Rising to Resilience: Meet the 7 Recipients of Create & Cultivate and Mastercard's Grant Contest

March 10, 2021
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Small businesses are so much more than what they sell, they are the hearts and foundation of our communities. Create & Cultivate and Mastercard’s Main Street Love Small Business Grant Contest remain committed to helping small businesses not only survive, but thrive today and every day. That’s why together with Mastercard we launched a $100,000 grant contest aimed at supporting women-owned small businesses across the U.S.

Join us in celebrating our Small Business Grant recipients: Lily Benitez of Blade Craft Barber Academy, Ashley Young of Bridal Babes, Kristine Rodriguez of GRL Collective, Mandy Bowman, Official Black Wall Street, Fallon Keplinger of Rose Glow Tea Room, Rebecca Funk of The Outrage and Alexis Mena of Universe City NYC. These seven entrepreneurs have demonstrated ingenuity and resilience amidst the challenges and uncertainty this past year, while upholding their commitments to the community. Keep reading to hear their stories.

We understand how difficult this past year has been for small businesses and together with Mastercard remain committed to ensuring you have the tools needed to sustain your business today and focus on the future. For more resources, check out Mastercard’s Digital Doors program which provides solutions & guidance to help expand your digital presence and open your digital doors to e-commerce.

Blade Craft Barber Academy provides education in the craft of barbering. Their staff is comprised of Blade Masters that bring real world expertise to guide students on their own journey to mastery. With an upscale learning environment dedicated solely to straight razor shaves and barber education, students learn the skills they need to pass the state board exam and succeed in the grooming industry. At the end of the curriculum, students leave with an understanding of the nuances of male styles and male grooming products. Blade Craft Barber Academy aims to make a positive impact in the community – the business not only invests in training recently separated Veterans, but offers innovative payment plans for low income households.

“The state mandates prevented us from opening for months. Not only do we offer personal barbering services, but our education has been halted as well. Many of our graduates are unemployed, and are unable to make tuition. Rent as well as bills are all still due, and we have no respite in sight.

The grant would assist in covering rent allowing us to make concessions for our future graduates. A grant would offer hope in that we could afford marketing to ensure that we have continued interest in our programs from those seeking careers of connection. Funds would assist in covering insurance expenses to cover the legalities of business. It would ensure not only the jobs of our team, but the future involvement of intentional barbers making a positive impact in their respective communities.”

– Lily Benitez – Founder, Blade Craft Barber Academy

Bridal Babes is an online bridesmaid boutique for brown and black women of all shades and shapes. They are breaking through the very vanilla wedding industry with bold designs, curvy models, and a primarily online business model. After struggling to find the perfect bridesmaid gowns for her diverse and shapely bridal party, founder Ashley Young realized she had to look elsewhere to achieve her vision for the big day. Realizing the gap in a $72 billion industry that is largely dominated by white business owners, designers, and influencers, Ashley got to work creating Bridal Babes.

“Due to COVID-19, we’ve had to completely shift our business model to have a sustainable digital presence. Prior to COVID, we hosted in-person consultations and meet-and-greets to attract potential customers and build trust. Now, we rely solely on our Facebook and Instagram presence to create that connection…We have also experienced many challenges with manufacturers due to COVID-19…Over time, increased transportation and shipping costs have hit our bottom line. We are primarily a special order boutique, allowing us to maintain limited amounts of inventory. The increased shipping costs have forced us to shift to bulk buying to avoid losing profit.

This grant will ensure that we are able to increase inventory and staffing to provide a more seamless, efficient customer service experience. We currently operate with very limited inventory and have to re-stock quite often which causes unnecessary angst among clients when an item is sold out. Additionally the staffing will help us speed up the fulfillment process and provide more timely response to customers who reach out to us.”

– Ashley Young – Founder, Bridal Babes

GRL Collective is a Latina founded lifestyle brand for grls that give a f*ck. They donate 20% of their profits to fund girls education in India through their non-profit partners, The Sambhali Trust. $5 of their Lucha tee is donated to Black Lives Matter. $5 of their kids Lucha tee is donated to RAICES Texas. They design all of their products and they believe in ethical, sustainable and fair-trade practices when it comes to manufacturing. This means no sweat shops, only the best materials, and eco-friendly packaging. They also host yearly volunteer trips to India, and will be resuming post COVID when it is safe to travel internationally again.

“We are a Latina owned business and the Latinx community has been hit particularly hard during these times…Markets were cancelled which made Christmas-time difficult for us, making it our one of our slowest months last year. Things are already looking back up for January, so we are super optimistic that it’s only up from here!  

First and foremost, this grant will allow us to extend contracts to our part-time employees to bring them on full-time. In conjunction, we are currently working on releasing our first cut and sew items – pajamas! There is no stand out Latina owned brand that has ventured into this space and we believe in the potential for the new line to catapult our business whole-heartedly. We are working with our Indian partners to have them handmade by local Indian artisans to not only empower BIPOC communities here but also in India. Cut and sew is much more expensive than regular design and print so we would love to use the money to help launch or sustain this campaign and make it as successful as possible.”

