For DeAnna Allen, entrepreneurship is a lifelong passion. “It was something that I wanted to do as a little girl, I just didn’t know what it was called,” says Allen. Her first business venture? Selling cookies and cakes she made from her Easy Bake Oven to her neighbors. “As I grew older, I learned the name for the activity that brought me so much joy: entrepreneurship.”
Those childhood dreams of small business ownership turned into reality for Allen when she founded The Brown Sugar Collab, a Charlotte-based, high-end boutique that highlights products made by women of color and cultivates a luxury shopping experience which helps promote business owners who are too often underrepresented.
Allen says that typically, every minority woman is lumped into the category of “brown girls,” and that when she created The Brown Sugar Collab, she wanted that to be something that was celebrated. “It’s been very rewarding because I’m able to see the direct impact of how The Brown Sugar Collab is helping to increase brand awareness for the small business owners I highlight—and it’s amazing to see their confidence in their own businesses grow.” Allen notes that when she is buying stock for The Brown Sugar Collab, she makes sure to buy her products wholesale from the businesses she works with, rather than buying them on consignment.
“A while back, the business earned some great earned media attention, and with a strong push of customer word-of-mouth, the business really took off,” says Allen.
That growth garnered the attention of Paradies Lagardere, a company that supplies product to retail stores in airports across the country. And while extending her business to airports wasn’t an opportunity Allen sought out on her own, her products are now in Charlotte Douglas International Airport thanks to that partnership.
But with that opportunity came an added stress on Allen’s business, as she did not have the inventory or capital required to maintain her own storefront and the location in the airport. However, despite having strong sales, finding funding wasn’t an easy task.
“It was rough,” Allen said. “Some places would turn me down because they would say ‘you need to be open for more than two years.’ My sales were good, but because I had not been open for two years, they turned me down.”
Thanks to a connection at Charlotte Center City Partners, Allen was referred to Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF) and the Meck Lending program. Thanks to a partnership with Mecklenburg County government, CSBDF offers favorable loans and technical assistance to small businesses in County limits with fewer than 50 employees and less than $2 million in annual revenues.
For Allen, CSBDF and Meck Lending allowed her to take advantage of her new opportunity to expand her business to the airport.
“It allowed me to purchase the huge amount of inventory that I needed to fulfill the airport orders,” Allen said. “I was also able to get additional space for inventory storage because there was no way that I could have all that stuff in my stores.”
With its added inventory and space, The Brown Sugar Collab is thriving in both its South End Charlotte and Charlotte Douglas locations. But Allen, like any successful entrepreneur, has more in mind than that. She wants to expand to other airports, perhaps even globally, to continue giving a platform to underrepresented business owners.
“My motivation is seeing other women like myself grow,” Allen said. “I’ve seen some of these vendors grow and evolve. It makes me feel good because it makes me feel like even once I’m gone that I’ve made a mark in history by doing something like this.”