By Brenda De Los Santos
Summertime Fine. Living Single. Get Ta Steppin’. Gramm’s Kitchen. These are just a few of the varieties of candles and wax melts made by So Black Candle Co., “the place where culture meets lit scents,” based in New London, CT. Kylah Chadwick, owner and creative force behind the online business, combined her love for candles with elements of Black culture to create the business in September of 2020.
Chadwick hand makes all of her products, and has done extensive research and testing to ensure that her candles and melts are the best. Her products use a parasoy wax blend, which she says has a nice scent throw, and she customizes the amount of fragrance in each variety based on the type of jar used. She has even researched to ensure her candles have the right wick so her candles have strong scent throws, slow, clean burns, as well as longer burn times. Chadwick notes, “Before you ever get the candle there is so much testing that goes in behind it. I double check the packaging and the candle itself. I go above and beyond to make sure when the candles arrive they have a good experience.” She has even gone so far as to contact shipping services on behalf of her customers.
A one-woman show, the business keeps her very busy — she does everything herself, from website creation and maintenance, designing her product labels, and regular trips to the post office to ship orders. She thinks that being relatable to people is a big part of providing great customer service. “At first, some people don’t realize there is an actual person behind the business,” she says, “but then people see that I am a regular person listening to their concerns.”
With many other handcrafted candle businesses out there, Chadwick knows the concept behind her candles and melts stands out. “People will see a label and connect to it whether it's a show that they remember or that the Gramm candle reminds them of their grandma.” Some of her most popular varieties are 90’s R&B, a sangria scent that comes with a playlist, Double Melanin, a cocoa butter and cashmere scent, and her sample packs, which include nine varieties in tea light form. Her Black culture-centered products are available as wax melts, 4 ounce candles in a tin, or 8 ounce candles in a glass jar, as well as two different options for sample packs.
“People will see a label and connect to it whether it's a show that they remember or that the Gramm candle reminds them of their grandma.”
Having gone to school for social work (she has a masters degree in it) and currently working as a full-time crisis specialist, candle making has given her a creative outlet; She sees each candle as a work of art. “I feel like I found my passion,” she says, “I knew I wanted to make it into a business, I just didn’t expect it to go this fast.” So Black Candle Co. celebrates it’s one-year anniversary in September 2021, and Chadwick’s next goal is to be working for herself.
Find So Black Candle Co. on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or visit their website to shop or learn more.
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By Lajeune Hollis
Uniquely Cleaned, a residential and commercial cleaning service based in Naugatuck, is a typical family business at heart--but the family that started it is pushing things beyond the norm.
Four years ago, Byron Williams was inspired to pursue a family business by his father, a re-entering citizen. “My dad was in prison for 26 years. I didn't want him coming back home and working for somebody. We wanted a business to reintroduce him back into society,” said Williams. “So, we asked him, ‘What type of business do you want us to start?’ and at first he said a moving company, and then somehow, a cleaning business came up.”
So, the Williams’ went to work. Once they finished all the paperwork necessary to register their cleaning business with the Secretary of the State, they had to decide what to call it. Byron's wife Dee explained, "My full name is Dewygee, so growing up I would always hear, ‘that name is so different,’ ‘You’re a unique person.’ And I always did do things uniquely!” She just knew their family's cleaning business would have to be called “Uniquely Cleaned.”
In that spirit, Uniquely Cleaned accommodates jobs small, large and in between. As far as they are concerned, every mess is unique, and so is their service. "We pride ourselves on our customer service,” says Dee. “We are not your norm!”
Unfortunately, Byron said, “Things did not work out with Dad. He lasted maybe 4 or 5 months.” After the Williams’ found themselves with a cleaning business they hadn’t planned on operating they pressed on, he says, starting with just “some brooms, mops, and a vacuum cleaner. We started off residentially and then got to a point where, on my father’s last day, we received our first commercial contract with a dance studio."
When the business launched, the Williams' started it with their four children. Byron handles the marketing and finds customers on a part-time basis, while also working full-time as a power plant operator in Bridgeport. Dee works full-time managing Uniquely Cleaned after leaving her job at a non-profit. Their eldest daughter, Oriana, heads up the business' human resources. 19-year-old Gary and 17-year-old Donni supervise the cleaning business part-time, and their youngest child, at age 11, helps with tasks like taking out the trash.
“The bigger we are, the more people we can help.”
Things started to take off as residents of Naugatuck, Cheshire and Waterbury began calling with residential jobs. Their social media posts and business cards were working, in addition to referrals from happy customers. In their first year, Uniquely Cleaned had seven clients. That number doubled to 14 in the year to follow and, by 2020, their service had grown to supporting 70 clients.
But, when COVID-19 hit, it took away about 85% of their business. However, it wasn’t going to be the end for Uniquely Cleaned. Even though they had lost most of their residential business in 2020, they were able to pivot towards more lucrative commercial contracts as people continued to return to work.
Returning to his day job at Bridgeport Harbor Station, Byron saw sanitation employees coming in during the day to disinfect the building with a fogger. The entire job was completed in two hours and came with a fee of $5,000. A lightbulb went off in Byron’s head, and he went out that evening to purchase two chemical foggers for Uniquely Cleaned. But instead of only seeking out industrial clients looking to sanitize large facilities, he started including fog sanitization with small deep cleaning jobs, too. This led to more and more calls from pharmacies, daycares and even an automobile dealership. Now, Byron says, “we will be actively looking for contract opportunities in various sizes, applying to and bidding on more state and government contracts, as we are looking to expand as far as we can.”
Byron also used Pandemic downtime to obtain a Minority-Owned Business Certificate from the State of Connecticut. In fact, they found themselves eligible for several grants, including for veterans like Byron. They also registered with a program in Naugatuck to provide summer jobs at their business to a handful of high-school students, and provide hands-on experience with cleaning and office work to learn business administration.
Dee is also heavily involved in their local community. She has formed partnerships with Naugatuck’s Police Chief and Superintendent of Schools. She is also on the Board of Directors for Naugatuck’s Youth Services, where Uniquely Cleaned serves as a job site, and as a partner in mentorship and community services. Community service, she says, is her passion. "Community service is a major component of what you are supposed to do anyway," she shared. Mentorship comes as second nature to her after running a federally-funded program to get minority students from Bridgeport, New Haven and Stratford into the medical field in 2012.
In keeping with their original mission, Uniquely Cleaned is a Second Chance Employer. They actively look to hire, train and help people that other employers may reject because of their history of incarceration. This includes a supervisor training program to learn leadership skills, and an administrative training program to help people adjust to working in an office environment.
As for what is next, The Williams' are focused on growing their business around the principle that “the bigger we are, the more people we can help.”
Uniquely Cleaned is located in Naugatuck, Connecticut. Visit their website, Facebook or Instagram to learn more.
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By Kerry Kincy
Yolanda Hart, owner of Carrot Top’s Sweet Potato Treat, and I grew up in the same town and shared many of the same larger circles of community—a sort of “my people know your people” epiphany. And yet, I’m not sure we had ever had a real conversation outside of me ordering one of her sweet potato Bundt cakes just shy of a year ago.
Just as the reality of the global pandemic was about to sink in, folks were lining up for toilet paper rolls and cleaning supplies. Me? I was looking for all the comforts that a sweet potato Bundt cake could bring and came across beautiful pictures of Hart’s mini pies and mini cakes.
Hey, we all cope differently, right?
Hart bakes mostly to keep a balance between her teaching job and love for baking.
In fact, she’s been teaching English, biology and math to high-school students in Middletown for more than 20 years and holds two Masters of Education in Urban Leadership and in Special Education and Teaching. She’s held many leadership roles in education, including Coordinator of the Minority Student Coalition at Middletown High School. Most recently, she transitioned from teaching high-school students to differently abled junior high students in the Intensive Case Management Program. Hart works tirelessly to uplift and empower her students and absolutely loves her work.
For many years, Hart’s mother, Carolyn, owned a sweet little café in Middletown called 3 Sister’s Place. I don't think there is a soul that walked through those doors that didn’t feel welcome and at home upon entering. Having had their bellies filled just right made their visits even more incredible. In retrospect, I remember the restaurant being an unassuming experience in all things feminine, an experience of sisterhood, of food and in Black family culture. Of course, back then, I didn’t have the awareness of that concept nor the language to articulate of all that. However, the palpability of it was enough to keep returning for a dose of that which only can be felt: home.
This sense of home is what you taste in every one of Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats. The name “Carrot Top” was given to Hart’s Mom, Carolyn, from her grandfather. In the summer months, Carolyn’s hair would beam a beautiful orange and her father gave her the sweet nickname. Like most Black families, these terms of endearments stick to you forever. It’s special for sure and even more special when looking back in the totality of someone's lifetime. My grandmother called me “Peanut Butter,” and, like peanut butter, it has stuck to me and my memories of her. These seemingly simple things about Black culture keep my own ideas of Blackness appreciated and adored. Nicknames, in a sense, feel like “ours.”
In November of 2014, Hart’s mother, Carolyn, passed away. A few years later, Hart decided she would try to make one of her mom’s sweet potato pies. Her first attempt rendered the most perfect sweet potato mixture and crust. She wasn’t sure if she just wanted to believe so badly that it tasted just like her mom’s, so she brought the pie to her dad and older brothers to taste. With their collective confirmation, it felt as if they were all back together, and a sense of all the love Hart’s mother had for her family enveloped them. It was home again.
“My dad and I talked about even contacting the Oprah Winfrey show to share,” she beamed. Uncles, aunties and folks who had never tasted her mother’s sweet potato treats were equally in awe at this sort of magic that could only have been sent to Hart from the heavens above.
Then, one of Hart’s uncles found a recipe for sweet potato cake from her great grandmother and was eager to share it with her. She followed the recipe and that too came out equally as beautiful and delicious as the pies. After only a few practice cakes, she added them to her repertoire and Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats offerings. Initially, her treats were enjoyed most often by family and friends, but then, she began sharing with her larger community.
“I don't know why I was the chosen one,” laughed Hart, having only ever sat across the table and watched as her mom made her sweet potato pies and cakes, with no recipe and few measuring cups and spoons.
Hart crafts heartfelt, meaningful and thoughtful sweet treats for everyone to experience.
“It was mostly just spending time [together],” she shared. “The importance of that time became even more real after my Mom’s passing.” All too often, we both agreed, you find more reasons that you love someone when they are no longer here in their physical body. We shared how heart wrenching it is to want to tell them that one more reason, and, why you love them and cannot. Agreeably bittersweet.
Living in disbelief of many of the inequalities we live as a people, no one could ever take from us the sweet nuances that make up a visit to mom’s, watching her prepare traditional Black meals and desserts. You always know who made the potato salad and you always know, within a bite, who didn’t make it. Black culture, like Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats, is rich, colorful, royal and it carries a degree of “ours” within every bite.
Hart is now busy crafting heartfelt, meaningful and thoughtful sweet treats for everyone to experience. Her business partners include Josiah, her 21-year-old son, who helps with deliveries. Her 5-year-old son Jeremiah has become an invaluable team member, helping his mom with baking and packaging.
Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats are heaven in your mouth and provide some of the best of what Black culture offers: a sweet taste that carries the collective spirits of our great grandmothers, grandmothers, aunties and our own mothers to our kitchen tables long after they have left this physical world. Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats taste like home.
Hart has been successfully experimenting with a new Sweet Potato cookie recipe to add to her offerings and graciously shared it with ShopBlackCT.com fans.
Deacon Hart’s Delights
2 1/4 cups of flour
1 tsp baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg
1 cup of softened butter (room temperature)
3/4cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup mashed purée sweet potato (I use the batter for my pie!)
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup crushed walnuts
1 cup shredded coconut
1 container of cream cheese frosting, melted
Preheat the oven to 375°. Mix dry ingredients together in a small bowl. All except for the sugars.
Cream both sugars and butter together until smooth, and fluffy. Add the vanilla, egg and sweet potato. Beat well. Add the ingredients from the small bowl and mix until combined. Add 1 cup of walnuts. Save the other 1/2 cup for the topping.
Scoop small balls onto baking sheets and bake for about 5 minutes. Add the coconut and bake for another 8 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely. Lightly drizzle with melted cream cheese frosting and sprinkle with the remaining walnuts.
Carrot’s Top’s Sweet Treats is located in Middletown, Connecticut. Visit their Facebook page to learn more.
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By Lajeune Hollis
Alisha Moten, exuberant and full-of-joy makeup artist and owner of Golden Adorns Artistry, loves to travel with her husband on vacation. She loves to take in all the sights, sounds and scenes from every excursion, but the feeling of refreshment and vibrancy she adopts quickly dissipates when she returns home. Instead of being stuck in a let-down of post-vacation blues, Moten used her experience as a catalyst and inspiration to launch her online business while on a four-month pandemic-induced job furlough in 2020.
“Golden is for things that bring you joy,” she shared. “Adorns means to beautify. When I think about life, I want it to be golden and bring me joy, travel, art and beauty."
It’s no wonder Moten’s mantra is to live life goldenly. She has a positive mindset and encourages others to do the same by taking just a few minutes a day to de-stress–and her wellness essential oils and candles can help with that.
Golden Adorns Artistry features a variety of travel-inspired products, including candles, décor, skin care and wellness.
"When I think about life, I want it to be golden and bring me joy, travel,
Moten offers 10 signature double-wicked candle scents that are each packaged beautifully in glass tumblers with natural cork lids, and include her Luxe Resort Travel Candle, Destination Travel Candle, Exotic Hiatus Travel Candle, Golden Moments Travel Candle and Vacation Hair Travel Candle.
“Golden Moments is a sugar lemongrass scent, a sweet but lemony zest—a fun scent,” she shared. “You are creating memories while on vacation, hence, Golden Moments.”
And as for her Vacation Hair Travel Candle?
“Ladies are excited to go on vacation, so we get our hair done with twists, braids, pixies and up-dos,” she said. And that memory of the smell of “vacation hair” is what she’s captured.
She also carries Citrus Crème Lip Smoothie, a very popular lip smoothie made with coconut, Shea butter, lemon essential oil and vanilla. This big seller leaves lips feeling not just smooth but moisturized.
As part of her wellness line, Moten carries wellness essential oils. Her Zest aromatherapy blend is made with lemongrass and peppermint essential oils, and provides a feeling of energy and invigoration–a perfect “pick-me-up” from a mid-afternoon slump. Her Bedtime essential oil is made with lavender and frankincense and helps provide a restful sleep, just like the kind you experience while on vacation.
Moten plans to offer specialty boxes—filled with accoutrements—for destination-themed bridal showers and weddings. And, a Golden Candle Travel Club is also on the horizon, where subscribers will receive a monthly candle box—highlighting a different travel destination—and other goodies. What’s more? Moten would like to run her online business on a full-time basis, increasing distribution by expanding her product line into boutiques and home décor shops.
If you’re looking for a fun way to spend time with friends, Golden Adorns Artistry offers home parties, themed around beauty, scents and travel. Hosts choose from a list of suggestions and receive many perks, including credit from party merchandise sales.
So, if you seek the feeling that comes from a vacation that never ends—the warmth of the sun, the fresh ocean breeze, the sound of your favorite music playing on the beach—then look no further than Golden Adorns Artistry. They truly “capture the feelings of wanderlust through home fragrance, skincare, style and décor.”
Golden Adorns Artistry is an online business based in West Haven, Connecticut. Shop on their website by clicking here or visit Golden Adorns Artistry on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.
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By Sarah Thompson
Shian Earlington is proof that the most beautiful diamonds are created under pressure. At just 20 years old, Earlington is a biochemistry major with the intent of becoming a neonatal surgeon. She is also a community advocate, activist, K-12 STEM tutor, Get LIT Teens Podcast co-host and a business owner.
Earlington always knew she wanted to be her own boss after seeing how her immigrant parents were poorly treated working for other people, and in February 2020, her dream became a reality when she launched her jewelry, accessory, cosmetics and crafts company.
“Bling’d By Kaila is flashy, nice and sassy—it’s all about fun!” she exclaimed.
Her customers, who she gains mostly through social media like TikTok and Instagram, gravitate toward her handmade charm bracelets, purses and bonnets. They love her genuine and friendly nature, and keep coming back for more.
However, being able to thrive in a pandemic has not been easy.
“At first I was in the land of the unknown, so to speak,” she shared. “Because remember, there was a time when everyone was scared to go outside and people were only going outside to get groceries. So I didn’t know if people would trust me to sanitize their products and send them off. Eventually the trust rolled in and that’s how I’ve been getting sale after sale after sale.”
“Bling’d By Kaila is flashy, nice and sassy—it’s all about fun!”
Earlington puts special efforts into ensuring her customer service is top notch by including handwritten notes and extras in each order she packages, and even goes the extra mile to provide one-on-one consultations. Each order gets a little bit of sparkle when it hits a customer’s mailbox.
“When I’m in the process of doing a transaction with a customer, I like to get to know them better,” she explained. “Sometimes I even Facetime them, and get a little more information about them – like, what’s your favorite color? What candies do you like? I show them things they might be interested in. I like to put a smile on their face.”
Earlington is shining bright these days, but it hasn’t come without struggles.
“Growing up my life wasn’t perfect, and it still isn’t. I struggle with anxiety and depression and my life was not a crystal stair,” she shared. “Now that I’m older and I have moved out on my own, my life is in my own hands and I can do what I want with it now. I’m not only loving on myself, I’m loving on other people and other children that need it.”
And spread sparkles she does, in so many ways. From helping tutor inner city youth to encouraging young Black and Brown women on a podcast, she’s determined to show others how through struggles beauty can be born. She also wants to be an example for other young entrepreneurs who are considering starting their own businesses.
"Do it scared, do it afraid, but as long as you’re doing it and doing it with God, you’re going to be fine. No one’s perfect and you can always perfect anything as time goes by,” she encouraged. “2020 shattered me into pieces. Yet, through it all I trusted in God and I am beginning to feel whole again.”
Bling’d By Kaila is an exclusively online business based out of Hartford, Connecticut. Click here to shop, or find Bling’d By Kaila on Instagram or TikTok. Her hours are 8:00am – 5:00pm EST, Monday through Friday.
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By Brenda De Los Santos
At The Green Room, it’s all about family. The New London restaurant and bar that features a welcoming and cozy ambiance, a menu of comfort-soul food along with meticulously thought-up cocktails, opened in July of 2019 to fill a void in southeastern Connecticut. Co-owners Jonai Phillips, Tondra Bryant and Shakim Outler wanted to create something for their community by their community, where patrons could feel like they were at their home away from home.
Phillips, a 2010 graduate of New London High School, joined forces with family friend Bryant and Bryant’s longtime boyfriend, Outler, to remedy the dearth of soul food restaurants in the area. “New London was missing something like this - if you wanted to get food like this, you had to go to Hartford or New Haven - we wanted to fill that void,” says Phillips.
“Our business will always stand apart from others because we are a family and we focus on our customers and what makes them feel comfortable,” says Bryant. With offerings like their popular Rasta Pasta, a jerk alfredo dish with pasta, bell peppers and choice of chicken or shrimp, Chicken n’ Waffle Bites with house spicy maple syrup, and Eggplant Meatballs, The Green Room’s menu offers something for everyone. “We try to put choices on the menu so that people who don’t drink or who are vegetarian or pescatarian have choices too,” says Phillips.
The events that led up to the trio - whose LLC is called “Three’s Company,” a nod to the classic sitcom that featured two women and a man - opening the restaurant seem like they were meant to be. “Tondra is my best friend's mom,” says Phillips, “We got into this idea because I was working at the bistro down the street and she was cooking out of her home and wanted to do brunch, so she came into the bistro.” Phillips, who moved back to the area after an eight year stint in New York City to attend college and begin her career, looked to the future after the bistro closed. “I started looking around and this place fell into my lap. It was perfect.”
“Our business will always stand apart from others because we are a family and we focus on our customers and what makes them feel comfortable."
The restaurateurs put a big emphasis on quality, with attention to fresh ingredients and they maintain high standards when it comes to their menu. “We have a guy - Big Jim - who makes our handmade lump crab cakes, and our scallops are bought locally,” says Phillips. “They [Bryant and Outler] put their soul and family recipes into our menu,” she says.
“My inspiration has been and always will be my grandmother, who taught me everything,” says Bryant. Continuing that legacy was her motivation, “My family keeps me going. I want to have something they can be proud of and leave them in charge of one day.”
Phillips has put meticulous consideration into The Green Room’s drink menu as well. With staples like #HennyThingsPossible, a frozen Hennesy colada, and the Black Mamba, a cocktail of silver rum, blackberry syrup, sugar, lime, mint & soda, their drink menu is eclectic yet accessible. “We make sure everything is consistent and the drinks are strong enough,” says Phillips. “They are not cheap, but are not too expensive. I put a lot of thought into them. Every season has a special drink menu too.”
Greenery is featured prominently in the restaurants’ decor, and the fireplace at the center of the main room contributes to the warm and inviting atmosphere. Their staff of ten consists of mainly friends and family, and Phillips says, “Even if you’re not [friends or family] you end up being that.” That feeling of being family is passed on to patrons, due in large part to the environment that Phillips, Bryant and Outler have painstakingly created. When you visit The Green Room, you’re home.
The Green Room is located at 345 Bank Street, New London, CT. Learn more on their website, Instagram or Facebook.
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By Lajeune Hollis
MGI Fire-Arms—which stands for “Mr. Gibson Instructs”—is the result of two things Ricardo Gibson loves: firearms and teaching.
For eight years, Gibson has been teaching children in Waterbury—his hometown—in grades Pre-K through eight. And, he even coaches intramural sports and women’s flag football in his community. The first in his family to graduate college, his aspirations continue to soar as he hopes to become a Waterbury school principal.
