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Three corporate-wise female moguls bearing holiday gifts look to disrupt Black retail market

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Three corporate-wise female moguls bearing holiday gifts look to disrupt Black retail market


By Angel Burt and Wesley Brown – What is the formula for success for three Black female entrepreneurs hoping to make it big in retail during the all-important Christmas holiday season?

For Black Paper Party co-founders Madia Willis, J’Aaron “Jae” Merchant, and Jasmine Hudson, the common link for these incredible Black women entrepreneurs are their close ties to northwest Arkansas and Walmart Inc., the world’s largest retailer in the fast-growing bedroom suburb of Bentonville, Ark.

Today, the trio is the creative engine behind the BPP brand, which recently expanded its 2022 holiday collection into some of the nation’s biggest retail brands. Hudson, BPP’s chief merchandising officer, said the fast-growing, holiday-focused online brand was born out of a love of Black culture and recognition that imagery of Black families and their experiences are underrepresented during the yuletide season.

But well before the Black wise women came together as one entity, Hudson and Merchant were the creative force behind the Black-Owned NWA. That social media platform, founded in 2020, is a curated guide to all things “Black-owned and business” in one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan service areas, from fine dining, art and wellness to style, culture and events.

Willis successfully launched a $1 billion children’s brand at Walmart, and later met Hudson and Merchant through the online platform. Soon after, the millennial triumvirate connected and began sharing their everyday experiences in the retail sector.

“Essentially, we kind of became friends and realized that we have a very unique set of skills, and how do we go about using those skills to drive our passion for diversity and inclusion and overall celebration of Black people,” Hudson told Arkansas Black Vitality in a wide-ranging virtual interview. 

During the early days of the pandemic, the nation was also dealing with the fallout from the George Floyd murder in the summer of 2020. That caused the three Black entrepreneurs to rethink their professional careers and consider a higher purpose in their work.

“The country was still reeling from the murder of George Floyd, and we were (brainstorming) on what can we do to bring more love and joy to the Black culture, as opposed to sorrow and misery and this ever-perpetuating downward spiral,” said Hudson, a graduate of Tennessee State University. “So, Black Paper Party came about as this concept. It actually started out as “It’s A Wrap. But that was trademarked, and we couldn’t take it.”

Zazzle beginnings & Macy’s “big pitch”

From its early beginnings in 2019, the Black-owned startup was initially a part-time gig. At the time, BPP’s Christmas-heavy lineup of wrapping paper, gift bags, 24-karat gold-plated keepsake ornaments, stylish holiday cards, gift tags, and stickers were sold on a print-on-demand basis on Zazzle. That online platform allows customers to connect with creatives and designers who create and sell their own branded signature products.

From those early days, the BPP founders went from moonlighting to commissioning an advertising agency to begin promoting the early-stage startup on social media, by email, and “word-of-mouth” marketing to family and friends.

“Once we realized it was a hit on Zazzle, we decided to start making the investment and developing actual inventory and selling it ourselves through BlackPaperParty.com,” said the former Walmart merchandiser. 

After a period of robust growth during the pandemic in 2021, Willis was the first BPP founder to quit her corporate and side jobs to begin working permanently for BPP during the holiday season a year ago. “We grew very, very, very fast, and we needed a full-time dedicated resource, or else we were not going to make it through the holiday season,” Hudson said.

During that period, Hudson said BBP’s retail partners include T.J. Maxx and its sister companies, Marshalls and Home Goods, along with the online retail outlets for Macy’s and Target. She said the company was also experiencing solid sales on BPP’s website.

After Willis went full–time in late 2021, BPP was selected to attend The Workshop at Macy’s from April 25 – May 27. The cohort program, founded in 2011 by the Cincinnati, Ohio-based upscale department store chain, is the retail industry’s longest-running retail development program for underrepresented brands and startups.

According to a Macy’s spokesperson, the Wall Street startup development program provides up-and-coming businesses with the tools, knowledge, and access to resources to drive their enterprises to the next level, achieve business objectives and sustain growth. The Macy’s-owned workshop has helped support and grow more than 175 small businesses over the past eleven years. 

As participants in the 2022 cohort, Willis and Merchant represented the Black-owned northwest Arkansas firm among 25 startups in the five-week program, held virtually and in-person in New York City. To further strengthen the program, The Workshop at Macy’s this year introduced new improvements, including classes on strategic sourcing, pitching for funding, supply chain management, and financial and accounting curriculum.

This year’s cohort program by the upscale retail giant also introduced a vendor pitch competition for participants to present their products, business opportunity, and funding proposal. Out of the 25 participants, BPP won the contest and received a $100,000 business grant. That big win by Willis and Merchant also provided the northwest Arkansas retail mavens with a partnership with Macy’s sourcing team, “buy-now-pay-later” financing services from Klarna, and marketing support from Spark Foundry, among other prizes. Additionally, every participant received a $5,000 business grant upon completing the five-week program.

“So, (we) won the pitch competition and got the $105,000, and that allowed me and Jae to go full-time,” Hudson said, adding that ongoing sales and “bootstrap” financing and investments from family and friends have propelled the Black-owned online retailer to new heights.

