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Courier Weekly Friday 5 June 2020

Courier Weekly Friday 5 June 2020

In the first episode of our new weekly podcast, Shannon Maldonado of Philadelphia-based home and lifestyle shop Yowie shares her experiences as the founder of a 'proud black-owned business’.

SHANNON MALDONADO: We are tired. Tired of waiting for a change to happen within our lifetime. Tired of the excuses and justifications for the many murders of black people. Tired of the sharing of painful videos of said murders and having to explain that racism is, yes, in fact very real, but also insidious, rampant and systematic. Tired of educating and trying to make others feel comfortable when we’re so rarely afforded the luxury ourselves. 

We can't breathe. We also can't sit in our living rooms. We can't go for a jog and we can't watch birds in a public park or do things that others take for granted every day. Our freedom is tested so often that we absorb and push these experiences deep inside, just so we can get through the day without breaking down. We can't hear it anymore. We can't take it anymore. 

Yowie is a proud black-owned business and we stand in support of the protesters fighting to end police brutality. We stand with the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and the countless others dealing with the loss and pain of the senseless murders. Yeah, so that's the statement. I'm just getting choked up reading it.

DANIEL GIACOPELLI: That's Shannon Maldonado, founder and owner of Yowie, one of Philadelphia's best shops and, as Shannon says, a proud black-owned business. In recent days, following the murder of George Floyd, Shannon decided enough was enough. While fellow businesses in the neighbourhood started to board up their windows as the protests swept the country, Shannon took a different path. She turned her shop window into a giant billboard with a message – a manifesto really – some of what you just heard, in support of the protests. 

As you'll hear Shannon explain in just a bit, police brutality is certainly a part of it, the microaggressions that happen to every black person every day, that aren't often discussed, because it makes people – white people – feel uncomfortable. 

So what's it really like being a black business owner today? That's the topic of today's edition of the Courier Weekly. 

So welcome to the show. This is the brand new weekly podcast from Courier Magazine, I'm Courier's editorial director, Danny Giacopelli. This is a new format for us really, a weekly podcast. For months we've been coming to you daily with a show all about how small business owners are trying to stay alive and adapting and pivoting – for some of them, even growing – during Covid-19. 

That was all about survival – how will we come out the other side of this crisis in one piece? But for a huge part of the population, it's always survival mode, it’s just that some of us are finally starting to wake up to it. 

At Courier, as a team and a company, we believe unreservedly, wholeheartedly, that black lives matter. We believe no one should live in fear or be denied equal opportunity over the colour of their skin. And we stand in support of the protesters marching across the US and the world. 

A bit later on, at the end of the show, I'll explain what we'll be doing at Courier to go beyond just slacktivism and offering our words of support. So stay tuned for that. But first, we're back to Philly. And back to Shannon.

SHANNON: I've talked to a few friends, black friends and friends of colour about it. It's been a more raw reaction than we even expected of how we feel right now. You know, we've seen countless police brutality incidents happen for decades. But there was something about this where I just immediately felt this flood of decades of incidents that I've had happen to me, large and small. And I just, something broke in me last week, just reading everything, watching everything – living in Philadelphia has been really scary. There's a lot of action here, I feel we're not safe here at all. And this is where I'm from. So I feel very embarrassed right now from a lot of the things that are happening in Philadelphia. 

But from a mental health standpoint, I'd say I'm hanging in there, I'm really trying today to approach a place of hope or a place of purpose for myself. So I do feel – we could talk about it more later – but I do feel like I have a few opportunities to kind of force the hand or make people feel uncomfortable enough to actually change. Some projects I'm working on with organisations here in Philadelphia before this happened, I'm in the room. So how can I pivot that to something bigger? So I'm hanging in there, but I feel very, very mentally drained right now. 

DANNY: What was the status of Yowie before even the protests happening? Because it's almost hard to remember. But you know, last week, we were still in the middle of a pandemic and shops were closed. And it seems like that was a year ago, because it's out of the news almost. But I mean, you guys must have been shut down.

SHANNON: Yeah, March 13. And I immediately felt like it was the right thing to do. We've got a really small storefront. It's about 450 square feet. We don't have great ventilation there. I always noticed that every time we have a party or event, so to me it was just potentially a breeding ground for germs. And I wouldn't want to make myself or my employees sick or any of our customers or guests. So we shut down before the city ordinance shut down all businesses that were not essential. And we just immediately shifted to being online, which is where we started. So it wasn't a crazy transition. 

But I could admit that like, we haven't been the best at keeping up our webshop because most of our sales come from our storefront. So within a few days, my boyfriend and I drove down, we just packed everything in the car and brought it home. And I just started shooting stuff haphazardly in our living room, just to get it on the website, and just worked on talking about kind of the vulnerability of like, now we don't have a store. What does that mean? 

For better, for worse, I'm very vocal and very comfortable talking about my feelings to our audience as a business owner. And I think that they appreciated that we didn't just kind of pack up and leave. We were like, we're still here. How can we talk? How can we engage? How can we still make products that speak to you even though you're trapped inside your house? 