Six years ago, although he was “anti-gun” growing up, Gibson took a seat in his first pistol training class. He enjoyed it so much that he pursued his Connecticut gun license and soon after, began posting instructional videos on social media. People took notice and the likes, comments and shares began to increase, as did the inquiries for when he was going to start his own pistol instruction business.
Gibson heeded his fans’ advice and, with just five students in his first class in June 2020, he launched MGI Fire-Arms during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. His online class attendee numbers quickly grew beyond 200 from his popularity on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, and through word of mouth and his loyalty card referral program.
My love for teaching has led me to become a Licensed NRA Instructor,” shared Gibson. “Being an elementary school teacher has led to me keeping the same principles when teaching my pistol course—patience, differentiation and high expectations.”
Gibson’s courses include Pistol Permit Certification, CT Basic Permit Certification, and Shooting Refinement for advanced learners. He is also in the process of offering a Massachusetts License to Carry Certification Course. One of his most popular courses is the Utah Pistol Permit Course which covers more than 30 states. He partners with venues like The Gun Store in Connecticut to host it and everything is provided in the classroom, including fingerprints, passport photos, documentation and envelopes to mail everything off. The cost for this course is $130 and is limited to the first 10 people who sign up.
“One of my primary goals is for my students to leave the class feeling comfortable and learning something new."
All of Gibson’s instructional sessions generally last 30 minutes and he meets course participants at their chosen gun range, provides ammunitions, targets and a variety of guns to try. Following classes, if a student wants to get their CT gun license they may need to exercise some added patience. Normally it takes up to eight weeks but due to the pandemic in can take up to six months.
“One of my primary goals is for my students to leave the class feeling comfortable and learning something new,” he shared. “I want them to know that they can always use me as a resource and I’m available by phone or text.”
One of the many reasons Gibson’s classes are successful is because of his contagious enthusiasm and he recognizes that people learn differently, so he caters to each person accordingly. He has found that some people learn by seeing (visual), some by hearing (aural), some by touching (physical), some by logics (mathematical), some by Interpersonal means (social) and some by Intrapersonal means (solitary). His teaching style adapts to all learning styles.
Gibson’s students rave about his classes, sharing that their “only regret is that [they] didn’t take the class sooner,” that they “loved the class—[it’s] informative yet personal, and to the point,” and encourage that “If you’re looking for an instructor to make you feel at home, relate with you and make sure you have a great time, Ricardo is your guy!”
Most of the people who take Gibson’s courses have never even seen a firearm.
One student shared, “I brought someone with me who was unknowingly fearful and by the end of our session Ricardo educated her and got her over her fear.”
Gibson says that he is blessed but recognizes that timing is everything. During the last year, learning how to use a gun safely was high on many people’s list after witnessing disturbing national news stories like George Floyd’s death.
MGI Fire-Arms is proof that 2020 wasn’t all bad after all.
“The only way to do great work is to love what you,” shares Gibson. According to his words of wisdom, he certainly is doing great work, in many ways.
Find MGI Fire-Arms on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or on their website. Class participants must be 18 years or older and 21 years or older to obtain a Connecticut conceal permit license.
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By Mahalia Anderson
Beauty can go a long way, and Waterbury business owner Cherron Freeman is making sure every customer that visits her store leaves feeling even more beautiful then when they walked in.
Just a few months ago, Cherron’s Beauty Supply was only an idea for Freeman, who is a recent HBCU graduate from North Carolina Central University and holds two degrees—one in political science with a concentration in prelaw and another in mass communication with a concentration in public relations.
“I got the idea to open my store after my mom showed me the space for rent and kept telling me it was a perfect location for a business,” she shared. “I wanted to open something Waterbury didn’t have already and then we came up with a beauty supply store to bring something different.”
Since then, the Cherron Beauty Supply has been flourishing.
“We carry everything you need in a beauty supply store, from all varieties of colorful wigs to natural hair care products such as Mielle and ORS,” shared Freeman. “We also [do] hair braiding and crocheting, [have] hair accessories, jewelry and a lot more.”
When it comes to hair, Freeman knows that quality is important, and she knows that her customers can depend on her store for the right products to suit their needs and help enhance their natural beauty.
“We make sure we have the best quality wigs and products for our customers,” she said. “We only want to have products which really work for your hair and wigs that will last.”
Cherron’s Beauty Supply is able to cater to each customer’s personality, with affordability as a priority. Her best-selling products show how Freeman’s customers are all about being fun and creative. “Our customers love our wigs! We have so many unique colors and styles, and we’re still adding more every day,” she shared. “One of our most popular products if our Tie Dye Wig—people love it. We have to restock it all the time!”
“We really take the time to research everything and choose what is best. From the wigs the products and how to use them, we want to be able to give honest information.”
Freeman understands the value of each customer and her goal is to make sure that when they leave the store that not only are the happy but are radiating from the inside out.
“The best customer service is having knowledge about your products and be able to inform your customers properly. You also need a very friendly, outgoing personality,” explained Freeman. “We really take the time to research everything and choose what is best. From the wigs the products and how to use them, we want to be able to give honest information.”
Cherron’s Beauty Supply stocks beautiful wigs in many different colors, styles and materials, including synthetic to human hair, to set the look for a special night out or even a casual day in the park.
With success already knocking at her door, Freeman’s dream is to grow her business and be able to teach other girls how, with following their passion and putting in hard work, they can do the same. “Wanting to expand keeps me going! I want to have multiple stores in different cities all around and be able to teach other girls how to do it too,” she shared.
Freeman has already made a huge difference in her community and has high hopes to do more in the future. “We had a toy giveaway for Christmas in partnership with The New Woman’s Club,” she shared. “We plan on doing a lot more in the spring!”
One way or another, Cherron is beautifying her community, one product at a time.
Cherron’s Beauty Supply is located at 68 Willow Street in Waterbury, Connecticut and is open Monday-Friday, 10:00am-7:00pm, Saturday 9:00am-7:00pm and Sunday 12:00-5:00pm. Shop on their website or find Cherron’s Beauty Supply on Instagram or Facebook.
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By Lajeune Hollis
Launched in August 2020, ReFramed by Nikki is an eyewear business located in North Haven, Connecticut. Owner Nicole Forbes-Shaw—who goes by “Nikki”—is a nurse by trade who believes that patient care should be a nurse’s first priority.
With an extensive professional background in nursing, Nikki is an Assistant Nurse Manager of the Interventional Immunology Center where she assists in managing two out of six sites that focus on chronic and auto-immune diseases including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, lupus and other inflammatory disorders. Nikki also attends Western Governors University and is actively working to complete her Masters in Nursing in 2022.
To Nikki, “ReFramed means reframing your visual perspective. Your glasses make your whole visual perspective – clear.” The ReFramed by Nikki eyewear includes a range of styles, from chic and precise, to astute and edgy, with eyewear styles categorized in unique collections, each of which has a significant meaning.
The first collection, “The Collective,” was introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic and was a way of acknowledging the heroic work of close family, friends and colleagues who worked as essential workers – including Nikki herself. Ten percent of the proceeds from eyewear purchased from “The Collective” collection was given to Yale Haven Hospital’s COVID Relief Fund.
“ReFramed means reframing your visual perspective. Your glasses make your whole visual perspective – clear.”
The second collection, launched in October 2020, is the “While Black” collection. It was introduced to increase cultural awareness and knowledge of common stereotypes and issues faced within the Black community.
ReFramed by Nikki is an online-based eyewear business that also offers services such as virtual and in-person consultations. In-person consultations are offered for a ten-dollar fee per person. These consultations offer an opportunity to meet with Nikki or a brand ambassador to try on and purchase frames upfront (depending on availability). To ensure the utmost safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nikki and her team adhere to CDC guidelines when meeting in-person. Group consultations require a minimum of five people, with the host receiving their consultation free of charge.
Beginning in Spring 2021, ReFramed by Nikki will offer a new service for clients outside of Connecticut who want to try on or purchase frames. This service will allow clients to select four eyewear styles of their choice and schedule a private Zoom consultation with Nikki or a brand ambassador. The brand will also be expanding to include eyewear for kids, readers and smaller frames for petite faces.
Click here to visit the ReFramed by Nikki website or find ReFramed by Nikki on Instagram or Facebook.
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By Lajeune Hollis
It’s no secret that one of the best ways to gain riches in the United States is to invest in real estate. Sara Kennedy, a small town girl who grew up in Middlefield, Connecticut, learned this lesson early on by reading books about investing in real estate and watching real estate agents in action on HGTV and other television shows.
Her father, who passed away when she was just 23 years old, also prompted Sara to pursue her dreams, often saying to her whatever you do, just be happy. These simple but profound words continue to reverberate in her life even to this day.
After attending college in New York, working for Dell Computers on Fifth Avenue in New York City, heading up communications at Woodstock Academy in Woodstock, Connecticut, working for a non-profit law firm in Hartford, Connecticut and even teaching English in Haiti where her mother runs an orphanage, she finally found her niche and work home at William Raveis Real Estate.
Sara chose William Raveis Real Estate primarily because they are owned and operated by Connecticut residents, so to her it feels like a small family-owned brokerage. Also, she arrived at the firm with no sales experience and her managers connected her with her now business partner, who went above and beyond to train her, which she appreciated.
Sara specializes in helping first-time homebuyers, second-time homebuyers, first-time sellers and relocation sales, all with the motivation to help her clients fulfill the “American Dream.” While she’s not yet a homeowner, she continues to learn through her journey of helping others.
Sara and her partner Santo recently created their own team at William Raveis called Nutmeg Homes. With two administrative assistants on their support staff, one buyers agent, and two incoming agents, they are striving to help as many people as possible, especially people of color who have much less generational wealth. Her biggest goal in life is to change that.
Photo provided by Sara Kennedy
Sara is striving to help as many people as possible, especially people of color who have much less generational wealth. Her biggest goal in life is to change that.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse according to Sara. Because real estate agents are deemed essential workers, but not all were eager to continue working in the field, Sara sees the number of referrals she received as a blessing, and she’s had her best sales year to date. However, her newfound success has poised challenges with her work/life demands and she’s working to adjust for a better overall balance. Taking some day trips throughout Connecticut and practicing yoga is already helping.
What’s next for Sara? She’s looking to build out her sales team with Nutmeg Homes and hopes to expand her design work and real estate portfolio, then purchase multi-family properties to counter some of the negative landlord issues that plague Connecticut cities. Ultimately, she’s looking to help others make their dreams come true, supporting people of color and businesses of color. She might even open a restaurant. After all, if it makes her happy, she’s going to do it, just like her father encouraged her.
Find Sara Kennedy and Nutmeg Homes at nutmeghomes.raveis.com, on Instagram and on Facebook. Sara and her team cover Hartford, Middlesex, Tolland, Windham, New Haven, and Fairfield counties, and are willing to drive anywhere to help their clients.
Photo provided by Sara Kennedy
Photo provided by Sara Kennedy
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Photos courtesy of Fresh Start Cleaning CT.
