49th Annual BRAG Scholarship and Awards Gala Returns To Support African-Americans In the Fashion Industry

BRAG is the leading 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is devoted to the inclusion of people of color in the retail, fashion, and related industries. Since 1970, BRAG has contributed to educating and developing fashion professionals. The organization has also provided mentorship to high school and college students nationwide. Furthermore, BRAG will be hosting its 49thAnnual Scholarship and Awards Gala on October 21st, to support further and recognize exceptional individuals in fashion and related industries.

This year’s Scholarship and Awards Gala will be held at The Edison Ballroom in New York City, NY, from 6 PM to 10 PM. Official sponsors for the Gala consist of Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Burlington, HBO, Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation, Laboratory Institute of Merchandising College, Ashley Stewart, Foot Locker Foundation, Inc., Wal-Mart, Belk, and TJX Companies. The annual event primarily functions as a scholarship fundraiser, so that BRAG can continue to award students of color who have succeeded academically, exhibit financial need, and are interested in pursuing careers in the industry.

2018 BRAG Scholarship Recipients (Courtesy/BRAG)

To date, BRAG has managed to award over one million dollars in scholarships. Scholarship recipients will join their partner companies during the Gala and receive their awards in conjunction with the 2019 Gala honorees. The Gala honorees this year are Melissa Masha, CEO and co-founder of Dagne Dover; Dapper Dan, legendary Harlem-based couturier; Eric Archibald, creative director of Diplomacy Worldwide Streetwear; and Leonardo Lawson, founder and CEO of BOND Creative MGMT, BOND Creative Search, and BOND Motion Pictures. Facilitators for the event are also composed of BRAG board and advisory members. Nicole Cokley-Dunlap, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Macy’s, Inc. and BRAG alumna, currently serves as the co-president of BRAG, alongside Shawn Outler, chief diversity officer at Macy’s Inc.

BRAG Co-Presidents Nicole Cokley-Dunlap & Shawn Outler (Courtesy/BRAG)

Although BRAG is based out of Harlem, NYC, it continues to operate as a national organization. BRAG’s members are comprised of individuals who work in retail, wholesale, marketing, direct sales, or are retail entrepreneurs. Throughout the year, members can network and receive career guidance from prominent figures in fashion and retail-related industries. Members also have access to BRAG’s “Meet-Up” series, which features stellar speakers, leadership and professional development seminars, and panel discussions with experts. Exclusive job opportunities in the fashion, retail, and related industries are accessible to its members as well. Professional members are required to pay one hundred dollars a year.

Detailing her personal experience as a BRAG alumnus and now co-president, Cokley-Dunlap declared, “I would say that the mentorship and connections are what’s most meaningful. It’s not too many of us in the industry. Even if you think about the connection between Shawn and me, even though we both work at the same company, we didn’t meet each other until we joined BRAG.”

“As an alumnus, I want to be able to lead by example because I think being a BRAG alumnus is no different than being an alumnus of an HBCU or other organizations. So much is given to you through BRAG. So, how do you pay it forward? I certainly didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I wanted to lead by example.”

BRAG College Club Chapter (Courtesy/BRAG)

In addition to engaging its members, sponsors, and fashion community through the Annual Scholarship and Awards Gala, BRAG offers college clubs, internship programs, a Black History Month event, and holiday toy drive as well. BRAG launched its first-ever College Club Chapter in 2001 at The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan, NY. Today, BRAG’s college chapters can be found on the following campuses: Clark Atlanta University, Howard University, Laboratory Institute of Merchandising College, Ohio State University, Florida State University, University of Arizona, and Philadelphia University. College Club Chapters were established as a strategic pipeline to bridge the gap between mentors, and students who attend colleges and universities that support BRAG’s mission and vision. Students are allowed a variety of opportunities, such as one-on-one mentoring, networking events, and job fairs. Students are required to pay an annual membership fee of twenty-five dollars to join.

“The mentorship is one thing with the college students, but we also provide mentorship for many others throughout the industry. People approach us on a regular basis for support. It’ll be about how to approach different decisions, navigate their everyday working lives, make career moves, or different things that are happening in the business. So, mentorship is big, and it goes beyond the program that we provide,” Outler proclaimed.

BRAG Summer Internship Program (Courtesy/BRAG)

During the summer, BRAG implements an internship program for students who are aspiring to obtain a full-time career in fashion and retail-related industries after graduation. The BRAG summer internship is a paid comprehensive professional development program, which includes a combination of seminars, workshops, and hands-on industry experience. Additionally, each intern receives a mentor, one-on-one counseling, a Broadway Theater experience, and opportunities to network with industry professionals. Potential candidates must be in their sophomore or junior year of studies toward a bachelor’s degree, or a senior who will graduate in the following fall school semester. All students require a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0. In terms of the selection process, BRAG utilizes the same screening that is used by companies to employ entry-level candidates for their respective training programs and entry-level positions.

