Mall of America Community Commons entrepreneurs shine at Women in Business
Being the definition of a changemaker
At the Minnesota Chamber's recent Women in Business Conference: Changemakers from challenges, a group of four women entrepreneurs who took part in the Mall of America’s Community Commons program shared their inspirational stories. Community Commons is a space within Mall of America that offers a temporary home for 17 businesses impacted by the unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"Community Commons is a project that was developed in response of the community unrest last spring," said Jill Renslow, Executive Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, Mall of America who moderated the conversation. "Just over a year ago as we watched the trauma that Minneapolis and St. Paul encountered; the arson, the looting, the destruction of a lot of businesses in our downtowns. It was heartbreaking. In early June, I reached out to many community leaders and organizations. My first call was the Minnesota Chamber. I had a conversation with Jennifer Byers to say, help me get connected with these community leaders that are working directly with these businesses to see what can we do at Mall of America to help them."
Here's what these business owners had to say about the events of 2020, the inspiration behind their business and the impact Community Commons has made for them.
The four entrepreneurs included:
- Martena Jones, Founder, Fabulous Diva Boutique
- Phoebe Nguyen, Owner/Creator, Herbal Alchemy
- Annie Qaiser, Founder/Creator, Silk Road Wellness
- Marit Woods, Founder/Owner, Arway Bags and Accessories
Martena Jones, Founder, Fabulous Diva Boutique
Jill Renslow: What inspires you to create that vision for what your brand is?
Martena Jones: You know what, honestly, I wake up every day doing my makeup and getting cute. And so that inspires me, just waking up, just getting cute.
JR: Over this past year, you made a huge change in your career path. You went all in, talk a little bit about that pivot and what sparked that direction for you.
MJ: To be honest, I started in 2015 after getting fired from my job. So when I got fired, I noticed my rent is $1250, I have a car loan and I'm 21 years old. I realized you have to sell some items. That's what I saw. I just started taking stuff out of my closest and I started posting stuff on Facebook. And I decided the time is now to start my boutique. So this working a full-time job and having an online store, I've been going and now having an opportunity to be in the Mall of America is a blessing. If you're an entrepreneur, if you have a business, just keep on going, keep dreaming, keep hoping. And just one day, you will make it. The time is now.
Phoebe Nguyen, Owner/Creator, Herbal Alchemy
JR: Why don't you tell everybody a little bit about your brand and your products.
PN: My business is Herbal Alchemy. It's a natural skincare, haircare and bath product store. I emphasize on the therapeutic focus of the different products...The reason why I started making products was because 20 years ago, my infant had hives from a bubble bath and I wasn't too happy with products that I found in store. I wanted to make pampering products for my child to use. And over the years, both of my kids had eczema and acne. I wanted to find remedies for them to use growing up with a father who was a Chinese herbalist and a mother who knew a lot about jungle plants. I resorted to plant remedies in a lot of my creations.
JR: What was your North Star that helped motivate you to power through 2020?
PN: This past year had been really challenging. I had a store at the Midtown Global Market, so we had to close for COVID for three months. Then after that, there was the protest damages in the neighborhood. Everything changed. Fortunately, there was the opportunity for Mall of America. That gave me a tremendous opportunity to try out something new. I had done some research in the past and leasing at the mall was phenomenally expensive, so I felt very lucky to be chosen to be part of the Community Commons. It gave me a chance to save up for the six months that I was there and to branch out into my own space.
Annie Qaiser, Founder/Creator, Silk Road Wellness
JR: Tell us the story of Silk Road Wellness.
AQ: Silk Road Wellness is the first natural skincare and wellness brand that is inspired by Islamic wellness and Halal principles. We have basically any kind of skincare and body care products, and they're all handcrafted, Halal-certified and alcohol-free and include powerful healing ingredients, such as black seed oil, frankincense, moringa, and much more. We are an eco-conscious brand and promote sustainability and Halal principles in all aspects of our business. In its basic form, Halal means permissible and it's an Arabic term and refers to selecting the best and highest standard of everything from ingredients, sources, business, ethics, customer relations and everything in between.
JR: Who would you say inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
AQ: I would have to say my family, honestly my kids and my husband, he supported me in all the ways possible. And providing a service. I think being an entrepreneur, everybody's trying to solve or find a solution to an issue, and I think that's what we did with Silk Road Wellness.
JR: Do you have any key takeaways from your collaboration with Community Commons?
AQ: There is so much to learn as a small business owner. Everything is just amazing in terms of what we're learning and being at the Mall of America has been an amazing opportunity, just connecting with people, having that network. I think being in Minnesota right now as a minority, there are so many opportunities for us.
Marit Woods, Founder/Owner, Arway Bags and Accessories
JR: Tell us about your products and how you started your business.
MW: I love my ethnic group and I love to showcase that we do have quality that comes out of Liberia. One of the items on here, you will notice that it is handwoven cloth that is unique to Liberia. And we try to ensure that it's embedded into a lot of the collection. You're learning about the country from which it's derived from. In addition, I did sustainable development and in my own life, I love to sustain things. I reuse, reuse, and reuse. It never gets old until it's broken. I ensure that the byproducts of everything I make gets reused.
JR: You were thrown some curveballs in the last year, how did you get past those?
MW: I think because of our own ability to be flexible and have hope, we have been able to actually regain that excitement to keep going on. Success is coming and it's coming very slow. However, I think as we move along the trajectory and just try to engage more people and be hopeful, we can honestly do as we want and do and go where we need to go.
Did you miss the event?
Don't worry! No matter your interest or industry, we have an event for you. The Minnesota Chamber hosts more than 50 events every year. More than 4,000 total attendees come to the events, which range in size from 10 to 2,000 guests. Our goal is to offer programming on topics that are interesting and relate to your business – to help increase your knowledge and grow your network. Click below to view all of our upcoming events!