The BLAC List: Celebrating Detroit’s Black Entrepreneurs

These Detroiters are Black, business savvy and busy.

Nailah Ellis-Brown
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

Nailah Ellis-Brown, Ellis Isle (formerly Ellis Island Tea)

Nailah Ellis-Brown
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

Perfectly apt, when Nailah Ellis-Brown and I speak by phone in early April, she starts the conversation off by spilling a bit of tea. Her popular beverage company known for its tropically-tanged teas is preparing to announce a major rebranding. By now, you may have heard that what was once Ellis Island Tea is now Ellis Isle. “The reason we took the ‘tea’ off is because we want to open up ourselves to categories outside of tea. We don’t want to be locked into just tea,” Ellis-Brown says. One of the drinks, the Caribbean Punch, made from hibiscus, peppermint leaves and cold-pressed sugar cane, has also gotten a name change. It’s now called Wet Shuga. “In Jamaica, they call sugar cane juice ‘wet sugar.’ So, we just put a spin on it, just staying true to our roots. And then we wanted to bring a little culture to it.”

That Wet Shuga is the first bottled tea on the global market to be sweetened with cold-pressed sugar cane juice, Ellis-Brown says. The beverage game is a crowded space, but she says it’s those natural ingredients that set them apart. “We’re using real herbs that we’re steeping by hand. So, a lot of tea companies, you’ll have what you call ‘a tea-flavored drink.’ It’s not real tea. The most common feedback that we get is that it tastes like real tea. And that’s because it is,” she says. Hibiscus features prominently in the products, which is what gives the tea its rich, red color. “We have no additives, no food coloring or dye.” You’ll also detect rose hips, peppermint leaves and other 100% real ingredients. 

In 2019, the company won a $300,000 investment during the Quicken Loans Detroit Demo Day, and headlines were garnered again last summer when news broke that Kevin Hart had invested in the brand. Ellis-Brown says we’ll start to see the fruits of all the behind-the-scenes labor very soon. They’ve recently switched up their distribution model in a huge way. You won’t find them in Walmart any longer, but, effective April 11, you’d be able to grab a bottle or case of Ellis Isle from the shelves of any Target in the country. “We are ecstatic about that because finally we have distribution and the product is accessible. That was the biggest pain point of our fans – or consumers if you will – they couldn’t find it anywhere.” You can also snag that sweet (or unsweet) island nectar from Amazon Fresh and from the website’s traditional marketplace. 

As exciting as that deal with Target is, Ellis-Brown reminds that it comes with its own fulfillment challenges. “For a lot of companies, especially Black companies, we have to fight really hard and work 10 times harder than everybody else to gain access and get these types of opportunities. And then when you get it, it’s like shit; we don’t have a lot of the resources that most companies have. So, we have to scramble and figure it out. It’s like, ‘Can you handle a national rollout?’ And my model for success is: ‘Yes’ is the answer. What is the question?” 

What personal quality has served you best as an entrepreneur? 

I have been talking a lot about communication lately. And I don’t necessarily consider communication a character trait, but knowing how to communicate – which a huge part of communication is listening – that’s a huge part of my success up to this point. Communication is everything, like transparent communication and being able to articulate what the need is.

What’s one thing you thought you knew about entrepreneurship that has been proven wrong? 

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It’s never personal. So, overall, people mean well and when people let you down, it’s not personal. Everybody carries their life experiences with them, and they react to things based on the things they’ve experienced in life, and it’s just never personal.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

The same advice that I always give, because it really means the world to me: pray like everything depends on God and work like everything depends on you. Period. And strive for love over fear. If you choose love over fear every time, you’ll get to your freedom.

Nelson Sanders, Dandy

Nelson Sanders
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

Like most teenagers, it wouldn’t be until Nelson Sanders became an adult that he’d truly appreciate what his dad had to say about the importance of presentation and style. Catch him around town and he’s probably dressed in a sharply tailored suit – maybe there’s even a cane in tow. “The foundation of it starts from my pops and seeing him and things he would do and how he carried himself, and how he took care of the things in his wardrobe,” Nelson says. Dandy, his brand of made-to-measure suits, offers customers an elevated alternative to the everyday. What he does is sandwiched somewhere between off-the-rack and bespoke. “My title would be a clothier,” he says. 

