During Black History Month, we celebrate the many incredible contributions of the Black community. But as D’Shawn Russell, founder and CEO of Southern Elegance Candle Co. rightly puts it, we should be celebrating the many achievements of Black people every day. D’Shawn comes from a long line of entrepreneurs and leaders, but as a CEO and small business owner that is also a woman of color, she has experienced firsthand the many challenges that minority-owned businesses face.
Founder D'Shawn Russell
There continues to be a significant disparity when it comes to access to capital and other entrepreneurial development opportunities -- particularly for women of color, who receive less than 1 percent of venture capital funds in the U.S. each year. Despite the odds, D’Shawn has taken the world by storm with her handcrafted candles and bath products that capture the essence of southern living.
D’Shawn, whose background is in education, started Southern Elegance Candle Co. in 2016 out of her kitchen in North Carolina. She quickly scaled and quit her job as an educator after 22 years to pursue running a small business full-time. Her deep connection with customers, largely due to her TikTok following of 35,000 people and her business’s Instagram following of nearly 26,000 people, has catapulted her business to new heights. Today, Southern Elegance Candle Co. is a multimillion-dollar company striving to inspire others and has been featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things and Good Morning America. I’m inspired by D’Shawn’s drive and resilience, and I hope you appreciate her story as much as I did.
D’Shawn Russell: One of the main challenges I have faced as an entrepreneur who is a woman of color, is securing funding and finding mentorship opportunities. Too often, when a person from an underserved community opens a business, getting funding is a real challenge. Speaking from experience, you really have to struggle and be resilient in the beginning in order to find the appropriate funding. A lot of times, minority-owned businesses are turned down for traditional bank loans and, up until recently, there were not a lot of grant or mentorship programs. That’s why the moment I was able to leverage PayPal Working Capital, I did. PayPal really has been an integral part of growing my business.
DR: My business, and all of my sales, has run through PayPal from the start of my business. I’ve been using PayPal to help me sell across both online and in-store. My first credit card reader was a PayPal Here reader. The reader was so helpful, especially as I started selling my candles at craft fairs. Now, I have PayPal Checkout on my website and it’s such an easy way for my customers to checkout. And then, as I mentioned, I leveraged PayPal Working Capital as soon as I could. PayPal Working Capital has been extremely helpful, especially as we’re all dealing with supply chain issues now.
DR: Like everyone else, I’m also dealing with supply chain issues. Glass is now like gold. Finding jars to put my candles in is very challenging. So whenever we see that the glass jars are in stock, we buy as many as financially feasible for us. PayPal Working Capital allows us to buy the glass that we need in bulk. Another issue we are having is with our wicks. There is a 12-week lead time for wicks. We need enough wicks to last us three months. Again, having the funds there to buy in bulk is critical for us to be able to stay in business.
Southern Elegance Candle Co. inventory
DR: For anybody who is starting a business, you’ll need to know why you are in business and who you are selling to. For me, I was very clear with my mission immediately. I knew why I was in business, and who I was selling to. Minority business owners in particular are going to experience roadblocks at every single turn. You have to have a certain level of tenacity and resiliency that I don't think other entrepreneurs have to have on the level that we have to have it. Your road will likely be harder, and you will need to stay focused.
In terms of giving back, I like to reach out to other up-and-coming Black-owned home fragrance companies to provide the support and mentorship that they need so that they don't have to make the same mistakes that I did. I don’t view other businesses within the industry as competitors, there’s enough business for everyone. Aside from that, I made sure that I’m hiring from minority communities. The vast majority of people who work for me are from minority backgrounds – Black or Hispanic.
DR: Initially, we used social media strictly to promote the business. I was not a part of the initial social media presence at all. I wanted to establish the brand because I knew that being a Black female business owner of a Southern-inspired brand would come with certain challenges. I wanted the products to speak for themselves. Once the brand was established and I felt we had a very strong social media presence, then I became more visible. Social media is a tricky avenue. It can be incredibly beneficial for the company, but being Black, we don't have a lot of room to make mistakes. We have to be careful about how we present the company on social media.
I have an Instagram and TikTok channel and quickly gained followers by talking about myself and the business. When you are from a minority group, people need to see that success is possible, even if they don’t want to run a multimillion-dollar business. I underestimated how impactful me being CEO of this business would be to other female and Black entrepreneurs.
DR: The numbers don’t move me. Having money is a good thing, and the business brings in several million dollars in sales a year. But our bigger mission is what I take seriously. Knowing that I’m responsible for 20 other people, providing a living wage, providing benefits, being a contributing part of the community is a much better deal than hitting some monetary milestones. The bigger picture is how you relate to your community; how are you as a role model? How am I helping female and Black-owned businesses and what am I doing to help them? My purpose is to leave a legacy and to inspire other entrepreneurs to have the courage to start their own businesses.
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