Today, Hudson said BPP finances are “trued up” on all debts, meaning that the company is in a solid fiscal position and its books are balanced. She said the company is ready for much more vigorous growth after only three years in business, an enviable position for any startup, much less a Black-owned retail vendor.

“That’s a blessing to be going on three years old and pretty much be debt-free and have a really great cash flow,” said Hudson. “What we’re doing right now to stabilize yearly cash flow is (expanding) to additional holidays and occasions. So, right now, we are primarily Christmas (focused), but we are securing Easter, Valentine’s Day, and birthday products for next year, which will kind of even things out.”

Hudson added: “Christmas will always be big, but this will make us more diversified and sustainable all through the year.”

Beyond bootstrapping

For the future, Hudson expects exponential post-pandemic growth as customers become more familiar with BPP’s potential, including expanding into the children’s retail gift segment. She said one of the most enjoyable experiences for the three Black startup founders is seeing the emotional feedback from Black families that now see products specifically marketed to them.

“We feel as though we have just scratched the surface,” said the HBCU graduate. “What is happening now is that the customers are responding extremely well to our products. Specifically, whenever the mom brings the kid-items home, ‘they’ll say, mommy, this looks just like me.’

“So, what is happening now is that several retailers … have reached out to say, “Hey, we need you to develop programs for us. This is awesome.’ That is going to give us extreme distribution at this point. We fully expect that expansion, and we are also expanding into more products, from décor to apparel. So, you will see the (BPP) brand spread out from that perspective as well,” explained Hudson.

And although Willis, Merchant and Hudson each have corporate experience working in retail, including their recent stints with Walmart, all three are still learning the ropes as business owners of their specific, gift-focused industry. Hudson said all BPP’s partners – including Walmart, Family Dollar, Macy’s, Target and TJX Companies, which own the T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods brands ­– have different invoicing and operational systems.

“Retail is not easy at all; it is very hard. Even for those that have been in it ­– including (me), Jae and Madia, all coming from retail. But being on the other side is a whole other world,” said Hudson. “Macy’s backend does not look like Target’s backend, does not like Walmart’s backend … Everybody has a different system; everybody has a different acronym and none of them speak to each other, so it is really crazy.”

Still, the BPP executive team’s stints at retailers like Walmart, Target, and Five Below have given them crucial skills to understand the retail industry. “But our backgrounds have uniquely prepared us to at least know enough to know when something is off; we know how to ask the right question, and we know what to look for. It may not be the same name, but we know conceptually what it is,” said Hudson.

After ramping up to full-time, Hudson said the BPP founders now work as a team to conceptualize and come up with new designs, products and trends to meet the needs of the unique Black target market. According to Nielsen, Black consumers’ annual spending power will top $1.8 trillion by fiscal 2024.

Hudson said the fast-growing startup keeps up with its Black customers by studying critical trends in the retail industry, exploring new products in the pipeline, and analyzing sales data. BPP also polls its customers directly through online reviews, social media feedback, and other grassroots means.

For example, Hudson said BPP regularly gathers feedback from several Facebook holiday sites, including several “Black Santa” groups that post their comments online. “They will tell you whether they like your stuff or if it stinks,” she said. “But it is unvarnished truth that we need, but sometimes you just say, ugh, that was a cute nutcracker ….” 

Snow Much Fun …

For this year, in addition to BPP’s familiar designs from 2021 (Kids on Kraft, Gnomies, Aunt Holly, Nutcrackers, Graphic Trees and Jungle), the Black-owned startup has launched two new holiday collections in 2022.

Hudson said BPP customer specifically asked for the Arkansas startup to debut a new Celestial line, marketed as “‘Oh Holy Night’ meets Afro-Futurism in the most holly jolly way.” “Featuring a reimagined Aunt Holly as a star goddess, the star babies, and the introduction of a nativity scene, this year’s collection will have you feeling merry and bright with fun metallic and glittery treatments,” said the company’s recent press release.

BPP’s other new holiday collection for this yuletide season is Snow Much Fun. “The brand is spreading the joy of the Black Family with fun prints introducing Klaus babies as adorable nutcracker and snow globe characters and featuring the best-selling Klaus family Winter Scene and the beloved “Naughty, Nice, I Tried” pattern,” explains the company’s marketing collateral.

Today, BPP has annual sales exceeding $1 million. Hudson said the Bentonville startup forecasts yearly revenues to grow over $5 million in the next five years from direct online and retail sales, licensing, and royalties. She said the company’s total customer count from those varied channels is nearly 50,000.

For the near future, Hudson said BPP would continue to scale its operations. She said BPP is looking for new hires in accounting, creative design, sales, and marketing. The company also recently retained an executive consultant during an Atlanta retreat to help the Arkansas startup with its operational procedures, growth strategy, administrative roles, succession planning, and a potential exit strategy.

For now, however, Hudson said the executive trio is having fun building a multimillion-dollar retailer that not onlystirs its customer base but inspires other Black entrepreneurs to follow their dreams and own a successful, thriving business.

“I think the biggest thing that has worked for us is our partnership,” Hudson advises. “So, make sure you have a solid network of people that are not afraid to tell you about your shortcomings and the good things that will guide you along the way. Each of us have amazing mentors, but we are also that for each other.”

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