By Sarah Thompson
DShaun Williams is following in his father’s footsteps, literally.
Born and raised in Hartford, his dad showed him from an early age what hard work and perseverance looked like. Almost every weekend, he would tag along to his father’s second job in commercial cleaning, a job that his dad is still doing 17 years later.
“I was raised solely by my Dad,” shared Williams. “His way of parenting was strict, but now, as a grown man looking back to when he took me to his cleaning accounts on Saturdays when I would rather be outside playing, I’m glad all that took place. He would bring me with him, and I would help out and see what he was doing.”
His father encouraged him along the way, explaining that cleaning businesses can be lucrative.
“That inspired me to go ahead and press go,” said Williams.
Williams met his business partner, Christopher Cho, whom he also refers to as his friend and brother, at a corporate job a few years ago.
“We were working a corporate job together and I was his boss, so it just so happened that we shared an office together,” he explained. “So, we grew close and it worked. I would throw out these crazy ideas and he would go with it and make it work.”
From there, Williams learned organization skills and lived by the mantra “whatever you have to do to make it work, make it work,” earning recognition and achievement awards along the way. "We are so confident in our abilities as a company, we offer our customers the first week of cleaning absolutely free of charge,” he explained.
Soon after, Fresh Start Cleaning CT was launched, in June of 2020. The business, with a team of eight employees, now provides commercial cleaning including dusting, window cleaning, floor buffing and carpet shampooing for large property management companies, medical offices and other facilities.
"All throughout my life I’ve been able to push right through [adversity] and to be honest, we couldn’t have picked a better time to start this endeavor."
“We can handle any aspect of any facility,” explained Williams. “The biggest challenge is the pandemic. People want to work from home, so to be able to provide a very clean and disinfected [work or office] environment is the utmost importance so we all, as a society, can eventually get back to some kind of normalcy.”
Despite COVID, Williams and Cho have seen a steady growth in businesses since their launch just seven months ago.
“When I look back on my life and my upbringing, for me, I like a challenge,” shared Williams. “That’s how I like it to be done. Everybody’s freaking out and people don’t want to come outside but in the turmoil we will rise. Like a phoenix.”
Launching a business isn’t the only new chapter Williams took on last year. He also has a new son who he affectionately named Phoenix.
“All throughout my life I’ve been able to push right through [adversity] and to be honest, we couldn’t have picked a better time to start this endeavor,” he shared.
Just as his father was dedicated to him, he is dedicated to his customers. And it shows.
“My customers know that they can expect from me that if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and we’ve got to get something done, we’ll jump out of bed and get it done,” explained Williams. “I sent an email at 2 o’clock in the morning recently and we got a response by 9 o’clock that morning asking for a quote. So, just staying on it, not giving up, constantly pushing the limit, that’s my style and it works.”
Fresh Start looks forward to giving back to the community soon, too. “We must give back. It is a requirement,” he explained. “We have to show people that through adversity like the pandemic, they can still reach their goals and push forward towards their dreams.”
As for Williams, he’s always been interested in politics and changing the outlook of places like Hartford.
“One thing I learned coming up as a Black man is to always be ten times better. You have to be,” he shared. “Sometimes there’s this trustworthy factor—like hey, can I trust this guy? Or for a lot of people, their first scope into really having personal or business relationships with a Black person is through the lens that they saw on television. When I deal with people, it’s straight professionalism. I don’t subscribe to what they may have seen. It’s about being better than every other business and providing better service.”
At first glance, Williams and Cho might seem an unlikely pair.
“If you look at Chris and I, it’s what the country needs right now,” shared Williams. “We’re two people from totally different aspects of life, different upbringing, coming together to make something happen. I put a lot of faith in him, he puts a lot of faith in me and we make it work. With everything that’s going on right now, with the pandemic, with the whole cry for social justice, I feel like our story is very important for people to see.”
With each new opportunity to engage with a new or potential client, Fresh Start is inspiring others with their representation of unity.
Williams summed it up: “We represent what America can be…and clean!”
Fresh Start Cleaning CT is located at 304 West Main Street in Avon, with services available throughout Connecticut and New York. Click here to learn more.
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By Alicia Brown
“A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle” is an anonymous quote that seems fitting for Oh D’Luxe Candle + Co., a growing company based in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Oh D’Luxe is owned by Oddette Staple-Brown, an amazing candle making guru.
During the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic, many people seemed to be trying new things. Some found yoga, and some, like Staple-Brown, dabbled in online language courses. But it wasn’t until she remembered that she loved candle making—after all, she has an “utter obsession with all things with amazing scents”—that she was fully inspired to dive deeper into it. She started trying out different waxes, settling on soy-based as her preference.
“I am of the belief that scents play a great role in cultivating a tranquil and elevated state of mind. The candles I would smell in the store did not smell the same once they were taken home and lit,” she explained. “So, I went online and found a whole community of candlemakers."
What Staple-Brown was referring to is the term for how a candle smells in the store compared to when it burns at home: cold throw and hot throw. She claims that “hot throw,” or consistency between both experiences—what you smell before and during a candle burning—is key.
The candle makers group on Facebook, which was very collaborative and open to sharing their ideas, helped her learn all things “wax-in-ating”, like techniques with materials, temperatures and scents. Soon after, she shared her new creations with her friends at church, who fell in love with them!
In September 2020, Oh D’Luxe Candle + Co. was born. With her husband by her side, she knew she’d have some great support as she embarked on her mission to create candles that would satisfy her requirements for quality, appearance and an amazing scent profile.
“Throughout this journey of experiments and discovery I found a love and passion for this whole new world that opened up to me and what started as a hobby has now transcended into Oh D'Luxe Candle Company."
“What makes this work is that my husband loves chemistry,” she explained.
And, that’s what candle-making is all about. It’s not just about pouring wax and calling it a day. Ratios of wax to scented droplets, which wick works best for burn time and many other factors are things Staple-Brown considers when crafting her candles.
“Where my weakness is, that’s his strength,” she said. “And I thank God every day for it.”
Staple-Brown continues to learn and add to the Facebook group, giving back to the online community that was so giving to her. She also looks forward to giving back to her local community by teaching students about the candle making business once the pandemic passes. Oh D'Luxe Candles strongly believes in giving back—they actively donate a percentage of their profits each month to help offer educational opportunities to youth.
“Throughout this journey of experiments and discovery I found a love and passion for this whole new world that opened up to me and what started as a hobby has now transcended into Oh D'Luxe Candle Company,” shared Staple-Brown. “Remembering ‘our why’, we have fittingly employed the mission statement ‘to provide luxurious candles on a budget.’”
Oh D’Luxe Candle + Co was birthed from Staple-Brown’s inherent need to find something interesting to do during the pandemic, and was first supported by friends and family. Thanks to her new endeavor, playing with scents, wicks and waxes has now turned into a business.
“I have so many ideas where I want to see this business go,” she shared. “And I am thankful for everyone who has supported me.”
All Oh D’Luxe candles are hand poured in small batches to ensure that we provide quality products. Their ingredients are 100% American-grown soy wax, phthalate-free fragrance oils complete with lead free wicks to ensure a clean burn and amazing scents while also being non-toxic.
Find Oh D’Luxe Candle + Co. on Facebook and Instagram, or shop online at ohdluxecandles.com.
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By Brenda De Los Santos
Augusta, Georgia native Brittany Curry has taken a winding journey to create Love on You, a Norwich-based business that offers natural hair and body care products, salon services and self-care education.
Today, Love on You serves as a hub for women to pamper themselves with salon services, learn how to care for their hair and scalp, and purchase the products they need to do so. Curry’s line of products includes Butter Love, her signature handmade body butter, sugar scrubs, candles, shampoo, a deep conditioning hair mask and even other products like beard oil and soaps. The shampoo and mask are both vegan. Curry says, “One of the things I wanted to do was create a professional grade product that was clean.” Providing her own line of products has allowed her to share her tried and true system for maintaining hair and scalp health while also educating her clients on what they are putting on themselves. She is motivated because there is a need. “There are marketing tricks that keep people misinformed,” she says of mainstream products for Black hair care.
"I am sowing that seed for them to be able to care for their hair on their own and normalize being able to maintain their hair."
Butter Love, her hair and body balm, is one of her best sellers, along with her “Heal and Seal” package, which includes her shampoo, hair mask and Butter Love. She also carries earrings and other jewelry for sale, and clients can also book makeup services in addition to salon services like silk presses and natural and protective styles.
Curry has been a licensed cosmetologist for twelve years, though her initial plans were to be in the nail industry. “I actually wanted to be a nail tech but the school I went to didn’t have a nail program, so I went to cosmetology.” When her husband, who serves in the US Navy, was stationed at the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton from 2010 to 2015, Curry took a break from doing hair and instead focused on real estate.
While living in Hawaii in 2017, Curry transitioned back to doing hair. She noticed that many of the Black women she met there as a hairstylist had very dry hair, and she wanted to do something to help. She started experimenting in her kitchen and her line of products was born. Clients asked her about the products she was using and said that they would buy them if she sold them. “That's how it started, women loving on themselves,” she says. She sold her products in a small retail space there until her husband was given new orders to return to Groton.
Once back in Connecticut, Curry noticed her previous clients from Hawaii struggling to maintain their hair health, and with renewed purpose, decided to focus on teaching her clients to care for their scalp and hair in addition to the services and products she already offered so clients can care for their hair in between visits to her salon. She says that seeing this happen with her past clients in Hawaii was a lesson learned. “With this focus, I am sowing that seed for them to be able to care for their hair on their own and normalize being able to maintain their hair,” says Curry.
However, it became clear to her that in order to do this, she needed to open her own salon. “The vision of what I wanted didn’t fit in the culture of places I was in. I felt led. God led me to do it,” says Curry of opening her own full-service salon.
Opening her own space wasn’t without challenges. “I didn’t even have funds,” Curry says. Despite financial obstacles, Curry says that things just aligned, “I called a wholesaler that did fixtures, and they were closing and their fixtures were all marked down. I had passed by this space so often and I didn’t even see it - I finally just peeked inside.” She signed the lease for her space in Norwich in February of 2020. “I just took a leap of faith,” she says.
After renovations, Curry opened Love on You in the midst of the pandemic, and it was worth it. Curry says “I am definitely grateful that I can bring Love on You to this area, this is a very underserved community.” Her goal is to treat people how she would want to be treated and create a welcoming environment. She says, “I aim for people to feel hospitality like from the down South. They are safe here.”
Love on You is located at 460 North Main Street in Norwich, Connecticut and open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Find or shop at Love on You online at this link or find Love on You on Instagram or Facebook.
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By Alicia Brown
It’s 2021 and some of us still don’t understand how to properly break the cycle—the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle that too many people are familiar with.
Covid-19 made it even harder to juggle finances for some who were living with that paycheck and nothing more, and then suddenly there are layoffs on top of it. For some it was a disaster, for others it became a normal way of life and that is why learning how to balance finances is critical to make surviving this crazy world even easier.
