality,” Pelham said.
Pelham, who is Black, said she rarely sees Black people and other people of color featured in advertisements for luxury watch companies. So, she set out to create her own.
“It’s stuff like that that plants belief systems in your brain,” she said. “If all you see is whiteness with luxury, you’ll equate luxury with whiteness, and that is not true. Luxury is a freedom. Luxury is an experience. Luxury is a lifestyle. I purposefully use people of color in my social media, in my partnerships, in my connections, in my branding, to show them that people of color have nice things too.”
Black entrepreneurs in the Baltimore area, like Pelham, have been able to amplify their messages and grow their brands online, using tools that have been particularly valuable as the coronavirus pandemic strains many businesses with physical locations.
Some online platforms allow shoppers to specifically search for Black-owned businesses, a boon to many Baltimore-based entrepreneurs.
Pelham decided to start Divine Adornments Boutique in January 2020, although the pandemic halted the business’s official launch until October 2020.
Meanwhile, Camila Montejo-Poll, owner of Eclipse Candle Shop, started her business in July 2020.
Both women said locating in a physical storefront didn’t make sense at the time due to costs and logistics, as well as the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Stephanie Willoughby, owner of Indulgence Spa & Body Products, also opted for an online model when she started her business in 2015.
Willoughby previously owned two other businesses with storefronts: a bakery and a children’s decor shop, which sold hand-painted items like step stools and hanging letters for walls.
Reclaiming their time
In addition to the lower costs of running a business online, all three women agreed that another draw was the flexibility of time spent on operations.
“Being able to leverage my time in order to make passive income is very powerful, especially in the Black community,” Pelham said. “We’re used to knowing to exchange our labor for money. We show up, we clock in, clock out, that’s what we’re used to. But as we grow and learn to take advantage of systems that are in place, we can see that closing the disparity isn’t as hard as we have been trained or programmed to think.”
Time management is especially important for Willoughby, who cares for her mother, who has dementia.
Montejo-Poll, who recently started medical school, said it can be difficult to juggle her business and her studies. She typically carves out time in the evenings or early mornings to dedicate to her business.
Still, Montejo-Poll said her online business allows her to choose how to manage her time better than an in-person job would. She also appreciates the independent source of income that her business provides, so she doesn’t need a part-time job while in medical school.
In the two months between February and April 2020, the number of active businesses in the United States dropped by 22%. Black-owned businesses declined at nearly double that percentage, by 41%, according to data collected by Robert W. Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
Black-owned businesses rebounded by September 2020, the Washington Post reported.
But WGBH, Boston’s public radio station, reported in March 2021 that many minority-owned businesses continued to experience revenue shortfalls and difficulty accessing government relief.
“There definitely is highs and lows, and I feel like the lows have been very low,” said Montejo-Poll. “Because people are struggling financially, they’re not thinking about buying luxuries like a candle and stuff like that, so it’s been difficult in that aspect.”
In the first five years of business, Indulgence sold a total of about 1,500 units, Willoughby said. But that number skyrocketed in May 2020, and the business has totaled more than 13,600 sales as of August 2021.
Willoughby attributes the sharp rise in sales in part to people shopping more online while stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as more people actively seeking out Black-owned businesses to support in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and the racial justice protests that followed.
Websites like Etsy, where customers can search for Black-owned businesses, and the recently launched app Miiriya, which specifically showcases Black-owned businesses, have provided Black entrepreneurs with better access to potential new customers.
“I feel like the digital space helps make the world a lot smaller,” Willoughby said. She added that the apps connect customers with Black-owned businesses that “may have been overlooked” otherwise.
“There’s definitely more of a spotlight on it because Black people themselves are trying to support each other and I think we’ve been at the forefront of pushing that, which is amazing,” Montejo-Poll said.
She added, however, that such apps are often tailored to businesses that are run predominantly or exclusively online like her own, and the “next step” will be to get Black-owned businesses with storefronts to be showcased on these apps.
Developing a unique business model
All three women said it is important for entrepreneurs to find their niche and create a product that will appeal to their target audience.
Rather than separating watches by “men’s” and “women’s” accessories as most companies do, Divine Adornments categorizes its products based on their “masculine” or “feminine” quality.
“We separate it by the energy that you want to embody,” Pelham said of her watches, which use zebrawood and ebony. “We all as humans have masculine and feminine energy inside of us. It’s just whether it’s balanced or not … Think of it like yin and yang: they complement each other and they need each other and they will always find each other.”