“The internship is 10-weeks, but it can vary based on the partner company. We conduct a boot camp during the first week, where the students go through a combination of hard and soft skills sessions, retail math training, and they get a coach. They are also responsible for working on a case study that they present at the end of the summer. After their first week, students are placed at their intern company. Some of our partners this past summer were Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Nordstrom,” Cokley-Dunlap explained.

BRAG Summer Internship Program (Courtesy/BRAG)

BRAG interns are placed with a sponsor company based on their interests, skills, and qualifications. The sponsor company ultimately makes the final determination of which student they will accept to work with their company. Throughout their internship, students are also required to create a case study with their assigned groups. Interns are challenged with the task of coming up with new innovative ideas related to the industry by the end of the summer program. Students are generally known for introducing unique and game-changing ideas. A significant number of interns secure full-time job offers from their host companies, following the completion of their summer internships.

“What’s rewarding is seeing our students over the summer present their case studies. We have students who joined us at the beginning of the summer and didn’t understand retail fully, then come up with concepts that we truly believe can be implemented and make a huge impact on the industry. If we had venture capitalists in the room, they would probably fund them,” Outler affirmed.

Tickets for BRAG’s 49thAnnual Scholarship and Awards Gala start at one thousand dollars for standard seating. BRAG also accepts additional donations, in any amount, to go towards their scholarship fund for students of color. For more information about BRAG and its Gala visit, https://www.bragusa.org.

Diversity and Inclusion Honors Recognizes Leaders Who Advocate For People Of Color In the Workplace

Dr. Dee C. Marshall, former corporate executive and leadership trainer for Fortune 500 companies, transitioned her platform as a Wall Street alumnus in 2012, into becoming an international speaker, diversity consultant, author, certified coach, and TV lifestyle expert. Marshall now devotes much of her time working as a diversity and inclusion advocate, while serving as the CEO of Diverse and Engaged, LLC.

Furthermore, utilizing her Diverse and Engaged platform, Marshall decided to host the first-ever Diversity and Inclusion Honors: “Where Congress Meets Culture, Inclusion, and Belonging.” It was held at the Washington, D.C. Google headquarters on September 11, 2019, at 6 PM. The theme for this year’s inaugural Honors was, “Diversity is multidimensional; people of color cannot be forgotten.”

Explaining the process and purpose for creating the Honors, Marshall stated, “The Diversity and Inclusion Honor’s Award is essentially the meaning of a diversity champion. So that can be a thought leader, game-changer, and trailblazer who have measurable results of making a significant impact for people of color in the workspace. We really launched this event because we’re experiencing growing pains in diversity and inclusion. The emerging trend right now is diluting and diverting away from the original intention of diversity.”“We live in a very hostile and racially tense America right now. Many corporations are focusing on gender diversity and not necessarily race or ethnicity. So, we wanted to hold a space for the original intent of diversity, and really hold the space for people of color, so we don’t get lost in the growth.”

Dee Marshall, Honoree Valerie Rainford, & Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner (left to right) (Courtesy/Brian R. Cauthen)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “By 2024, historically marginalized and underrepresented minorities are projected to make up more than half of America’s population.” The Diversity and Inclusion Honors were designed to serve as a platform for leaders who have advocated on behalf of marginalized and underrepresented people in workplaces nationwide. Marshall formed a selection committee, who then decided on which diversity leaders, community representatives, and corporate executives to award this year. Moreover, this year’s honorees consisted of Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, Congressman Donald M. Payne Jr., Chanelle Hardy, Valerie Irick Rainford, Esi Eggleton Bracey, and Cyrus Mehri.

Dee Marshall pictured with Honors corporate partners (Courtesy/Brian R. Cauthen)

Google, JPMorgan Chase, and Zora Magazine acted as sponsors for the event. Full Color Future resided an essential Honors partner, in addition to News ONE contributing as the official media partner. Although the Honors were officially founded by Diverse and Engaged, Marshall formed a coalition called Dimensional Diversity and Inclusion to help execute the event as well. The coalition consists of five different advocacy and non-profit organizations that support the advancement of Black excellence and equality in the workforce. Their primary goal is to close the gap between where minorities are and where minorities need to be in workplaces. With the support of her colleagues, Marshall was able to orchestrate the event within six months.

“It takes a village to raise a baby. It takes a village to raise an idea. So, this is our village. Our sponsors, Dimensional Diversity and Inclusion coalition, our media partner, my team, and specifically Juneann George, with all of our stuff that touches the U.S. House of Representative, really all helped to make it happen. When you work, partner, and engage with the U.S. House of Representatives, some subtle nuances have to be managed. We wanted to have Congress involved because we knew that there was a gap in knowledge and conversation about diversity and inclusion,” Marshall explained.

(Courtesy/Brian R. Cauthen)

In light of the anniversary of her encounter as one of the survivors who made it down the 33 flights of stairs in the One New York Plaza, during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Marshall decided to administer the Honors on the same day. The events of September 11, 2001, significantly impacted Marshall’s life, and ultimately inspired her to shift gears toward an entirely new professional trajectory. After firsthand witnessing the fall of the World Trade Center, Marshall felt compelled to pursue a more meaningful and abundant lifestyle.