Thankfully, Patrina Dixon, award-winning author, financial education instructor, “dualprenuer” businesswoman of P. Dixon Consulting, LLC has created an It’$ My Money, a business specially designed to help provide clear, helpful pathways to better spending and budgeting.
Dixon is one-of-a-kind. She loves helping people get on the right track and fall in love with saving. In her book, It’$ My Money: Guided Journal, she helps readers understand their relationship with money and encourages her concept of “forget what was”—a motto for brushing aside any guilt for current bad financial habits and instead embracing new, better habits. She emphasizes that it isn’t best to change habits “cold turkey” but instead, embark on a process that embraces nurturing and time—one that Dixon and her book can provide.
From providing tips and advice to taking a deep dive into personal or business financials, Dixon and her team will do it all, with understanding, confidentiality, and patience, through one-on-one classes, virtual finance workshops, and even financial workshops. She helps clients increase their savings and improve their credit scores. She also hosts a podcast called The Money Exchange, where she is joined by special guests to help educate listeners about personal and business finance. What’s more? Dixon has just launched a podcasting workshop for anyone interested in radio blogging or hosting a podcast.
There is almost nothing she won’t do to help her clients break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.
Among her specialties are helping clients understand how to acquire multiple forms of income, like passive income and stocks, as well as build up their credit score.
“I imagine myself in my client’s shoes and I want to provide a quality experience,” she shared.
Dixon is one-of-a-kind. She loves helping people get on the right track and fall in love with saving.
Dixon started her business in 2016 and, just like the savings accounts of those who take her advice to heart, it has grown. Throughout the years, she’s stayed humble and true to her roots—focusing on why she teaches financial literacy—which is her goal of helping people achieve happiness instead of being stressed over money.
Dixon’s motivation was her own journey through childhood and into her adulthood watching her mother’s financial habits. Dixon’s daughter remains at the center of Dixon’s “why” as she refers to it.
"My 'why' is my daughter, by far,” she explained. “She’s why I do everything that I do but my inspiration was my mom.”
Dixon’s mom showed her that life can still be beautiful and that she could still have fun without having a ton of money, but, according to Dixon, the stress was there. So, she wants to show her daughter the stress-free way of living, even when she might not have a lot of money.
“I want to say, look, roll up your sleeves and do the work. You can do whatever it is that you want to do. You can dream high and make it happen,” said Dixon.
Dixon says she began this journey through learning and experiencing it herself. She wants to help others because she noticed that as people became interested in her expertise she came to realize that many people aren’t being taught financial planning. That is unless they are taking a webinar or conference hosted by Dixon.
“I wasn’t taught this. I wasn’t t taught this at home, I wasn’t taught this at school,” she explained.
Today, she is widely known as the “It’$ My Money Lady” and has traveled the country providing talks and bringing her financial expertise to hundreds of people. It’s no secret that she wants the best for her clients and community. She even provides adults and college students internship opportunities.
Whatever the season, Dixon is ready to help provide advice and guidance toward financial freedom. Click here to find information about It’$ My Money, including classes, workshops, books and more. Find It’$ My Money on Facebook, and join the It'$ My Money Squad Facebook group! Dixon’s only requirement when you join the group is that you remain active, and that’s not hard to do at all!
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3/10/2021 0 Comments
ShopBlackCT.com, Connecticut’s rapidly growing, free online directory of Black-owned businesses has teamed up with YWCA Hartford Region to amplify and elevate local beauty brands and help shoppers grab discounts in celebration of the CROWN Act passing.
ShopBlackCT.com has developed an online CROWN Act Discount Guide to allow consumers to easily connect with CT Black-owned beauty and cosmetics businesses that are offering special discounts through the end of March.
“The CROWN Act has passed in CT making us the eighth state to pass this transformative legislation,” shared Melinda Johnson, Director of Community Engagement and Advocacy for YWCA Hartford Region. “ShopBlackCT’s invitation to celebrate this legislative accomplishment during Women’s History Month with community economic investment is the kind of innovation that bridges legislative progress with community advancement.”
“This is a historic moment for Connecticut, and what better way to celebrate than to help connect consumers with Black-owned businesses that specialize in beauty products,” added Sarah Thompson, ShopBlackCT.com founder.
“The CROWN Act has passed in CT making us the eighth state to pass this transformative legislation. ShopBlackCT’s invitation to celebrate this legislative accomplishment during Women’s History Month with community economic investment is the kind of innovation that bridges legislative progress with community advancement.”
ShopBlackCT.com features more than 150 beauty and cosmetics businesses from 26 cities and town from across Connecticut, plus brands that are exclusively online, and now features more than 1,400 businesses overall in categories including automotive, fitness, contractors, restaurants, salons and many in between. The not-for-profit site is free to browse and free for businesses to list and receive support from.
The volunteer-run platform has helped connect consumers with businesses and businesses with each other. It’s been visited by tens of thousands of people and has grown more than sevenfold since its launch on July 1.
“They have dedicated their time and their resources to create a platform that has been very instrumental in the growth of my business and the growth of many other Black-owned businesses in Connecticut,” shared Shawnee Rochester of Escape Massage & Esthetics Studio in Manchester. “A lot of times us small business owners don’t have the means to get our names out there, but this platform was created to do that. It was so needed.”
Chef Jay Lewis of Fud, Inc. and Baby J’s Spices added, “The positive image, the positivity coming out of ShopBlackCT.com is so powerful and [it’s] such a great movement.”
Visit shopblackct.com/crownact to access a list of CT Black-owned beauty and cosmetics businesses that are offering a discount with promo code "CROWNON" now through the end of March.
By Sarah Thompson
Once Richard Mercer took a Bikram yoga class, he was hooked.
“I was a former Division 1A football player, I frequently experienced tight and sore muscles, and I wasn’t flexible. I knew right away that this yoga would heal me and keep me healthy into old age,” he shared. “After leaving corporate, I went out to Bikram Yoga Teacher Training to learn from Bikram himself and knew that I needed to bring this healing practice to my community.”
And, for 11 years, he’s been offering yoga classes to help provide mental clarity, peace, strength, balance and fitness for hundreds of people.
“We are an inclusive, supportive community welcoming to all, regardless of ability, age or background,” he shared. “We inspire curiosity and innovation while helping people on their path to better, more sustainable physical, mental and spiritual wellness. Your quality of life will be improved with our holistic approach to wellness.”
Tucked away on a side road in the Weatogue section of Simsbury sits Mercer’s yoga studio, which he runs with his wife, Laurie.
“We have a partnership and each work to our strengths to support the common goal,” shared Mercer. “Having a partner you can implicitly trust is priceless, and we work together to make sure the studio is always offering our community the best possible experience.”
The duo offer several different yoga classes, including Bikram, Hot High Intensity, Low Impact Interval Training (HIIT), Flow Yoga and Yin Yoga—each offering their own benefits and styles.
“Our daily lives can lead to a lot of body stress and disconnection. A Bikram Yoga class offsets the external negative influences we regularly encounter. You leave feeling free and grounded,” he explained. “This set sequence class of scientifically designed yoga poses is excellent for beginners and experienced yogis alike. You can easily moderate the intensity level to suit your needs and the exactness of the instruction always offers new learning experiences and opportunities for meditation. The hot room provides a detoxifying effect and allows the muscles and joints to relax for a deeper benefit.”
"I am happy that I get to have a job that brings healing to our community every day and allows me to spend my days doing something that I know will sincerely help people.”
HIIT, on the other hand, is set to music in a fun, fast-paced class. Participants build strength in all muscle groups, including upper and lower core, and partake in in cardio fitness.
“It is for all levels of fitness and ability and you will see results very quickly,” explained Mercer.
Flow Yoga is fast-paced and is a series of yoga postures set to music that helps participants lose weight, gain strength and see results quickly.
“It is generally an athletic class done to music that gives you everything you need in a workout: strength, flexibility, and peace,” he said.
Yin Yoga is a beginner’s class held in a warm room, not as hot as Bikram heat, for all levels. It’s a slow-paced style of yoga, incorporating principles of traditional Chinese medicine, with postures that are held for longer periods of time than other styles.
“Yin Yoga poses apply moderate stress to the connective tissues of the body—the tendons, fasciae, and ligaments—with the aim of increasing circulation in the joints and improving flexibility,” shared Mercer. “Yin is a very restorative, healing, and peaceful style of yoga.”
When COVID forced Mercer to close his business on March 17, 2020, he quickly pivoted to provide live streamed classes and offered members access to his extensive library of taped Bikram, HIIT and Yin classes.
But, from day one, Mercer planned to have top-notch cleanliness and health in his studio, including NeoFloor carpet, which is antimicrobial, antiviral and antibacterial; radiant heating in the floor; an AtmosAir system that kills bacteria and removes odor; concrete floors in the lobby and bathrooms that prevent bacteria from being absorbed; and a large practice space, now marked with spots at least six feet apart.
“We’ve also added treatment of all surfaces with SD 90, an industrial-grade natural cleaner,” shared Mercer. “And we’re continuously running our diffusers with our Immunity Blend and our Cold, Flu, Allergy, Virus Blend.”
In addition to offering a variety of yoga classes, Simsbury Bikram Yoga offers treats like incense, healthy snacks, organic essential oils and yoga mats.
“Because of our holistic, natural approach, we work to locate effective products that don’t do any harm—no toxic ingredients, no sugars, no harmful chemicals,” shared Mercer. “We always try things on ourselves first, long before we put them on the shelf for sale. Why come in here to get yourself healthy physically, and then go out and put unhealthy things on and in you? We want to expose our community to excellent, healthy, safe alternatives to all the junk that is out there.”
Mercer also hopes that people of all walks of life try yoga.
“The majority of yoga communities are white women. The truth is that being Black and male, I believe we have exposed more men and people of color to yoga than most studios,” he shared. “The opportunity is to make sure that more men and communities of color know that this is a welcoming, diverse place for them to be and feel safe.
Bikram Yoga Simsbury is open 7 days a week for limited hours. Their full schedule can be found at www.bikramyogasimsbury.com where they have their full class schedule listed. New members are offered a special deal of $49 for 21 days of unlimited Yoga/HIIT. Simsbury Bikram Yoga can also be reached at (860) 217-1663 and their studio address is 7 Deer Park Rd, Weatogue, CT, 06089.
“I am very grateful to have found this yoga. We’ve been open 11 years now and plan to be here for the long haul, pandemic or not. I am happy that I get to have a job that brings healing to our community every day and allows me to spend my days doing something that I know will sincerely help people.”
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By Sarah Thompson
Felicia Edwards is a creative. She always had her heart set on becoming a psychologist, but knowing she wanted to go beyond the four walls of a traditional clinical setting and, quite literally, get up and moving while helping people, she began forging her own path during her undergraduate years.
“I knew that I wanted to help people in some capacity that had to do with mental health, but I also knew that my passion was in media,” she shared. “So, I created a curriculum that would incorporate mental health, writing, media, communication sciences and I put it all together as one.”