So we have been very lucky that we pivoted pretty quickly. And our sales have been up during Covid, which is very rare. And I feel crazy saying that, but that's the truth. So we've just been trying to focus on, OK, now the sales are there, how can we continue to support artists that maybe don't have access to their studios and get product from them? Or how can we work with designers that have been furloughed? So that's been a bit of our focus. 

And then, I don't know, just kind of keeping morale up because we're all like, trapped inside. So we've started doing virtual events – we did a virtual still life session where we asked a stylist to set up a still life live that we can draw, or we dyed things over Zoom, like we did things using turmeric, we're supposed to have, this week a somatic writing workshop. So the one silver lining is we've been pushed, we're scrappy, we're DIY, we're like punk, for lack of a better word. How can we continue doing that? Even when we're trapped inside?

DANNY: At what point did you say, I'm gonna put a sign up in the shop window? And you made a really strong statement with that sign that kind of covers your shop window. What does it say? And why did you do that?

SHANNON: Like I mentioned earlier, I felt very, very raw emotions around what was going on that I was trying to process. I was talking to my family, I was talking to my friends and sharing with my boyfriend. But I was very quick to decide that we had an opportunity to make a statement in our windows, like 60 by 90 inches, like it's, you know, a billboard size. It's a wheatpaste size. So how can we make a statement that makes – is cathartic for me? But also shows any person walking by that we support what's happening. And also give them tools to actionise like to actually do something. 

So I probably drafted it a few times, but it started with ‘we are tired’, but it just goes through how we're waiting for this change to happen. We're tired of waiting for the change, we're tired of being told like this was a bad person and this person deserved to die for XYZ reason. We're tired of making excuses. We're tired of educating, we're tired of making people comfortable when so often, we're not afforded that luxury. And it's just, it's just so many emotions around things that are – police brutality is part of it. But there's microaggressions that happen to every black person, you know, on a daily basis that we choose not to discuss, because it does make white people uncomfortable that society does this. 

So it started talking about how tired we are. And then it said, we can't breathe, we can't go for a jog. We can't sit in our living room, we can't watch birds in a park in a public park. And we just can't do anything that people take for granted on a daily basis. But you know, other people, other races, we feel that our lives are constantly in threat and that our freedom is constantly tested in so many ways. It's so many times that you lose count, and you just have to keep moving to survive, you know, it's survival. So that's the main crux of the statement – that this is one incident that's part of a larger conversation that we never feel safe. And we never get answers for these incidents, and we never get justice. And we never see any action.

DANNY: Yeah, it keeps happening over and over and over again.

SHANNON: It keeps happening. 

DANNY: Why do you think this incident is what caused the biggest reaction of them all, when this happens literally every day?

SHANNON: I don't know exactly what it is. I can only speak to my experience in viewing it. And I think it's probably the length of time which the video is, how many people are there, how many people participated, what the incident was over. I think all the context surrounding this is just such a reminder of how little it takes for you to be killed by a police officer. I think it's the context, but I don't know if I can pinpoint it. I think it's just a breaking point.

DANNY: You mentioned there when you were referencing what you wrote in the window the education thing, I mean, a really common thing you see on Twitter right now or anywhere – it's like some white person tweeting, educate me, teach me, but you know, it's not a black person's place to teach anybody anything about how not to be racist, right? I mean, you've written yourself, you know, please stop asking us to fix this.

SHANNON: We all have Google or Bing. Like, we all have access to search engines. So much information is out there. And I think it's really unfair. It's really inconsiderate to say teach me like, tell me what to do. We're trying to fight just to be here. Now we have to tell you how to not kill us? It's insane to me.

DANNY: Yeah. Reminds me of almost like when the #MeToo era kicked off. And guys were like, oh, you know, I can't do anything now for fear of being, you know, called out, and it's like, well, just don't be a misogynist then, you don't have anything to fear, right?

SHANNON: Pretty simple. Yeah, exactly. That was the left window. And then the right window is about actionable items. But the most important statement in the right window is that Yowie is a proud black-owned business. And we stand in support with the protesters around the world. And I mean that. And I think that there was a lot of conversation in Philly on Saturday and Sunday, we had a lot of looting in affluent parts of the city. And people were like, we condemn this, like, we don't understand this. And I'm like, if my window has to get broken to make change, then that's fine with me, like, what is a window? I have insurance. I know all those stores on Walnut Street have insurance. And that's not the bigger picture. So when people kept approaching me being like, Can we board up your window? Can we help you? And I'm like, I'm in support of what the message is. So I know if I put up that message, I feel safe, that they will understand where I'm coming from and we see each other.

DANNY: What role do you think small business owners have in combatting evils like racism? Or you know, institutional problems in society? I mean, does a shop owner have a soapbox that's more powerful than, you know, your local mayor or even, you know, the federal government or a celebrity? I mean, to somebody like you who owns a shop, pays your taxes, has a community, a big following, do you have a bigger influence than other people?