“I consider myself a little Black girl from the hood, and I can say that I had a good experience working on Wall Street. It could have been that I was really young, fresh out of college, and probably a bit naïve, but I didn’t have any horrible experiences working in financial services. However, I was one of the only Black people, for forever, in so many spaces,” Marshall portrayed.

“After September 11th, I made a definitive decision about finding my purpose in life. My businesses came later, but more of the defining moment of September 11th was finding my purpose and living with no regrets. The work that I do now is very much on purpose and aligned with my passion. It still work but very much aligned with why I believe I’m here,” Marshall conveyed.

(Courtesy/Diverse & Engaged)

Marshall was also intentional and strategic with the placement of the Honors being in D.C. so that the Congressional Black Caucus can establish better relations with the U.S. Congress. A significant number of Honors attendees gathered at Google’s D.C. headquarters, dressed in variations of business casual attire. Men wore slacks, sports coats, and pants suits, while women dressed in chic jumpsuits, dresses, and pants suits. The event exceeded its maximum guest capacity, which subjected some guests to limited standing room only.

Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, Damara Catlett, & Dee Marshall (left to right) (Courtesy/Brian R. Cauthen)

“D.C. was very intentional because it aligns with Congressional Black Caucus. Since we’re going to break down the silos across industries and sectors, we wanted to invite all industries and businesses to come to D.C. They should want to come to D.C. to develop friendlier relations on friendlier terms with members of Congress, so members of Congress can get to know them. As far as I’m concerned, this will be an event that will always be in D.C. because that’s the purpose and intent, to bridge the gap and break down silos,” Marshall proclaimed.

Honoree Cyrus Mehri & Dee Marshall (Courtesy/Brian R. Cauthen)

“You may go into your workplace and don’t see people who look like you. Maybe your employer wants to do better and is trying to do better, or maybe you have an employer that’s not necessarily thinking about it. So, Congress is where we have support from the perspective of accountability. They can hold businesses accountable to diversify the workforce, create opportunities, close the equity gap, and address the inequity,” Marshall explained.

In addition to the Honors, Marshall constructed “Diversity on the Hill” as a grassroots advocacy approach for diversity and inclusion. Through the means of Diversity on the Hill, Marshall and her team invite people of color to meet them once a month on Capitol Hill. Marshall and her team then educate people of color about the legislative process and encourage people of color to remain engaged in political concerns past the voting season.

As a follow-up from the Honors held this past September, Diverse and Engaged will be hosting an event on November 1st called Diversity and Inclusion Redefined 3.0, at the Rockefeller Center in New York. Marshall intends to use the event as an advocacy platform for individuals across various business sectors to discuss diversity and inclusion matters. The 2nd annual Diversity and Inclusion Honors is set to take place during September 2020. For more information about Diverse and Engaged events, or to get in contact with Marshall about getting involved, visit https://diverseandengaged.com.

Sistahs in Business Expo CEO and Founder, Aisha Taylor Issah, Speaks On Year Two Journey of Worldwide Tour

Aisha Taylor Issah is a Brooklyn, NY bred entrepreneur, consultant, and ordained minister. She is also most notably known as the founder and CEO of the Sistahs in Business Expo (SIB Expo). The SIB Expo is the nation’s leading multi-city small business expo designed distinctively to uplift and empower today’s fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, women of color.

“In late 2017, I got this idea that there needed to be an affordable and accessible platform for small businesses. The platform would allow small businesses to showcase their business, as well as gather valuable resources and information. As I did more research, I found that women of color are the largest and fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs in the country. However, we are also the least earning. So I knew this would be a good opportunity to create a platform that might help to close that gap,” Issah revealed.

Issah essentially established the SIB Expo to provide an affordable, accessible, and stimulating platform, so entrepreneurial women of color could grow and showcase their businesses. The 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report, released by American Express, reported Black women as the only racial or ethnic group with more business owners than their male peers. Forbes also published that there were a total of 2.4 million African American women-owned businesses in 2018. According to the Federal Reserve, enterprises owned by Black women, generate annual revenue two times fewer than Hispanic women business owners. Profits made by Black women-owned businesses are five times less than all other demographics of women-owned businesses as well.

Before partaking in her entrepreneurial and ministerial endeavors full-time, Issah worked as the executive director of field operations for the City of New York for 13 years. Issah eventually decided to leave her government job in 2016. She went on to focus on her global internet-based professional career-consulting firm called TAYLORmade, which she launched in 2005 with her sister Ayana Taylor-Green. The Taylor sisters created TAYLORmade to assist clients with resume and cover letter writing, strategic job searches, customized interview training, and career counseling. In addition to facilitating the annual SIB Expo and maintaining TAYLORmade with her sister, Issah additionally serves as the associate youth pastor at St. Luke Baptists Church in New Jersey.