At the time, telehealth wasn’t as popular as it is now, yet Edwards was ahead of the curve, pursuing a degree that would help break down barriers for people to address their mental health concerns, whether transportation, money or something else, and providing virtual mental health services.
“I wanted to help people through media in the mental health sphere, through helpful videos and publications,” she said.
So, she loaded up her toolbox of knowledge in communications and pursue her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy to become a psychotherapist. She began creating videos while still working in the clinical field, eventually finding herself in a master’s course called action methods in Marital and family counseling—one that would spark a whole new approach for her.
“They used acting as a therapeutic means to unravel whatever is going on with you,” she shared. “And I thought—this is what I’m going to do!”
The thought of not being bound by some of the rules other practices had, Edwards took steps to open her own practice in Avon in July 2020, backed with certifications in various therapies.
“In other practices I would have to conduct therapy in a certain kind of way,” she explained. “But within my own practice and with the people I bring on, I can say to them that they’re free to do whatever feels comfortable to them, but my main focus is creativity and doing therapy in a non-traditional way.”
Edwards focuses on helping people who are transitioning—whether to a new job, in and out of school or otherwise—and tends to gravitate toward college students and young adults. Edwards moved to the United States from Jamaica when she was a little girl, first living in Florida, then New York and finally settling in Connecticut, so transitions are one she can understand and relate to her clients about.
“I find those transitions hardest because they are life-changing,” she shared. “Sometimes when people are transitioning to ‘the real world’ from college, they have limiting beliefs, like I live this way, or my name sounds like this, and so I’m really afraid to get this job. So, it’s from a cultural perspective. They also have deeply rooted family beliefs that they’ve internalized and subconsciously they’re taking it with them.”
Edwards works to unpack these complexities, to help empower her clients to reframe their believed experiences and create a new narrative so, in her words, they “don’t click away from those job opportunities because they believe a person might turn them down because of who they think they are or what their name sounds like.”
These experiences are ones that Edwards has dealt with, too.
“Therapy is meant to edify you. Recognize it as self-care.
“In the workplace, I have experienced people thinking I’m incompetent or I’ve been in situations where I have received hits at me because I was the only one in my office that looked a certain way,” she shared. “There have been times when I’ve spoken to someone and they said something, but I know they weren’t intentional about it but it’s because they assumed something about me. They might assume I’m a single mother, so some people assume I need assistance.”
Edwards has reached beyond therapy to create a card game that helps people debunk biases based on assumptions on looks.
“I think it’s really important to understand that on a subconscious level that we automatically think something about someone as soon as we see them,” she explained. “The way we see them, until it’s debunked, we carry that bias around with us. I want us to be aware of those things, so we don’t lead the conversation a certain way or make a person feel unintentionally uncomfortable.”
Her game, called Assumptions, was originally created to use during her sessions with clients, but she’s working to re-roll it out in both physical and online versions.
She also likes to specifically work with communities where there are higher instances of stigma attached to mental health care.
“I have a handful of Muslim clients who say I’m getting therapy although this is highly frowned upon,” she shared. “A lot of the time people look to religion, which is fine, but I find that they’re still feeling stuck and they’re not getting the help that they need and that’s why I really wanted to help. It is becoming destigmatized a lot more, but there is still that belief that ‘only crazy people go to therapy.’”
At the top of Edwards’ list is helping encourage people to take the step to get help.
“Therapy doesn’t have to be scary or boring. A lot of times people think therapy is this big, scary ordeal or they should come with only bad news,” she shared. “Therapy is meant to edify you. Recognize it as self-care. You can speak to someone who is unbiased, someone who can give you what you need when you need it. I always say, if you ever have the thought that OK, maybe I should get help, act on it and don’t talk yourself out of it, because that’s what people do. There is no shame in getting help. It just means you need support, and everybody needs support.”
Assurgent Healing is based in Avon and offers online therapy for couples, young adults and women across Connecticut. Find Assurgent Healing, and information on Edwards’ Assumptions game online here. Felicia Edwards is also a creative business coach and owns AchievHer Perfection, helping business owners transform their “boring content marketing strategies into new income generating creative techniques.” Learn more about receiving free creative training for businesses by clicking here.
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Photos courtesy of iTeachCT
By Alicia Brown
Dear parents: is your child struggling with learning? Has the pandemic affected their studies? Have things been stressful for you? Meet Ms. Shardae of iTeachCT--a mother, teacher, leader and advocate for education and student learning who can help keep your student on the right track.
“I’ve learned parents need two things—either helping get their child on a schedule or understanding what their child is learning,” she shared.
There are two reasons that Ms. Shardae has made education her life mission, and one is Ms. Ford, a teacher who did not give up on her.
“Ms. Ford is the one who made time to help me master concepts,” she shared. This is the same guidance that Ms. Shardae wants to provide to all students in her program.
The second reason? She wanted to prove her doctors wrong.
When Ms. Shardae was a young child, her adoptive mother was told that her new daughter may not do well in school and that she might struggle. But she rose to the top of the class and says it’s all because of her mother’s encouragement and dedication to ensuring Ms. Shardae completed all her schoolwork.
"I’ve learned parents need two things—either helping get their child on a schedule or understanding what their child is learning."
“We don't want a student to feel like they are failing just because of their inability to grasp a concept that just needs to be taught differently,” she explained.
ITeachCT, which stands for “Integral, Embracing, Teaching Adolescents Through Challenging Horizons”, exists to help parents and students tackle challenges, and what’s more challenging than a school shutdown in the middle of a pandemic? Ms. Shardae’s Parent Power Hour helps parents gain insight around two concepts their child is learning and provides guidance where it is needed most, including helping parents gain confidence in teaching lessons that they may not have learned in school and breaking down concepts in helpful ways.
She tutors and assists with English, science and other studies for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and offers mathematics support for students in grades kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Ms. Shardae’s business launched in March 2019 but her passion for helping students began after college when she worked in education. Recently, iTeachCT expanded beyond Connecticut for tutoring services, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Accredited by the Better Business Bureau, she has an A rating—a direct reflection of her care for her students. From helping through the struggles of remote learning to navigating daily life and even providing scholarships, her dedication is evident in all she does.
Ms. Shardae loves giving back to her community and in 2020 she provided a $500 scholarship to a student, funded by donations and class purchases. Her scholarship is open to a first-generation college student or a college student from a single-parent home.
While the pandemic won’t last forever, virtual teaching will still remain popular for many years to come, and iTeachCT will be there to help students become the best they can be!
To sponsor a student, donate to the iTeachCT scholarship or to learn about available services and classes, visit iteachct.org or find iTeachCT on Facebook.
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By Camila Vallejo
When you think of your typical family-owned restaurant, you tend to imagine a business brought complete from the ground up — name, menu, space, etc. But sometimes success isn’t a matter of creating but instead reinventing. That was the case for Vinith and Cassandra Keola, the current co-owners of 50 West in Plainville.
Running for about six years under a previous owner, the restaurant had undergone several concept changes. From fine dining to a noodle bar, 50 West had tried it all with little long-lasting success. But for the Keolas it provided a foundation and following. All it needed was their special touch.
In March of 2019, they took over and developed a menu that would cater to all palettes and pockets.
“We offer high-end dishes, but without the high-end prices. We just want full bellies and full smiles,” Cassandra Keola says.
The Keolas describe their food as American comfort with an Asian flair. Some fan favorites include buffalo bleu wings with bacon crumble ($11- $20), drunken noodles with pappardelle pasta ($14) and sauteed clams in a wine sauce with chorizo ($14) — just to name a few. The menu also offers other classics like burgers, salads, flatbreads and, of course, crafted cocktails.
Vinith is the mastermind behind the menu with over 20 years of experience in the industry.
Prior to 50 West, he owned a catering business and a restaurant in West Hartford which he conceptualized on his own. The West Hartford locale eventually closed because he says he went “too big too fast,” an experience he now keeps in mind when making business decisions.
Today, his focus is not so much on the big picture, but instead on the little things that contribute to a great restaurant, Vinith says, like ingredients, flavor and customer satisfaction. He shops locally for produce two to three times a week and 90% of the food is made from scratch.
“My food is my art and my pan is my canvas. I love taking a simple dish, deconstructing it, and making it into something I would eat myself,” Vinith adds.
While Cassandra works a full-time job at UConn Health, she can attest to Vinith’s passion by just the looks of the kitchen on a daily basis. She says the amount of fresh vegetables and spices makes it seem like Vinith goes foraging in the backyard.
“We offer high-end dishes, but without the high-end prices. We just want full bellies and full smiles.”
“There are so many different spices in the world that people don't know about. We like to highlight them in our dishes. America is so used to starches and salty food that people are often forgetting about pungent, bitter, savory and spicy flavors. When you take a bite, you should taste one part and in the other bite, another.”
Good food and hospitality are in their blood, says the husband-and-wife duo. Vinith migrated to the U.S. from Laos in 1980 with his family. While his parents worked, Vinith took care of his older brother and learned his way around the kitchen. He may not have a formal culinary education, but he knows cooking is all about trial and error.
Cassandra’s mother is Scottish and Native American and her father is Barbadian. She says the mix provided her an appreciation for different cultures and, more importantly, cuisines.
Vinith uses their different cultures as inspiration for his dishes. One example is 50 West’s Cubanh Mi — a fusion between a Cubano and Bahn Mi sandwich with grilled marinated pork, Asian slaw and spicy aioli.
While creative dishes are at the center of 50 West, the Keolas pride themselves on customer service above all else.
“You can go to a restaurant every Friday and order the same thing. But, it's different when you're greeted by warm and welcoming staff. You might enjoy your food more, eat a little slower and taste things a little differently, ” Cassandra says. “We create an environment where customers feel like they’re eating with friends whether they’re dining alone or with others.”
Like many others, the COVID pandemic has not been easy for the Keolas. The state-wide shut down and restrictions came at a time where 50 West was just getting started. Nonetheless, the Keolas have been able to attract a regular customer base by providing authentic dishes in a warm and friendly environment. They and their staff of nine hope to see the end of this pandemic soon. And in the meantime, they’ll work towards the future.
“We’d like to see another location one day,” Vinith says. “There are so many things you can do with food and to stick to one location or kind of food it’s just limiting the creativity.”
50 West offers indoor and outdoor seating and catering is now available for family-style packages and special events. COVID hours are Wednesday to Saturday 4:00pm to 9:00pm and happy hour specials are from 4:00pm to 6:30pm.
Find 50 West online at 50westrestaurant.com, on Facebook and on Instagram. 50 West is located at 50 West Main Street, Plainville, Connecticut.
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Photos courtesy of Joy Monroe
By Alicia Brown
Joy Monroe began creating art at the young age of four. She originally pursued a creative career in elegant cuisine as a chef, eventually joining up with a group of artists in 2011 called Connecticut Arts Initiative, where many more of her creative visions were birthed.