SHANNON: Yeah, I don't know if I would say that we have a bigger influence. But I think it's just that we have a genuine, authentic connection to these people. So many people that come into my shop, I'm watching their children grow up. I know what they bought last time they were there. We're talking about the gentrification of our neighbourhood, we're talking about movies, my shop is not a place where you come in and purchase something and leave, we almost always have a conversation. And I think that there's already that trust there that if I'm talking about something, it's something that's important to me, and something meaningful, so that it's not just so that I can check off a box that I supported this cause today, it's something I'm very passionate about. And I know how many people walk by our shop window. It's on a thoroughfare that people use every day. And even if they stopped and didn't agree, they read it. And that was important to me to have the message very loud and proud. On the window.

DANNY: This is where you grew up too, right? You grew up in Philly, you moved to New York, and then you moved back to Philly.

SHANNON: Yes. And I moved back to Philly with a purpose to do something different. And I left my corporate job to rebel from a lot of the things that we're talking about now. I worked in corporate fashion for over 12 years, I worked really hard, late hours, never got the accolades of my peers, never got the promotions that I deserved, was always told next time, next time, next time, as I watch other people climb up the ladder. And it's after a while you're like, why am I not getting a fair chance? And Yowie is just such a rebellion of… we'll never be put in a box, we'll never be told that we're one thing, we'll never be told what to do. We're just going to always operate from a place of these are things we love, things we care about, and things we want to make. And this is all part of that. So as my brand on the surface is a homewares and lifestyle brand – the lifestyle part is the biggest part because, like, this is part of my life, like this affects my life and my friends and my family. So I'm going to talk about it.

DANNY: Do you think, and tell me if this is not the case at all, but that black entrepreneurs might actually have a more entrepreneurial kind of, like, chance just because, as you just said, they might not have the chances that other people do within the corporate ladder? So they go off on their own, and they build great things on their own?

SHANNON: Yeah, I think we're used to fighting for things harder. And we're used to doing what we can to pull together something, even if it's not perfect, and just working with our peers or with our family to make things happen. I feel like so many black-owned businesses I know, and it's the son is working in the shop, or the nephew or the cousin, like, we'll figure this out together. And I think we're just used to fighting. So I'm in a place where – a lot because of what we're talking about – I never expect anything from anyone. I just know I have to figure it out myself. So when someone asks me, educate me about race, I'm like, you can probably figure that out if you just take a second, you know, so I feel the same way where I just always try to find my own resources. I'm not shy about asking for help, where I don't know things. I'm not shy about just trying to make it work. But I think it's just that fight and that grip that we have because of years of fighting just to be here. Just to exist, you know, and to feel respect from our peers and respect from the nation and, you know, the world.

DANNY: As we said at the beginning of this, this has been an insane time as a small business owner full stop. I mean, the pandemic itself was like an existential threat to small businesses. Now we have, you know, now the nation is burning, what are you thinking about Yowie for the coming months, in terms of how you're planning, what you're going to do? It's so hard to plan for the future.

SHANNON: It's been interesting. Before Covid, we were about to start fundraising for a new space that we wanted to open. In July, it'll be one year that we've been working on this kind of pivot space idea of shifting so that we can be a building where each floor is a different function under the umbrella. So hospitality and creative flex spaces that we can work on with the community, our retail space, my design studio, just making Yowie truly a platform of multiple floors. And then, once Covid hit, we're like, you know what, this is not appropriate right now to talk about how we need to raise money for this new space. 

So we're just going to pause and hone in on the things we're good at and learn how we can be nimble, you know, during times of crisis, we were going to do that. And now we still want to do it. But we're thinking like, should the first floor be more of an essential business? Should it be some kind of grocer or more of a true community space that we can share with the neighbourhood? So now, it's just like, thinking about it slightly differently, but we still want to do it. 

So Paula, who's my one kind of full-time-ish person, we've been working through that every day, pinging ideas back and forth, we have a profit-and-loss sheet ready, we've got like, deck ready, but we're just like, OK, let's just keep like tinkering until the time feels right, which it obviously doesn't right now – we're going to do it eventually. And if anything, it's going to be stronger, because we've been put to the test before we even have this space open.

DANNY: Shannon Maldonado there, founder and owner of Yowie. As I mentioned, at the top of the show, for us at Courier, empty support and words just aren’t enough. There's just so much more we can and should be doing to build a more equitable company and level the playing field. We're going to make sure that the stories we've heard this week, of systemic racism and workplace prejudice, barriers to access, are shared a lot more widely across all of our channels. 

And we're going to go beyond that. We're putting our resources to work to launch what we're calling the Courier Fresh Fund. It's $50,000 to support young founders of black-owned businesses. We're going to be announcing a lot more detail about this in the coming weeks. And we've already shared a bit more about it in today's edition of the Courier Weekly email newsletter, so I really hope you check it out. 

As always, if you've got any questions or comments or feedback about any of that or anything at all, you can reach me at [email protected]

I'm Daniel Giacopelli. The Courier Weekly podcast is back again next week.