Transitioning from working a government job to growing her consulting firm and passion for ministry further, Issah shared, “I’ve always worked and had a business. I actually started my consulting business while also working in city government, as well as being in ministry. It’s just the way that life kind of dealt itself to me. I had this call into ministry that was happening at the same time that I began my career. I also had this niche and desire for entrepreneurship.”

“Our career consulting firm really started as a hobby. We started off with writing resumes for family and friends. As we continued to do that, people began to see results. So we officially launched our business back in 2005. Our success has opened doors that we never imagined possible. We take pride in working closely with every client and business, to ensure that our services are TAYLORmade to meet their needs and exceed their expectations.”

TAYLORmade also specializes in recruitment and staffing services for businesses and non-profits. As Issah continued to service other companies successfully, she felt compelled to create another useful platform for women of color who were small businesses owners. Furthermore, she also possessed a personal longing for a service-based business expo, as a small business owner herself.

SIB Atlanta Expo 2018 (Courtesy/SIB Expo)

The inaugural 2018 SIB Expo tour took place in Newark, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Columbia, SC; and Atlanta, GA. Issah designed a team comprised of a graphic and web designer, visual design and branding manager, marketing coordinator, event coordinators, local ambassadors, and volunteers to assist with executing the first-ever SIB Expo. Her husband and family as a whole have ultimately remained an essential support system to Issah, throughout the Expo’s formation as well.

SIB Atlanta Expo 2018 (Courtesy/SIB Expo)

Each city had an average of more than 700 attendees and featured over 70 vendors. Some of the featured 2018 Expo speakers included MC Lyte, iconic female rapper; Dr. Lynn Richardson, author, entertainment executive and celebrity financial coach; Vivica A. Fox, actress, producer and television host; Cathy Hughes, entrepreneur, radio and television personality, and business executive; and Kim Fields, actress and television director.

SIB Atlanta Expo 2018 (Courtesy/SIB Expo)

Further commenting on the SIB Expo creation process, Issah conveyed, “I had no desire to start another business. A couple of years ago, I had the desire to build a platform for women of color in business. As a woman of color in business myself, I always wanted to participate in expos like ours. I always found that the vendor fees were really high, or that it would cater more towards product-based businesses rather than a service business.”

SIB Philly Expo 2019 (Courtesy/SIB Expo)

“It has been an eventual and tedious process. In September 2017, we took a leap of faith and put a deposit down on our first venue, then hit the ground running. We’ve just been learning as we go along, from deciding on what cities to go to, venues to use, and securing the right partnerships. It’s all really been a learning process for us throughout the whole journey. The response and the growth have been more than I could’ve ever expected.”

This year’s SIB Atlanta Expo will take place on September 7 from 10 AM to 7 PM at Ambient + Studio. The first 250 attendees will receive a VIP gift bag filled with complimentary merchandise from SIB Expo sponsors and partners. Former SIB Expo sponsors have consisted of Kroger Co., Miss Jessie’s, Chick-fil-A, CURLS, City of Columbia Government, Valley National Bank, HSBC Bank USA, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, New York Life Insurance Company, and Southeast Mortgage. General admission tickets and discounted tickets for groups of 10 or more are available via sistahsinbusinessexpo.com until September 6. Same-day tickets will be accessible as well.

Over 100 diverse vendors will be showcased, displaying both products and services. The Expo’s signature AuthorPreneur panel will take place as well. Entrepreneurial writers who are women of color will discuss how writing has helped them grow their brand. An exclusive founders chat will also be held, which will be moderated by Dr. LaKeysha Hallmon, founder and CEO of The Village Market. The founder’s chat will be composed of Dr. Hallmon interviewing Sanaia Applesauce CEO Keisha Smith-Jeremie.

Keynote speakers and hosts for the Expo will be Dr. Lynn Richardson, author and celebrity financial coach; Cynthia Bailey, model, reality television personality, and actress; Jovita Moore, Emmy Award-winning news presenter and reporter; and Lakia Brandenburg, author, wife coach, and entrepreneur. DJ Jazzy T from 96.7 The Beat will also be present to supply live entertainment.

Sharing some of the most challenging life lessons she learned through her growing business stages, Issah said, “You have to have tough skin. You hear ‘no’ a lot more then you hear ‘yes.’ You have to keep going and not let ‘no’ stop you. Also, everyone who starts with you can’t stay with you. We’ve had some people who started with us, but didn’t continue with us because of many different reasons. That still didn’t change our why or the mission. We just had to keep going.”

“I’ve ultimately come to realize that this is bigger than me. Even though I was the person who had the idea and started it, it’s really not about me. It’s about all of the women in business who we’ve been able to empower and give a platform that they wouldn’t otherwise have. I knew there was a need for this, but I think I underestimated it. It has really been eye-opening to see how much it has grown in such a short amount of time.”