In the years that followed, Monroe’s focus on her art became more prominent. She was offered a position as a dancer, where she learned about production work and was introduced to the art of body painting. It was then that she knew she wanted to be involved with big productions by painting and creating something new—creativity was ignited inside of her.
Monroe has since participated in the International Body Art Competition, one of her favorite events.
“What we go through, it’s life. We are the art. We are what we envision.
“Nobody is judging each other, and everyone feels good about their bodies,” she shared. “It’s a room full of artists making art and it’s all about storytelling—I’m a storyteller, period. I love to tell a story through my art. I want people to understand what life is all about.”
Using art as an avenue for storytelling is magical, and Monroe hopes her art helps people paint vivid pictures in their minds, to be inspired by life.
“What we go through, it’s life,” she explained. “We are the art. We are what we envision. Creation is being creative.”
Monroe’s dreams of growing her art career became realized when she was able to purchase her own space. Her business, Joy of Life Creations, was born and is located at 3580 Main Street, Building 11 in Hartford, Connecticut.
And, her dreams continue to grow. Monroe wants to help other artists pursue their dreams by offering studio rental space. She’s working toward this goal by sharing her expertise in body art with local students and providing internship opportunities.
Monroe also focuses on promoting body positivity through her art, giving back to her community by painting murals to support the arts and movements like Black Lives Matter, and holding summer art camps for kids. This past summer, she and students from area schools beautified Bushnell Park by painting trash cans so passers by had something nice to view as they strolled through the park.
She’s also been working hard to put together a calendar to showcase all of her artistic bodywork from the past year.
With everything she does, Monroe wants to challenge people to see the world in a unique way.
“You might see a bottle cap and say, oh wait, I can turn this into an earring,” she shared. “Art is about putting it out there so someone can see something different.”
For Monroe, she simply wants everyone to see the joy in life.
Follow Joy of Life Creations on Facebook or visit her at her studio. She’ll be sure to inspire you with her passion, creativity and innovation with everything she does.
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Break Free Center for Wellness in Manchester, CT
By Rode Bataille
“You don’t wait until your car breaks down to get an oil change, by then it is too late. But we treat our mental health that way. If anybody deserves the gift of therapy, it is us,” explained Sharron Riley-Seymour, a licensed counselor at Break Free Center for Wellness located in Manchester, Connecticut.
According to SAMHSA’s 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “Sixteen percent (4.8 million) of Black and African American people reported having a mental illness, and 22.4 percent of those (1.1 million people) reported a serious mental illness over the past year.” The challenges of stigma make this statistic even more daunting.
Mental Health America explains that “historical adversity, which includes slavery, sharecropping, and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social, and economic resources translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by Black and African American people today.” Socioeconomic status, in turn, is linked to mental health: People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated, or have substance use problems are at higher risk for poor mental health.
How is it that Black communities suffer at a 20 percent increased rate of mental health setbacks than any other racial group, yet they are one of the racial groups least likely to seek therapy? Disparities fuel the combination of mistrust and access to information about mental health and counseling, which lead to hesitancies around pursuing help for issues around generational trauma, depression, anxiety and other struggles. The percentage of counselors who identify as Black and who can alleviate mistrust, is small.
Along with Riley-Seymour, Hasson Stavis and Yanique Grant are part of that small circle of professional Black therapists in Connecticut. Stavis is a licensed marriage and family therapist at HealThy Soul Clinical Services in Glastonbury and New Britain, Connecticut, and Grant is a licensed clinical social worker and is a clinician/psychotherapist at Courage to Be in Bloomfield, Connecticut.
Riley-Seymour wants Black individuals to know they are needed and that there is no limit to their potential in pursuing a mental health profession. There is a critical need for supporting communities who need a therapist that looks like them and embraces them wholeheartedly.
Stavis knew since he was 7 years old that being a healer was his calling. He decided to be a therapist earlier on and began working in the mental health field while in college, where he completed a co-op at Saint Francis Behavioral Care in Portland.
“Healing from trauma takes time and this might extend beyond the time the trauma itself occurred. Helping clients of color and clients in general heal from their traumas and generations pasts allows the client to truly evolve with a greater sense of purpose and being.” - Hasson Stavis, LMFT
HealThy Soul Services
Grant shared that she chose to pursue a career as a mental health professional because she loves helping people “get to the bottom of who they are, how to manage their stress, and to be that person helping others through their journey.” According to her, she believes every therapist gets into therapy a little bit for themselves, too.
Grant, Riley-Smith and Stavis are all working to help break the stigma that holds many Black individuals back from receiving mental health support.
“Normalize therapy as much as you can,” said Grant.
A first step is to seek therapy by simply browsing online listings—like on PsychologyToday.com or ShopBlackCT.com—to see which therapists are available, reading through profiles and seeing if there is a connection with any through a consultation.
“Consultation is a great entry into therapy to see if you mesh with the therapist,” explained Grant.
And, therapists offer a variety of different treatment methods, which can be a helpful deciding factor.
Stavis’s practice focuses on getting clients to the point where they need without leading or providing them with a direct solution. He allows the solution to organically surface so that clients can own their outcomes for themselves. This practice has a foundation in Internal Family Systems and a few trauma modalities.
Riley-Seymour specializes in Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR).
“It’s traditionally thought of as a trauma therapeutic model,” she explained. “But it also looks at cognition, our thoughts and core beliefs we have about ourselves, our emotions and body sensations and how these are all interconnected.”
Stavis and Riley-Seymour have noted patterns between clients who also identify as Black.
“Transgenerational trauma and pain go back a lot farther for my Black clients because on top of individual trauma, there are also 400 years of trauma and abuse that they may have to address from slavery,” shared Stavis. “Healing from trauma takes time and this might extend beyond the time the trauma itself occurred. Helping clients of color and clients in general heal from their traumas and generations pasts allows the client to truly evolve with a greater sense of purpose and being.”
Black clients tend to have patterns and core beliefs of feeling undeserving, in addition to dealing with a high rate of imposter syndrome, anxiety, negative internal dialogue, and more.
“Many of my Black clients feel as if they are unable to accept awareness, ownership, and acknowledgment of what has happened to them as a collective people as well as their individual experiences of being black in America,” explained Riley-Seymour.
It is extraordinarily powerful how Black mental health professionals combat racism, racial inequality, and eradicating the broken line between black communities and therapy.
“It’s hard being a human and it’s okay to heal; I think it’s important for clients to understand this,” encouraged Stavis.
“Waking up every morning in this skin, feeling good about who I am, and feeling good about what I do, is an act of resistance,” shared Riley-Seymour. “That is the work—when I show up for clients, the greatest gift that I can give is strengthening them so they can do what they need to do. We are in a society and we are in a culture that has been designed systematically to tear us down.”
Pushing to destigmatize seeking mental health support in the Black community is a necessity. In the end, changing the narrative will help those who need it most.
“There’s a huge deficit in the way society portrays people of color, which is [the belief] that you can go but so far,” said Grant. “contribution is to break down that barrier because it’s a fake narrative and you can absolutely change that narrative and you can go so much further than what society is telling you.”
“Whatever you put your mind to, you are capable of,” added Riley-Seymour. “You have the same amount of time in a day as Oprah, and as anyone else you look up to. All that they can accomplish in their day, so can you—so own your moments. Make and manage choices that include self-love.”
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By Sarah Thompson
Bet on yourself. Invest in yourself. Go all in on yourself. You are your best investment. These are words that Double or Nothing Apparel co-founders and cousins Mike Forrester and Drew Bailey live by, and now they’re sharing this motivation with others through their unisex all-purpose clothing brand.
Their self-described “stylish yet comfortable” brand is popping up all over Connecticut, and even into the New York, Boston and DMV areas. The creators' apparel has reached Florida, Georgia, California, and even internationally in Toronto and Africa. From hats to hoodies, sweat suits and tons in between, the duo is on a mission to spread positivity wherever they—and their brand—goes.
“Our brand represents hard work ethic, dedication and constant elevation, resembling tactics for success,” Forrester explained. “I want someone to put on our apparel and feel proud behind it, what it stands for, what they stand for. We want to unite everyone as one. It’s bigger than just a t-shirt or hat. We want to spread positive energy around the world and try to uplift with any encounter.”
"We want to put out apparel that not only appeals to people, but also inspires them when they put it on. Our brand symbolizes being a go-getter—going after and obtaining your goals with persistence and consistency."
They want to inspire others to go after their goals and dreams.
“Don’t feel like you’re locked into something if you have something [else] you’re passionate about,” said Bailey. “Double down and go all in on what truly inspires you, because you can achieve anything when you focus and put your all into it.”
“No matter who you are—any walk of life, any color, speak your goals into existence,” added Forrester.
The pair took their own advice, and with added encouragement from family and friends, launched Double or Nothing Apparel last June, despite the country being in the middle of a pandemic.
“We believed in ourselves, set benchmarks and focused on staying consistent,” shared Forrester. “It started with a vision, dedication and constant progression.”
Having grown up together in Hartford, Forrester and Bailey always spent time together. In their words, they’ve been “around each other since the sandbox.” And in fact, many of their designs have sentimental significance from their youth.
“With our soccer jerseys, that was my high school number,” shared Forrester. “So, it’s bigger than jerseys – it’s coming from memories. I won the championship with that [jersey] number, so reliving it and seeing the reaction from everyone is just a blessing.”
Their mission to counter negativity takes energy and intentionality, but it’s paying off. Their warm, welcoming family-vibe is putting smiles on many faces.
“Customers tell us they love our energy,” shared Bailey. “They tell us, I was feeling bad today but your positive vibe just switched my whole mood up.”
“Our customers’ feedback means a lot to us,” added Forrester. “It feels like we are growing together.”
They’re also committed to giving back to the community they grew up in and encouraging the next generation. Not too long ago, they were involved in a youth event hosted by the Hartford Lions Soccer Club, an organization they stand by.
“We love to support our community,” shared Forrester, “so it’s a big deal to give back.”
During the first months after they launched their family business they did experience some delays with manufacturing due to COVID-19, but in Double or Nothing style, the pair says they’ve “strived towards our goals,” and sales have continued to grow.
“We believe in our brand,” shared Forrester. “Hard work turns into equity.”
Keeping their designs timeless, they pride themselves on offering a unique variety of colors and unisex styles for men and women, all with excellent quality.
“We focus on having items for everyone to fulfill and satisfy customer needs,” shared Forrester. “We always think about how to expand.” And like their website says, the variety of colors and styles the brand offers resembles the culture around its two creators.
Their current high demand products during these cold months? Sweat suits and hoodies. Their new spring collection includes several must-have items, too. “It’s going to be a great season release,” said Bailey.
“Starting the brand with hats, we created 30 to 40 different styles that some customers request, and we do pre-orders and also custom orders for all items,” explained Forrester. “We focus on building customer engagement.”
With each new season, Forrester and Bailey are committed to working hard, staying positive and being consistent with their mission to inspire.
“Our brand is evidence of growth, and we are blessed to share our art and mission with the world,” said Forrester.
