For the second year in a row, In The Know by Yahoo hosted a live panel of Latinx and Hispanic business founders in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month. The sold-out show, which took place at Mexican hot spot Cosme, was moderated by In The Know’s beauty producer Lisa Azcona.
The night’s speakers — which included Lyana Blount, the CEO of Black Rican Vegan; Adriana Carrig, the founder of Little Words Project; and Brandon Pena, the CEO of 787 coffee — all shared insights into how they’ve persevered as small businesses in spite of the pandemic.
A common theme among their answers had to do with support from their communities. Pena, whose coffee brand is sourced from Puerto Rico and named after the island’s area code, was hit hard by not only the pandemic but Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“We lost 97% of the farm,” Pena recalled. “We closed four shops in New York City, we closed one shop in Puerto Rico, we sold a contract with United, and we all had doubts.”
Pena felt hopeless but credited one of his colleagues, Muriel, with coming up with the idea of getting back to the company’s startup roots, and the duo started selling coffee at street fairs. The brand 787 began growing again in early 2020, but then the pandemic hit.
“We came back to New York City and took advantage of the experience Maria gave us,” Pena said, about expanding 787 during a pandemic. “Every [other] coffee shop that was closing, we opened [ours]. We ended up with 11 coffee shops that year. It was amazing.”
It was a similar situation for Carrig, whose bracelet business was just starting to take off. She had a staff of 40 employees and overcame a lot of people’s not taking her or her ideas seriously enough.
“I felt like I was always fighting this uphill battle of ‘trust me, it’s going to work,'” she said. “It was an ongoing sea of unexpected challenges.”
Carrig did not want to furlough any of her employees or cut salaries. She said she turned to the tight-knit community that had established itself around the Little Words Project and asked for help. Carrig said she was able to do this because of her openness with customers — particularly her relatability to other Latinx and Hispanic young women.
Blount, who came up with the idea of Black Rican Vegan in 2016, agreed with Carrig about being transparent with customers. She said everyone who’s stayed true to her brand since the beginning has watched her move from cooking in her Bronx apartment to being in a commercial kitchen with employees to counting Lizzo as a fan, all within a matter of years.
“I didn’t know how people were going to take to it,” she said about launching Black Rican Vegan. “I grew up having a set of friends that were Black and a set of friends that were Puerto Rican, and both of them kind of judged me for being ‘more than the other,’ and I don’t see myself that way. I just do what I was taught.”
Blount’s mom, who is Puerto Rican and loves to cook, was her inspiration. But the transition from cooking in your kitchen with family recipes to building a full vegan empire doesn’t come effortlessly.
“It’s never-ending, really,” Blount said about facing obstacles while starting a business. “It’s [about] having passion for what you do and finding ways to just keep going.”
How to support the Latinx and Hispanic community year-round
Supporting Latinx- and Hispanic-founded brands shouldn’t be limited to just one month a year. Lisa concluded the session by asking the panelists how consumers can support and offer more seats at the table for Latinx and Hispanic entrepreneurs.
“By working ethically, by working more than anyone else, by being the first one to show up,” Pena said, as advice to other small business owners. “We are a Puerto Rican company, we are a Spanish-speaking company. … We are happy to have an accent, we are happy to be here, we are very happy to be brown and very happy to be Mexican.”
“More things like this,” Carrig answered, referencing the event. “Being part of this community and continuing to show up for our Latina and Latino brothers and sisters in that way.”
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