Blended Designs Mom-preneur, Casey Kelley, Creates Motivational School Gear for Black Students

Blended Designs, LLC is the leading Black-owned family business to provide school gear that produces positive images and messages for students in the African-American community. Casey and Harvey Kelley, Blended Designs CEOs, launched their 1954® initiative in 2017 to further promote and advocate for equal treatment and advantages amongst African-American students. Once Casey discovered that only two percent of all backpacks represent people of color, she decided it was necessary to fill the void.

The Kelley’s chose the name 1954® to commemorate the legendary Brown versus Board of Education Topeka ruling on May 17, 1954. It declared racial segregation of children in public schools as unconstitutional. 1954® is of a collection of uniquely designed backpacks, lunch boxes, and pencil cases. Each item highlights the diverse characteristics of African-Americans to uplift and empower students of color.

1954® Backpacks (Courtesy/Blended Designs)

There are currently a total of 10 different male and female BDSquad™ characters choices, all of which resemble the likeness of children that Casey personally knows. All of the BDSquad™ character designs possess a specialized name and biography, along with natural ethic features like baby hairs and broad noses. Many of the 1954® products also include the iconic Philippians 4:13 bible verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Several of the BDSquad™ characters are pictured wearing “I can do anything” t-shirts, to further inspire children of color to be their best.

“The theme that we created with the characters was to make sure that they’re all educationally bound. Like they’re bound to go to college and have goals beyond just hanging out. They’re athletes, road scholars, or very musically inclined. They’re involved in things that kids in our communities are not even aware of. It’s about putting these things out there, and starting to build conversations by using these characters,” Casey declared.

Casey and Harvey got married on July 3, 2014, just a few days before initially joining forces as business partners. While the couple embraced their newlywed lifestyle, they also worked on strengthening their new family dynamic as a blended family. Harvey had five daughters as a result of his first marriage, while Casey had two sons. Blended Designs was founded on July 16, 2014, following Casey’s initial success with creating uniquely designed invitations for her and Harvey’s wedding. As a result of Casey’s newfound creative talents and the Kelley family’s new blended union, she went on to birth Blended Designs.

Casey and Harvey Kelley (Courtesy/Blended Designs)

Further detailing the start-up creation process for Blended Designs, Casey stated, “One of the themes of our wedding was that we were a blended family. So everything that was at the wedding was around us, blending our family together. Our oldest daughter, Jordan, came up with the name. We wanted to have blended in the name some how so we could celebrate that we were a blended family. It symbolizes that it was born from us, blending our families together.”

“We started making these puzzles on ETSY. They were 12 piece puzzles that would say, ‘Will you be my flower girl, or will you be my bridesmaid?’ It would depend because they were customized. At the time, we were the only people on ETSY doing it. So we really made a lot of money considering the volume that we did. However, it wasn’t something that would allow us to quit our jobs and be able to retire from.”

Casey, Harvey, and their three sons (Courtesy/FedEx)

In 2016, Casey attended The Massachusetts Conference for Women. The highly anticipated annual conference has succeeded with motivating, inspiring, and impacting the lives of thousands of women since 2004. Dozens of expert speakers conduct workshops and seminars discussing topics like personal finance, business, entrepreneurship, health, work-life balance, and more. Following a stimulating symposium given by the bestselling author, businesswoman, media personality, and minister Sarah Jakes-Roberts, Casey realized her growing desire for a career change.

At the time, Casey was pursuing a career in consumer insights. Her job duties consisted of tracking data analytics for companies like Coca-Cola and Hershey to increase company sales, and help with marketing strategies. Although Casey excelled in her field and enjoyed the security of financial stability, her job, unfortunately, caused her to have clinical depression and anxiety. Casey eventually felt compelled to take a 12-week medical leave of absence from work in 2017, and seek treatment from a behavioral therapist.

(Courtesy/Blended Designs)

During the finals days of her medical leave, Casey partook in a three-day fast from food, beverages, TV, and social media. Her pastor encouraged her to fast so she could receive spiritual guidance for her next career decisions. Furthermore, it was during her fast when Casey had a fruitful conversation with her son, Carter, which fundamentally changed the trajectory of her career. Carter asked Casey if she could make a bag with his face on it. Casey continued to talk through the creative process with her son, and then had an epiphany about designing backpacks with images of African-American children. When it was time for Casey to return to work, she conclusively decided it was time for her to focus on expanding Blended Designs instead.

Casey’s son Carter (Courtesy/Blended Designs)

Explaining her work transition from corporate America to running Blended Designs full-time, Casey confessed, “I was having really bad migraines and stress from work. During my time off of work, I said, ‘Let me just focus on Blended Designs and see if we can come up with something.’ I was happier than I had ever been before, and I didn’t have the stress headaches. It was kind of like an ‘aha!’ moment. My husband and I realized it was time for me to go back to work. We didn’t know if I should go back, just for the sake of my mental health.”