– Kristine Rodriguez – Founder, GRL Collective

Official Black Wall Street is a digital platform and app connecting consumers to Black-owned businesses, while giving Black entrepreneurs the resources and exposure needed to thrive. Using the app, users are able to find, review, and shop Black-owned businesses on a user-friendly app. They also partner with a number of corporations, from Snapchat to Morgan Stanley, to provide Black entrepreneurs with resources, help them offset major business expenses, and give them access to funding opportunities, grants and more. Since launching the OBWS app, the company has cultivated a community of over 900K conscious consumers, and circulated an estimated $1.7M within the Black community.

COVID-19 took a major toll on me as a founder and my company. Once we realized that the pandemic would be around for sometime, and that it was devastating the Black business community (and community at large) we pivoted to add more free services, workshops and funds to support Black entrepreneurs. While this was impactful, we soon entered the busiest and most challenging time of my entrepreneurial career as our traffic, downloads, requests, and membership more than tripled in a matter of 2 weeks. We didn’t have much time to prepare for the massive expansion we experienced, and our small team wore a lot of hats to make sure that Official Black Wall Street stayed afloat.

With the grant, we will be able to complete our AI-powered (machine learning) marketplace for Black entrepreneurs to sell their products directly to consumers. This will help entrepreneurs in our community gain the support and sales needed to grow. This will also allow us to establish a new revenue stream, and create more educational programs and resources for entrepreneurs to gain the skills needed to excel.”

– Mandy Bowman – Founder, Official Black Wall Street

Rose Glow Tea Room provides carefully blended teas made from natural ingredients proven to uplift and restore infused with CBD. Their mission is to give anyone experiencing stress or anxiety time to hit the reset button while enjoying their teas with poise, grace and elegance.

“Covid-19 restrictions required us to cancel events and classes resulting in a loss of revenue. Before quarantine, our primary method to reach new customers was through events – yoga and wellness classes, tea tastings, sound baths, private events and conferences. With these events pivoting to digital – or cancelled altogether – I was forced to rewrite my business plan and shift my marketing strategy entirely.

This grant will help with inventory and production costs, legal fees, and marketing tactics to support the company’s shift on digital. “

– Fallon Keplinger – Founder, Rose Glow Tea Room

The Outrage is a hub for activism. With a DC flagship, they hold physical and digital space for underrepresented communities, change-makers to champion for a cause. Their mission is to make it easy, tangible and accessible for anyone to become more civically engaged. Leveraging the power of both fashion and community, and with a strategy grounded in behavioral economics and data analytics, the Outrage represents the future of civic engagement.

“Our DC community space has been shuttered since March 2020. We permanently closed our retail store in Philadelphia. We scrapped our financial models, our expansion plans, and we got to work on pivots. Then pivoted again. We launched new products, teamed up with over a dozen organizations on digital events, built-out an internal consulting brand, and found ways to connect with our community and support them however possible. Those are internal changes for The Outrage but the more important impacts of the pandemic are being felt by our community. The pandemic has presented a formidable challenge to our community, underscoring an inability to tackle big challenges and protect marginalized communities.

When we reopen the doors to our community space, it will be reimagined as a memorial to the lives lost to COVID-19. Their photos will hang on the walls and their stories will be shared on our stage. This grant will help us amplify their stories beyond our walls, through digital channels.”

– Rebecca Funk – Founder, The Outrage

Universe City NYC is building a sustainable food hub for urban agriculture, education and experimentation, and manufacturing; founded on the principles of food sovereignty, racial and economic justice. As a collective of creatives, farmers, social justice advocates, and change-makers Universe City NYC envisions a just world where our community can grow and feed itself, where small sustainable business cooperatives can work together, and where the community has dignified, meaningful jobs. 

In 2020 Universe City (UC) NYC partnered with the Brownsville Multiservices & Healthcare Services and City Harvest to establish NYCHA Emergency Food Distribution sites across East Brooklyn. UC NYC co-created a distribution network of NYCHA Pop Ups, “Free Food Fridges”, and Mutual Aid networks in East Brooklyn with several community partners to get food to public housing and shelters, seniors, unemployed & under-employed folks, and migrants. Our COVID Response work has drained UC’s operational funds to support this effort due to shutting down existing programs and being underfunded.

This grant will reduce dependency on volunteers and help UC staff the operation. As of Dec. 2020 Universe City has organized and delivered over 2.5 Million lbs of produce to over 15,000 families in need within the city. Over 80% of this food distribution operation has been powered by volunteers. The grant will allow us to hire back our fork lift operators, warehouse workers, managers, and other team members who have been critical to the operation.”

– Alexis Mena – Founder, Universe City NYC

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