In December 2020, I sat down with Melody Short, Kelli Lemon and Rasheeda Creighton, the three co-founders of the Jackson Ward Collective.
Kelli Lemon is best described as Richmond’s Varsity Cheerleader. Kelli is the owner of Urban Hang Suite and host of Coffee with Strangers, a weekly conversation with locals about what makes Richmond Richmond.
Based in Richmond, the capital of Virginia with a majority population of people of color, these three women are unparalleled cheerleaders for both the city and its Black business owners. In September 2020, they took matters into their own hands to help Black entrepreneurs step into their power and start owning not only their businesses but buildings and – eventually – entire city blocks. Much of Kelli’s rallying cry set the tone for our interview “I love all things Richmond especially when we are doing things to move this city forward and make it inclusive. We’ve lived the tale of two cities for a long time and so everything I do and work on is because I want to see it grow.”
In our conversation, Kelli, Rasheeda and Melody gave a peek under the hood of:
- What it’s like to be a Black business owner in the South
- How the Jackson Ward Collective is supporting Black entrepreneurs
- What investment they’re looking for
- What non-financial support looks like
- Some of Richmond’s finest Black-owned businesses,
- How and who is keeping them going.
The lived experience
Kelli: “Being a Black woman entrepreneur in Richmond is a loan right now. Because we are standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us in circumstances that were way more difficult today. Being able to tell them – the true reformers like Maggie Walker and John Mitchell – gives us the drive and resiliency to do what we’re doing. They put a whole neighborhood of their city – Jackson Ward – on their backs and decided to own their own.
My product may be the same as the next person’s but because I’m Black, and a woman, I had to work harder to get the same things done as someone else.Kelli Lemon
So when we look at what it means to start a business today as a Black woman entrepreneur in Richmond, I felt like I had to prove myself over the last five years. My product may be the same as the next person’s but because I’m Black, and a woman, I had to work harder to get the same things done as someone else.
Right now, Black women entrepreneurs are winning.Kelli Lemon
Black women are winning right now. We are holding it down on a lot of different forts; in particular when it comes to owning our own and owning our businesses, especially here in Richmond, where you can have an idea and be creative. It’s our time right now.”
When Black people get on to the same page to do a thing, we do the thing. And we do it well.Melody Short
Melody: “It’s exhausting, because of all the -isms that we have historically had to face. To Kelli’s point, the beauty of this moment is that Black women are saying ‘Listen, we belong. We are going to center ourselves in all spaces, even if you are not interested in us being in any of those spaces. What’s so powerful is that history has shown us that – collectively – when Black people get on to the same page to do a thing, we do the thing. And we do it well. As long as we continue to move forward in that direction, we’re unstoppable. Richmond is not unique in terms of racism that we face, the lack of access to capital, the lack of access to all types of resources and the lack of access to education as it relates to being an entrepreneur. But there is this community that has formed and we are changing that narrative.”
It’s different to get advice from someone who has that shared experience.Rasheeda Creighton
Rasheeda: “Richmond is such a who-you-know-town and as you get into the ecosystem, even when you have really good connections, it’s still really difficult to navigate because so many people do not look like us. It’s why The Jackson Ward Collective is so important. It’s different to get advice from someone who has that shared experience. It’s not that you can’t learn from a lot of different people — we have very diverse networks — but there is something that settles in and feels different because there’s a unique understanding of other nuances and subtleties that other folks don’t pick up on. That’s what is often forgotten about. Yes, there are a lot of resources for startups and entrepreneurs in Richmond but I can’t always get to them because they don’t understand these differences.”
We are stripping away all these labels that make mainstream folk comfortable.Melody Short
Melody: “There are a lot of players in the ecosystem but there has not been a priority to center Black entrepreneurs. There have been great efforts by the Office of Minority-Owned Businesses Development to support minority-owned businesses and by the Metropolitan Business League to support women- and minority-owned businesses, but we are stripping away all these labels that make mainstream folk comfortable. We are focusing on Black-owned businesses. Period. That’s our focus and that’s who we’re doing business with.
It’s important to keep the dollars circulating within the Black community.Melody Short
Jackson Ward Collective – Owning our Own
Rasheeda: “Our mission is to learn, grow and own in the Black community. We are a hub that connects Black business owners to one another to create that sense of community, to know that they’re not out there alone. Our community is virtual first, which gives them 24/7 access to a platform of resources and service providers that are Black-owned, offering everything from legal, banking, insurance to executive coaching, real estate, business development, branding, any service a business needs to grow.
The original plan was not to launch in 2020, but all three of us were contacted individually by people in our network – large corporations and even individuals – who said ‘I want to invest in Black-owned businesses. Who should I talk to?’ We realized there was a need that was further escalated by the social justice issues and the awakening to racism in the United States that happened over the summer 2020. That’s what pushed us to move ahead earlier than planned.
