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D'Shawn Russell, founder, and CEO of Southern Elegance Candle Company, has built her million-dollar business by challenging expectations. She started her small business as a middle-aged mom with no formal business training. And she's also a Black woman in the Southern U.S., where sometimes outdated stereotypes result in eyebrows raising when she enters a room as CEO.
D'Shawn's small-town upbringing in Roseboro, NC, is the inspiration for her small-batch soy candle business, which embodies some of the "best of" where she grew up in the South. Every candle created evokes scents of the South and is named to reflect the unique aromas, flavors, and storied cities of the region. Carolina Pine, Peach Mimosa, and The Bayou are just a few of the selections, and though D’Shawn has traveled the world, she feels the brightest at home, which is currently Raeford, NC.
"The fragrances are meant to elicit memories of growing up here," D’Shawn said. “I come from a long line of people that have done some pretty amazing things here in the South.”
Founder D'Shawn Russell's family memories of growing up in the South were a major inspiration.
Still, she has encountered people who don’t expect a Black woman to be behind a thriving brand that celebrates Southern living. “There have been so many times where I walk into a room full of people familiar with the brand, but not familiar with me personally – and I'm not exactly what they were expecting,” said D’Shawn. “When I show up, as a Black woman, they’re almost like, ‘Hmmm, what's really happening here?’” Sometimes the stares are just curiosity, but D’Shawn has also encountered skepticism and systems she believes have amounted to discrimination as she’s tried to raise capital to grow her business.
Nevertheless, she finds her nostalgia and experiences with small-town Southern life resonate with customers from all walks of life. “It crosses gender, race, and socioeconomic status,” she said, adding that in her case, “it’s just a feel-good story about literally growing up with your grandma on a dirt road and running around barefoot with lightning bugs.”
Her brand’s tagline, “modern values, Southern charm,” sums up D’Shawn’s philosophy that Southern Elegance can move beyond outdated stereotypes people have about the South, and celebrate what she sees as “a more modern, inclusive, family-oriented, community-oriented, diversity-led South that I live in” now.
D’Shawn began making candles in 2015 with two pots on her kitchen stove, and a year later Southern Elegance Candle Company was officially born. At 40 and having taught math for 22 years, she reached a turning point in her personal life that led to a pivot in her career. "I really just wanted to replace my teaching salary," she said – and now, she’s exceeding it. Despite having no formal business training, she turned her candle-making know-how into a flourishing company.
Today, Southern Elegance generates more than $1 million in annual sales and boasts a 60% customer return rate. D’Shawn also proudly employs about 20 people, selling candles at her flagship location and over 600 stores nationwide.
Like most entrepreneurs, the early stages were focused on where to get the money she needed to grow, but finding funding was an uphill battle.
“As a Black, female business owner, I’ve experienced all of the discrimination that exists,” D’Shawn said. “When you’re applying for capital through traditional means, they use a traditional process, and sometimes that process can be biased towards certain products or people or situations.”
Southern Elegance Candle Company brings the scents of Southern living into homes.
She discovered a refreshing alternative with PayPal Working Capital.1 Because the funding is based primarily on PayPal account history, the application process doesn’t involve the often lengthy and nerve-wracking experience of traditional loans.
“It was a game-changer for my business – it was easy to apply, with no jumping through hoops,” she said. “I had funding within minutes, and I found it convenient. There’s no complicated math. You know how much you’re getting and how you have to pay it back.” 2
Since discovering PayPal Working Capital as an option, D’Shawn has secured four business loans, allowing her to buy the materials she needs to keep producing more candles and scale her business.
“When I started the business, and the company started growing, I realized that I had an opportunity to present a story that was unique – not only was I a Black businesswoman, but I was also a middle-aged mom living in the South,” she said. Now, D’Shawn is proud to serve as a role model for other entrepreneurs.
For Southern Elegance Candle Company, the next phase of growth includes moving into a new 15,000-square-foot warehouse to have the space to fulfill new orders from a national department store. “I never expected it to turn into something so amazing,” D’Shawn said.
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