“We talked to our pastor, and he told us to fast for three days. During those three days, Carter, our then eight-year-old son, came to us and asked me to create a bag with his face on it. Thanks to my insights background, I did some research and found that less than two percent of the character backpacks in the market included children of color. We knew then that we could fill the void. I believed that God was saying this is it. So I walked away from my six-figure job.”

In 2017, Blended Designs managed to produce a quarter-million dollars in sales. However, due to their product demand exceeding their supply, Casey and Harvey did not make a profit. The pair then decided to proceed with seeking support from PS27 Ventures, an accelerator and venture capital firm. Since obtaining financial assistance and business guidance from PS27 Ventures, Blended Designs has been able to rebrand into a profitable business successfully.

(Courtesy/Blended Designs)

Casey and Harvey remain devoted to employing, collaborating, and supporting African-American businesses, organizations, and independent contractors. Furthermore, an African-American teenager developed a majority of the 1954®character designs. The couple has also donated a significant amount of their Blended Designs profit and products to various 501(c)(3) organizations that benefit the African-American community. In doing so, Blended Designs has gained notoriety from many public figures like Regina King, actress and television director, and James Harden Jr., a professional basketball player for the Houston Rockets.

“We are very deliberate with who we choose to work with, especially the artists. There are some cultural nuances that other artists just can’t understand. The artists who drew Carter and Zoë were a white couple. When we asked them to do the Joy backpack, they could not comprehend the concept of baby hair. It helped me understand that we could not have an artist that doesn’t understand the little cultural nuances that are important to us,” Casey conveyed.

Blended Designs merchandise (Courtesy/Blended Designs)

The Kelley’s intend to create additional 1954® platforms such as children’s books based on the BDSquad™ characters. Along with 1954® merchandise, other Blended Designs items include apparel, fanny packs totes, compact mirrors, and more. Distribution is currently available in 48 states and 15 countries. All Blended Designs products are available on the company’s website, blendeddesigns.com.

First-Ever African-American Woman Vodka Owner Continues to Lead the Way

Miko Branch talks about life after losing her sister Titi and continuing the Miss Jessie’s empire

Miko and the late Titi Branch, sisters and co-founders of the award-winning hair care company Miss Jessie’s, have succeeded at producing a trailblazing hair care line exclusively for curly, kinky, and wavy hair of all types and textures since 2004. From mixing natural ingredients for local clients in their kitchen to now distributing products to retail stores nationwide, the Branch sisters have successfully grown Miss Jessie’s into a multimillion-dollar empire.

“Titi and I went into business together because it was already in our blood. We were led into it because we wanted to be independent women, create our own schedule, and do things our own way. The money and success came later,” Miko expressed.

Miko (left) and Titi Branch (right) at their Curl Bar salon.

While Titi formerly worked in the news broadcasting industry, Miko pursued her passion as a hairstylist. Titi quit her job in 1995 to become a talent agent, and further assist Miko with her hairstyling career. Soon after, she arranged for Miko to style hair for an Ashley Stewart advertising campaign. Miko and Titi used their earnings from Ashley Stewart to open their first-ever hair salon together.Detailing aspects that led to the rise of her hairstylist career, and then building an empire with her sister, Miko stated, “My mother is Japanese-American. When she had the time to do our hair, I think she did a pretty good job, but I just had aspirations for better hairstyles for myself. So most of the time, I would have to work on my own hair. I had gotten so good at it that I began to do everyone’s hair on the block.”

Titi and Miko with their parents, Jimmy Branch and Karen Matsumoto.

“Titi was the partner and the sister who thought it was important that we get a shop with this new money. We didn’t know when we were going to get our next check for $8,000. When you’re hustling as an entrepreneur, you never know when the next gig is going to come. So Titi had the foresight and said ‘you know what let’s open a salon so we’ll always have a place to make steady money in between these gigs.'”

During their start-up phase, Titi ran the day-to-day administrative operations, while Miko focused on styling hair. However, the Branch sisters quickly discovered the need to learn each other’s skillset. They were unfortunately not able to sustain their salon and ultimately forced to close its doors. Miko and Titi then went on to transition their Brooklyn brownstone into an interim hair salon.

“Business has a way of really making you revaluate what you think you want to be doing, and what you have to do to be a success. Without special training and business school, Titi and I made a lot of mistakes. But, we had to come face-to-face with the fact that we were partners. So it wasn’t just Titi’s fault. It wasn’t just my fault. We were both responsible. That was the moment we realized that I had to be more involved with the operations, and Titi had to learn how to do hair,” Miko conveyed.

Shortly after they began operating out of their brownstone, the Branch sisters coined the idea of supplying natural hair products. Miko and Titi utilized their learned wisdom taught by their grandmother, Miss Jessie Mae Branch, and ultimately created Miss Jessie’s. Their initial concept for Miss Jessie’s stemmed from Miko and Titi’s personal experience of longing for products that would work best on their natural hair.