It’s a combination of what we’re experiencing locally and what Black people and women are experiencing around the world. We feel empowered to not be afraid because we have each other.Melody Short
We offer customized support to all the members of Jackson Ward Collective. We welcome any Black entrepreneur – whether they run a brick and mortar business or they want to take their idea and scale it nationwide. No matter what size or industry or stage they’re at, we are here for them and we have the network and resources to help them move forward.
Our endgame is not just building a strong community. Our endgame is buying the block.Rasheeda, Kelli & Melody
We want physical space, we want real estate. We want places where our members can start and eventually go out and buy their own blocks. We want people to be able to invest directly into a portfolio of Jackson Ward Collective members. All of that is who we are and what we are moving towards.”
Melody: “We’ve been made uncomfortable for our entire existence. And it’s time for other people to get uncomfortable. We’re exhausted. It’s a combination of what we’re experiencing locally and what Black people and women are experiencing around the world. We feel empowered to not be afraid because we have each other.”
Rasheeda: “The investors we work with write checks that come with an understanding that this effort is driven by the three of us and our team of advisors. A check does not translate into changing the vision of the Jackson Ward Collective and where we are going. Historically, there has been an apprehension in the Black community toward people who come in, who are not Black, that have this savior mentality. We cannot, and will not, allow this to exist here.
Sometimes part of being an ally and supporter is being quiet, listening and observing.Rasheeda Creighton
Jackson Ward, Richmond’s Black Wall Street founded in 1871, was a community that did for itself. That’s what made it so successful. That is not to say that we don’t need other people to come alongside but sometimes part of being an ally and supporter is being quiet, listening and observing.
An understanding of that and our mission is key to any investor who wants to engage with the Jackson Ward Collective. Making a capital investment in JWC is an investment in us buying real estate and in our members. With that said, we welcome every type of financial contribution. Even if they’re not an accredited investor, anyone who understands this approach and wants to engage is welcome. $200 provides a one-year scholarship for one member which gets him/her a discounted membership for life and startup capital to actually launch their business (SCC incorporation).
And this is only to start. We are bringing JWC to other markets in 2021.”
Rasheeda: “Sign up for our newsletter and spread the word. We want that coverage out there to highlight our members. Support Black businesses. Give feedback. If you go and have a great experience, tell them. If you have a bad one – before you blast it all over social media – tell the business owner.”
Kelli: “Try different products. Take someone with you when you go out. My coffee shop is just as good as the next coffee shop but know that I had to work just a little bit harder to get here. We ask you to try Black businesses that you haven’t been to yet.”
Are you spending Black? It’s not like you can’t see us, we are here and we run businesses.Melody Short
Melody: “Think about how you spend your money daily. Who is your childcare provider? Who do you spend your money with in terms of health and wellness? Where do you dine out? Who are your service providers? Are you spending Black? And if not, we ask you to make that mindful shift. Over 50% of Richmond’s population is made up of people of color. It’s not like you can’t see us, we are here and we run businesses. If you don’t know where to start, check out Blocal created by one of our members, Markeisha Harris-Minor.
Favorite local Black-owned businesses
- Lucid Living by Natasha Freeman
- BareSOUL Yoga by Ashley Williams
- North 24th Home by Toria Edmonds-Howell: amazing cleaning products
- Cocoa Pariis by Koshii France
- Amazing Graze by Javona Braxton and Koshii France
- Richwine by Lance Lemon and Kristen Gardner
- Lillie Pearl by Chef Mike Lindsey
Who is in your corner?
Kelli: “The three of us have been extremely honest with each other about what we can and cannot do, and when we cannot handle it. And that’s just leaning on each other. We know this is hard work. Acknowledging that we are exhausted, being honest with each other and our members is key to our mental health. We ask for help, we don’t codeswitch, we can be ourselves and that’s the only way to do this work.”
It’s a balancing act to make sure we remain committed and vigilant but also take care of our own wellbeing.Melody Short
Melody: ”We try our best to practice some form of self care without judgement. Collectively, we know that this is a faith walk, we know that we’re standing in our power. We are drawing from the energy of our ancestors and elders. They didn’t have access to the resources we do and we are mindful of that. It’s a balancing act to make sure we remain committed and vigilant but also take care of our own wellbeing.
In terms of people who have supported me through the years, I want to give a shout-out to Neverett “Foot” Eggleston, the founder of Croaker’s Spot & Sugar’s Crabshack. He has been one of my biggest supporters for the last twenty years. To me he is an example of what hard work and dedication to the Black community looks like.
Rasheeda: “Lester Johnson. He’s been a friend and tremendous supporter for years. He’s always checking in to see how we’re doing and what we need. I’d also add our families. They’ve been huge supporters to us, encouraging us, being our village as we juggle not just being business owners, but daughters, mothers, sisters and friends.”
Jackson Ward Collective
Richmond, VA, USA
Kelli Lemon. Rasheeda Creighton. Melody Short.