Pelham said anyone should feel comfortable wearing any of Divine Adornments’ watches, regardless of their gender identity. Her favorite is the African Ebony Chronograph watch.
“I love how it goes with what feels like every outfit that I wear and it takes them to the next level,” she said. “It has so much personality and always get compliments, so as the founder, it resonates and reassures me.”
Willoughby competed on a Willy Wonka episode of Food Network’s Cake Wars show in 2016 as an assistant to Mimi Hood, owner of Mimi’s Mocha Treats, so she knows how to appeal to people’s sweet tooth.
As a baker, Willoughby learned that people “eat with their eyes.” She was inspired to create and sell dessert-inspired body products, modeled after treats like birthday cakes and fruity breakfast cereals.
“How do you online make people want your stuff?” she said. “Food is basic. We all set hungry. So I was like ‘For the stuff I can make look like treats, I’m just going to go all out like I do with my cupcakes.’”
Willoughby said she and her son both have sensitive skin, so she also wanted to create products that people with similar sensitivity could enjoy.
To meet those needs, Indulgence uses ingredients like argan oil and shea butter that are generally safer for more sensitive skin. Some products are also unscented for people with “extra sensitive” skin, Willoughby said.
For Montejo-Poll, Eclipse is all about nature-inspired candles, with scents that will permeate a room.
“I always get complimented on how strong they are and how much they last in the room because that’s what I really go for,” she said. “I don’t like to make soft smells that aren’t really going to fill the room.”
Montejo-Poll recently released her Cuba collection, an homage to her native country, which includes scents such as a tropical fruit smoothie, beachy aromas, coconut and café con leche.
Montejo-Poll also recommends building a personal relationship with customers, whether by replying to social media comments, direct messaging customers to make sure they’re enjoying their order, or sending thank you cards.
“I think people really appreciate that,” she said. “It makes them feel like they’re part of the operation.”
The challenges of being online
Running an online business has also had its challenges.
Montejo-Poll and Willoughby said customers are not able to smell their products as they would in a physical store — a big attraction for items like candles and shower icing.
To compensate, both businesses provide samples to encourage customers to buy the full product.
Growing up, Pelham said she came from a working class family that lived paycheck to paycheck. She didn’t have a mentor to guide her in the world of business, so she had to teach herself.
“Me branching out and doing something different in entrepreneurship, I was stepping out on faith,” she said.
Pelham said she taught herself aspects of business, like designing her website, through paid online courses and free YouTube videos. Whatever she couldn’t learn herself, she paid others to do, such as creating her logo and working with a photographer on a product photoshoot.
Discrimination against Black-owned businesses
Pelham and Montejo-Poll said they haven’t experienced discrimination as Black-owned business owners that they are aware of. But Willoughby said she has had several instances of being discriminated against or mistreated.
Like many businesses, Indulgence has experienced postal delays for more than a year now.
Willoughby saw delays in both receiving ingredient shipments from suppliers and shipping orders to customers. Although she explained the issues to customers, she said some blamed her for the delay or even accused her of stealing their money.
“We did tell people that there were delays, but people want what they want,” she said. “We had quite a few people say ‘I was trying to support a Black business and I regret it now.’”
In the past, Willoughby said she has been involved with Facebook groups for body product makers, which she stopped participating in after noticing how members of color were treated differently than their white counterparts.
“People want to basically tell us how to do business or what we’re doing is not right, but it’s worked for our culture for years and years and years,” she said, adding that some of the groups’ members only responded to questions asked by other white members.
In her former children’s art business, Willoughby said she didn’t show her face, and instead let her white employees represent the business after she lost accounts once clients found out she was Black.
Willoughby recounted one instance when a woman ordered items to hang in her store. Willoughby showed up to deliver the items to the woman’s husband, who was in disbelief that she had painted them.
Afterwards, the woman emailed Willoughby to break off the partnership.
“She’s like ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m thinking maybe this might not be a good fit,’” Willoughby said, adding that the client wouldn’t answer any questions.
On another occasion while working at a craft show, customers kept addressing Willoughby’s younger, white employee despite that employee redirecting them to Willoughby.
“This older woman, she said ‘I’ve watched these people not acknowledge you and it breaks my heart.’ But then she ended off with ‘It’s so nice to see people like yourself doing something productive.’” Willoughby said.
Now, however, Willoughby said she proudly shares that her business is owned by a Black woman, and she advises other Black business owners to do that same.
“Be proud of who you are,” she said. “Never shy away from that. And make your story part of your business because people want your product, but they also want your story and they want to know who you are.”