Miss Jessie Mae Branch (left)

Reminiscing about her childhood and discipline learned from her grandmother, Miko proclaimed, “If you sat around our grandmother you couldn’t just stand looking stupid. When she cooked, you had to pass her a pan, mix this, beat that, or cut this. She was a no-nonsense do it yourself kind of gal. She ruled our family from her kitchen table. Little did we know that training was going to be a skill set that we could lend to our business and empire that we were about to build in hair care.”

“We ended up naming Miss Jessie’s in honor of her and all that she stood for. When we thought about a CEO, we thought about Miss Jessie. When Miss Jessie told you to do something, or she wanted to get something done, she knew how to delegate. People responded to any direction she gave them. So because I didn’t have any mentors in business, I often tapped into ‘What would Jessie do?’”

Miko and Titi became the leading pioneers of the natural hair movement. They released their first product, Miss Jessie’s Curly Pudding, in 2004. A year later, they added more products to the Miss Jessie’s collection such as Curly Meringue, Curly Buttercreme, and Baby Buttercreme. They initially sold their products in their salon, online through PayPal, and in a local thrift store. The Branch sisters eventually arranged for Ricky’s beauty stores throughout New York to sale Miss Jessie’s products.

“Titi would stay up later than I did. She mixed and mixed and mixed in the wee hours of the night. It was actually Titi who came up with the Curly Pudding recipe. We worked on it together, but she was the one who perfected it,” Miko explained.

“We started during a time where we were marketing to consumers and customers who didn’t even know they had amazing hair. Titi and I were the company that showed them what the possibilities are. We showed them how to manage their hair,” Miko declared.

Once their product demand increased, Miko and Titi were forced to move their operations from their kitchen into a 5,000 square foot warehouse. Miss Jessie’s received its first significant retail distribution offer from Target in 2010. After successfully gaining Target as a distributor for Miss Jessie’s nationwide, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and CVS locations began selling their products across the country as well.

Miko currently resides as the CEO of Miss Jessie’s. Her sister Titi sadly took her own life in December of 2014. Miko now solely operates Miss Jessie’s. Despite the odds, Miss Jessie’s continues to flourish and recently released new products like Honey Curls, Curls So Fresh, and Hold Me Down edge control. Miss Jessie’s has also made several charitable donations to organizations such as Morehouse College, Doe Foundation, NAACP, and The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY.

“The death of my sister affected me in so many ways that I knew and that I still don’t know. It took me time to process. She was such an integral part of my life and existence. Her greatness is certainly missed. Even though I’m experiencing all this heartache on so many fronts, I think Miss Jessie’s will continue to grow and prevail. It’s still taking time, but I believe that Titi raised me as a winner and a fighter. I want Miss Jessie’s to continue to carry on her great legacy,” Miko confessed.

Miko (left) and Titi Branch (right)

Titi’s passing has since motivated Miko to permit more time for self-care and establishing a personal life. Miko still manages to style hair once a month in Miss Jessie’s Curl Bar locations. She is also working on releasing a second book about her experience navigating through life as an entrepreneur thus far.

Expressing how religion has guided her, Miko declared, “Having a spiritual base has certainly helped me move through adversities that I’ve faced over the past years. It has put me in the position where now I’m getting the strength to get back on my horse, and do wonderful things. Having faith has been a large part of what I tap into, to get through.”

“I listen for the cues that I always get from God. He’ll tell me to go there, don’t go here, pause, fall back, or go forward. It’s just a matter of being in tune to get those cues and signals. You’ll know it in your gut. That has been what I’ve relied on. Particularly now that I don’t have the partnership that I’ve had most all my life.”

Self-made woman millionaire shares her success story and talks upcoming business ventures

Monique Rose has successfully built a million-dollar empire through her work as a savvy businesswoman and entrepreneur. Of her most notable accomplishments is her line of work as a culinary visionary. Over the span of ten years, Rose and her fiancé, celebrity chef Sammy Davis Jr., has prospered in establishing a chain of fruitful restaurants under their brand Milked, LLC. On July 20th, the dynamic duo will be officially opening another franchise location in Georgia.

“We were doing pop-up brunches in Atlanta at restaurants that were closed on Sundays, and they had such a good response. Every time we post something, everyone in Atlanta always says ‘When are you coming back to Atlanta? We want the food too.’ So this space became available and we had the opportunity to go for it,” Rose explained.

Rose and co-owner Davis began their partnership in 2015 with a boutique catering company called Sammoe Fud. Soon after, they established the Milk and Honey Restaurant on Cascade Road in Atlanta, GA. Once their affiliation ended in 2016, the pair went on to open Milk and Honey Café in Beltsville, MD. The couple eventually opened another location in Maryland, and one more in Washington, DC. Their newest all-day-brunch-themed restaurant will be based in College Park at 3719 Main Street. However, it will operate under a slightly altered name, The Real Milk and Honey Café.Further explaining the location decision and concept behind their new restaurant, Rose stated, “When we thought about Atlanta, we thought that Peters Street was kind of dying down, and there are so many Black-owned businesses on Main Street now. This is going to be the new Peters Street in my opinion.”