“Just like ‘you are what you eat,’ you are what you put on,” added Bailey. “We want to put out apparel that not only appeals to people, but also inspires them when they put it on. Our brand symbolizes being a go-getter—going after and obtaining your goals with persistence and consistency. So, when you see those words—Double or Nothing— just know those are words that you can live by and stand firm on.”
The Double or Nothing Apparel online store is available at www.doubleornothingapparel.com and based in Greater Hartford. Find Double or Nothing Apparel on Instagram and Facebook. Email inquiries to Doubleornothingunited@gmail.com.
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By Lajeune Hollis
Let’s face it, there is a kid in each and every one of us. The Art Child, a travel- based and online program for kids of all ages, recognizes that. Its mission, according to founder Ms. Alicia Brown, a certified therapeutic art life coach, is “to offer programs to let kids be kids, show their emotions along with helping them control them.”
I wondered, how did this business start? According to Ms. Alicia, her business began as showcase of her art, and she was selling cards, canvases and more.
“I switched when I realized most of my work was targeted to kids and people who enjoyed abstract art,” she shared. At the time, she was in school studying child psychology with art therapy as her career. She got her certification in Therapeutic Art Life Coaching, which combined her love of working with children and her passion for art.
And so, The Art Child was born.
In partnership with Sawyer, an online provider of children’s classes and activities with a mission “to inspire a love of learning through play and exploration,” The Art Child offers programs for children ages two and up, teens and adults. Ms. Alicia tailors each class to the individual person, or collectively for groups. Class fees are per person or by group, and can be made via Cashapp, Venmo, PayPal, Square or Apple Pay.
“It's important to me because there are so many children without creative outlets, and art programs seem to be the first things cut,” she shared. “We are trying to stop that, and showcase that art is extremely important for anyone. If we want well-rounded adults, we need to start with the kids. We need to find ways to give them a sense of self, and expression.”
Residents of Connecticut can hire Ms. Alicia to come directly to their church, home, school or daycare to hold a therapeutic art class. All art supplies and snacks are provided at no extra cost. And, social distancing rules are in place during the pandemic to ensure all attending are safe.
One challenge she has faced is getting The Art Child name out there. “I have a select few promoters and have been working with local businesses to hold art events, but due to COVID-19, the turnouts are always small,” she shared. “Hopefully, going forward, we can change that.”
"If we want well-rounded adults, we need to start with the kids. We need to find ways to give them a sense of self, and expression.”
Because of the pandemic, The Art Child is now also offering online children’s classes for free on Friday and Sunday evenings at 7:00pm. Children from anywhere across the United States can participate from the comfort of their homes.
Once participants sign up for a free class by The Art Child, they will have the option of having art supplies mailed to them, including paint brushes, canvases, construction paper, glitter and more, paying only for shipping. On the day of the one-hour online class, attendees are emailed Zoom login information, and on class night, Ms. Alicia first reads an illustrated story before teaching the actual activity. Children actively participate by following her step- by-step instructions and holding up their artwork as the night progresses. They give a final thumbs up once they finish their “masterpieces.”
In addition to classes, The Art Child also offers face painting at birthday parties, art activity boxes, art commissions, events (see availability on theartchildllc.org), pre-drawn canvases for DIY as well as pre-painted canvases. Ms. Alicia is also certified to work with kids on the spectrum, who are living with Autism, Asperger’s or with social disorders.
As for adults, Ms. Alicia helps them “turn off” their brains during their therapeutic art classes by focusing on the process as opposed to the outcome.
As with anything worthwhile there is a cost. However, The Art Child holds fundraisers on a regular basis to defray business costs, especially for their free programs. Donations are accepted at any time at www.theartchildllc.org.
What’s next for The Art Child?
“I want to reach all 50 states with art boxes, and I’ll be having an event with The Key Bookstore in Hartford, Connecticut on February 19 at 6:00pm,” she shared. “It's a story time and painting event for adults and children. I am also working on a coloring book for all ages.”
Ms. Alicia is getting a jump start on her goal of reaching all 50 states by offering a special Valentine’s Day activity box. She hopes to “spread the love” by offering this special activity for couples that include two canvases and brush sets, two heart notebooks, two pencils, two slimes, two bottles of bubbles, six paints, glitter and a rose quartz from Hippie Love. She explains that the rose quartz, when held, will helps people to relax their minds and will then activate the love inside of them, allowing their hearts to tell them what to paint. Visit www.theartchildllc.org to order one of these special boxes.
Sounds like a good plan.
The Art Child is in Bloomfield, Connecticut, with in-person services available throughout Connecticut and online services available nationwide. Find The Art Child on Facebook, Instagram or learn more at theartchildllc.org.
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Photo courtesy of CIO.com
By Damon Carter
Editor's note: This article is the final installment in a four-part series on how IT leaders can effectively address systemic racism in their organizations. Start reading here or jump to either the first article in the series, which lays the groundwork for effectively addressing systemic racism, the second article in the series, which outlines how IT leaders can begin creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, or the third article in the series, which offers a 5-step approach to building a fair, equitable, and just IT culture.
The decision to take a stand against systemic racism by actively supporting social justice reform can be a difficult and pivotal choice for any organization. In today’s social and political climate, there are increased expectations by both employees and consumers for companies to get actively involved in supporting social justice initiatives moving forward.
According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer report, 64% of survey respondents say they believe that CEOs can create positive changes in prejudice and discrimination, while 54% say that CEOs should speak publicly on controversial political and social issues that employees care about. And 53% of consumers say that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in at least one social issue that does not directly impact its business...
Click here to continue reading.
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By Cassandra McKenna
Every product that Susan Vanriel-Smith offers stems from daily life with her children.
“My biggest inspirations were my first two sons,” she shared. “I was first introduced to the world of autism through my oldest—they are both on the spectrum at completely different levels.”
Vanriel-Smith’s second son has helped her realize how different people are and how important it is to accept those differences. Her son, who is non-verbal and only communicates when given cues and with a talking device, motivates her daily.
The products offered by Gifted One Princes are genuinely from the heart. “I live in this world and I have a lot of experience,” she shared. “There are other companies like mine, but I feel like I take it up a notch. I saw a way that I can help others to get through some tough times.”
Vanriel-Smith runs the exclusively online store—that offers apparel, accessories and other products that feature messages related to autism and other disabilities—with a little help from her family and some outside resources. She hopes to eventually expand to vending at pop-up markets.
Gifted One Princes just recently launched in July. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, they did experience some setbacks.
“There are a lot of people unemployed at the moment and though they may want to support you and make a purchase, they can’t because they are not in a position to do so,” Susan explained.
Because she knows that feeling well but is limited financially because of the pandemic, she tries to find creative ways to support other small businesses, like sharing through social media.
Pre-COVID, Vanriel-Smith and her family participated in many Walks for Autism, including at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. While walking may be on hold for now, she’s continued to support the cause by making donations and spreading awareness. She also donates a percentage of the business’s earning bi-annually to support autism research. Eventually, she’d like to donate to local schools that hold special needs programs.
“I am inspired by everyone who works with special needs," she shared. "I have worked with a lot of people over the years and have a profound respect and love for them. It takes special people with hearts of gold to work with the special needs population. It takes a very different kind of person. It isn’t easy, but they can make it look that way.”
Gifted One Princes is truly a family-operated business. Vanriel-Smith handles the day-to-day operations, her husband assists with technical aspects, her sons model products and her oldest son helps with packaging up orders.
Vanriel-Smith has been able to connect with many different people while wearing her Stolen Hearts t-shirt. “I often get stopped and questioned about it,” she shared. “It feels good to listen or offer some advice to that person about what may work for me that they can try. It opens room for conversation without being judged. It is letting others know they are not alone.”
While she works with various artists and printers to bring her creative ideas to life, Vanriel-Smith comes up with the designs for all of the products and each one represents some part of her life. Her children inspired the logo for Gifted One Princes, with the three crowns representing her three children.
“We know how to laugh and it’s the one thing I cherish the most. It doesn’t matter what we are facing. We are able to hold each other up, lean on each other’s strength and get through it. The one thing that we lean on the most is prayer.”
One of their most popular items is the Be Kind t-shirt (https://giftedoneprinces.com/collections/apparel/products/be-kind). Vanriel-Smith’s oldest son experienced bullying in middle school which inspired the message to show love, be kind and be understanding.
The Loud and Clear t-shirt (https://giftedoneprinces.com/collections/apparel/products/loud-and-clear) was inspired by her oldest son who has always struggled with eye contact. “It is one of the hardest things for him to do and he is very insecure about it,” she shared. “It can take away from his self-confidence.”
The message on the Loud and Clear t-shirt says I may not look at you when you speak but I can hear you clearly. Messages like these help to bring awareness to autism and other disabilities, which is something that Susan plans to continue as the business expands.
“I hope to one day be a motivational speaker for the cause,” she shared.
Vanriel-Smith is originally from rural Jamaica, where resources are lacking for people with disabilities. “I would love to be able to bring more awareness to the island, help to open facilities, and offer therapies and schooling to help children and young adults. There is so much I see in the future for us. We have big dreams and goals.”
She hopes that people from all over the world will become familiar with the name Gifted One Princes.
“My hope is to expand. I hope our products reach the homes of many people all over the world. We are currently shipping to Canada, but soon this will be worldwide.”
Gifted One Princes offers quality products made from fabrics and prints that can hold up after many washes, and Vanriel-Smith pays attention to detail, quickly addressing any issues that might arise.
“Quality means a lot to me,” she shared. “I want my customers to feel the love I have for my business. I meet the expectations of the customers. I ensure that they will get what they pay for.”
She also translates this to her packaging, putting personal touches on each one, with the goal of ensuring each customer is happy.
“I think great customer service is exceeding expectations,” she shared. “A great attitude and being knowledgeable about your business and products is also a plus. Customer satisfaction is one of the most important priorities.”
She also puts a priority on resolving issues in a positive manner and working towards gaining customer loyalty.
I know all of this to be true because I recently purchased some items and was very impressed. My favorite item was their canvas bag. Customer service was excellent and shipping was fast—I placed an order on Sunday and my package arrived by that Tuesday morning!
Gifted One Princes hopes to add more products to their site and are currently working on homemade organic natural skincare and hair products. “We have been working on this for months now, perfecting our formulas and getting everything right before we add the line to the business,” shared Vanriel-Smith.
Despite some setbacks, Vanriel-Smith continues to push forward. Even though they have faced some challenges and hard times, her children continue to give her strength, hope and motivation.
“We know how to laugh and it’s the one thing I cherish the most,” she shared. “It doesn’t matter what we are facing. We are able to hold each other up, lean on each other’s strength and get through it. The one thing that we lean on the most is prayer. We pray together.”
At a time when the world could use more understanding and kindness, it is wonderful to see a business that finds different ways to encourage others while also spreading awareness about autism and special needs.
Visit Gifted One Princes at https://giftedoneprinces.com/ or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Gifted-One-Princes-LLC-111514053964176) or Instagram (https://giftedoneprinces.com/).
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