Monique Rose and Chef Sammy Davis Jr. (Courtesy/Image Elevators)

“The name comes from the bible. It’s God promise to his people to live in a land flowing with milk and honey. So Sammy came up with the name because that was his promise to people, to give his best through his food. We named this one, The Real Milk and Honey because we did have a licensing deal for the one on Cascade. That lasted for two years, then our partnership ended with them. We added The Real to the name so that it’s clear that it’s chef Sammy’s food.”

All Milk and Honey locations have been designed to “transport guests back in time,” through a unique and urban ambiance. Since the locations share similar menus, Rose and Davis have created the venues to have their own identities through different themed decors. Moreover, The Real Milk and Honey Café is furnished with a music appreciation theme.

“It’s so much music history here, and so many people in the music industry. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Music will be more than just the theme for the restaurant. Maybe like on a Monday, we would like to give local people the opportunity to showcase their music. It’s a beautiful space for events too. There’s a lot of things we can do in here, outside of just serving great food,” Rose declared.

The Real Milk and Honey Café will serve a combination of traditional and new chef Davis Jr. brunch selections. New menu items will only be served at the College Park location. Like the other Milk and Honey restaurants, it will also offer 10 specialty menu items that cannot be modified.

“We’ll have some new stuff, but some old faithful stuff like our lobster, egg, and cheese croissant. We’re doing our whole red snapper, which is our number one seller at our D.C. location. And, of course, we’ll have the shrimp and grits. We’re launching our new French toast. Sammy has been working on it for like three months now, and he has finally perfected it. It’ll be honey and oats. It’s going to be the best French toast that you’ve ever had,” Rose said.

Davis intends to debut other brand new brunch entrees, including his newest vegan meals. Both Rose and Davis have acknowledged the demand for an alternative menu, so the pair strived to produce a special set of vegan entrees. Their vegan specialty items are offered exclusively at The Real Milk and Honey Café.

“For the first time ever we’ll have vegan dishes. They’ve asked so many times when we would do it. I would see tables where there’s one person who’s not eating because there’s not something offered for them. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to offer it. It was that we wanted to make sure we could do it great,” Rose shared.

On July 6thand 7th, Rose and Davis hosted a soft opening for their new Georgia location. Customers were lined up outside the door, as they waited to preview the new restaurant and taste select brunch items. Notorious Atlanta rapper Michael Render, best known as Killer Mike, and his wife Shana Render were also in attendance. Another soft opening will be held on July 11th. Additional menu items will be offered and tickets will not be required.

The Real Milk and Honey Café will also feature a full bar, and specialty drinks made by Rose. Rose mastered her bartending expertise when she was just 18-years-old. She now uses her skills to create signature cocktails, to pair with brunch items at her restaurants. Some of the unique brunch cocktails that are offered at The Real Milk and Honey Café include Adult Kool-Aid, Red Cup ‘Rita, and Flamin’ Hot Bloody Mary.

Depicting her work journey as a teenage bartender to managing and owning several different successful bars and clubs, Rose said, “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve worked since I was 13. My first job was a caddy. I just saw how I could control how much I made in a day. Bartending really taught me that too. Even though you’re working for somebody, how much you make is really dependent upon you. Opportunities would present themselves and because I had such a good work ethic, I was able to take advantage of them. I’ve worked really hard for a lot of other people and made them a lot of money. I appreciate those experiences because now it brought me here.”

Despite having her first child at 16-years-old, Rose defied the odds and was able to graduate from high school. Rose went on to become a corrections officer for five years, while she was constantly networking and accelerating in the service industry. She also founded and opened House of Hope Girls Group Home, a non-profit organization that focused on pregnancy prevention and independent living skills for girls 16 to 20 years old, in her hometown, Milwaukee, WI.

“What always motivated me was, unfortunately, people saying what I could not do. That pushed me to say ‘Oh you think I can’t do that? Oh okay, yes I can. You say I can’t graduate high school? Okay, I will. You say I can’t get accepted into college? I got accepted into UIC with no GPA because of my ACT scores.’ All those things always fueled me to the next thing,” Rose shared.

Rose continuously strives to use her personal Monique Rose brand for various entrepreneurial works. Currently, Rose operates as a published author, motivational speaker, inspirational life coach, business consultant, and intends to launch her Mink and Honey beauty brand later this year. She also plans to open another group home in the near future.

“Nobody helped me along my journey. I didn’t have anyone saying ‘Here let me help you. Let me take your hand and show you how to do this.’ So, I want to do that. Under my Monique Rose brand, I go talk to schools, teenage girls, and women entrepreneurs. I didn’t want to get so engrossed in Milk and Honey that I didn’t remember to help people. I want to be able to mentor some other 16-year-old girl, who is hopefully not pregnant yet, and prevent her from going down the wrong path,” Rose conveyed.