“So, I use a template, let’s just say. They’re just a blank suit, and I put someone in a jacket and a pant that’s closest to their body type, and then, from there, I’ll pick the whole thing apart fitwise. And I officially have an app where I can plus and minus these dimensions on the whole jacket and trousers to create a pattern that mimics that person’s body.” Math notwithstanding, Dandy leans heavily on the personal. Consultations for a custom suit uncover the wardrobe gaps a client is looking to fill. Special occasion or complete closet overhaul? Sanders also offers personal shopping and style consulting. “I try to build real relationships with the clients, because, at the end of the day, definitely before this pandemic, I saw that Detroit was moving. There are going to be bigger suit companies that come to Detroit.” When that happens, he hopes his clientele will opt for the homegrown touch. 

Dandy is currently set up inside Détroit is the New Black downtown, and to take advantage of that out-of-town foot traffic, they’ve recently introduced a line of T-shirts, hoodies and beanies, items for casual shoppers. “To be honest with you, I was on the fence about it, because Dandy is a luxury lifestyle brand,” he says. “Most of my business comes from appointments, but definitely on the weekends, you get people from X, Y and Z coming here, and they want something they can take. They want something to buy right away. It’s like a little add-on.” At some point in the future, Sanders says he’ll pick up and move that Motor City slickness into its own shop. “When I think Dandy, I think Detroit. Detroiters are bold, boisterous kind of ‘we here’-type people.”

What personal quality has served you best as an entrepreneur

I don’t have any shame at telling people my weaknesses and my strengths. I’m more of a creative than a businessman, if that makes sense. So, I’ve kind of forced myself into asking people and reaching out for help in areas that I know I’m weak in.

What’s one thing you thought you knew about entrepreneurship that has been proven wrong? 

I don’t think there’s anything. I’ve had a lot of people that are entrepreneurs that have given me insight. There are definitely ups and downs, but it looks like what I thought it was gonna be like. 

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

I think entrepreneurship is great, but honestly, I don’t think everybody— It’s trendy to be an entrepreneur right now. You should truly love what you’re going into entrepreneurship for, because I’ve worked for some entrepreneurs that I don’t think loved what they were doing. I think it’s very important to love what you’re doing because putting in the work will be easier if you’re loving it. But then, you just got to be prepared to put in the work, the extra work.

Vetra Stephens, 1st Quality Medz 

Vetra Stephens
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

As attitudes relax along with legislation, we’re anxiously anticipating the future of the cannabis industry. Vetra Stephens will tell you she saw this coming. She’s been preaching the medical benefits of the plant for years, while also working behind the scenes to help ensure an equitable place for connoisseurs of color. Stephens was suffering with lupus and her partner with late-stage cancer when she discovered Rick Simpson oil, a cannabis concentrate. “I wanted to know more about this plant, this industry,” she says. “I looked into it and found out all of the wonderful properties it had, the healing properties. And I was quite amazed that I had an understanding about cannabis that was completely wrong.” 

She opened 1st Quality Medz in River Rouge in 2018, the first recreational marijuana dispensary in Wayne County, and the first Black woman-owned one in the state. She’d looked into setting up shop in Detroit initially but tired of the red tape. “We found River Rouge. It had been a thriving city and had taken a hit with their mom and pop shops after the bridge was taken out. So, it was important for us to find a place like that to bring people back to the city and try to build that city back up again,” Stephens says. Along with the retail space, she also owns and operates a grow facility, which has allowed them to produce their own strain and keep the prices low, especially important as we wade through the debris of shutdowns. 

Having her own grow spot also ensures that she never runs out, because, of course, she’s going to take care of home before distributing to other dispensaries. “There is no middleman. We grew it from seed to sale.” When we speak in early April, Stephens is preparing to add a processing facility into the mix and launch a line of products, dubbed The V Affect, leaning on her relationships with area labs to guarantee a safe and pure product.  She says, “There are over 300 dispensaries throughout the state of Michigan, and my goal is to have our product line in every one of those stores so that people know that we’re here.”

Everyone from nurses to lawyers to blue collars visit the shop, some opting for sativa cannabis for the energy and focus, while others look forward to the relaxing effect of indica at the end of a long day. Stephens is passionate about continuing to disrupt the stigmas and myths around weed. She serves on the board of the Great Lakes Cannabis Chamber of Commerce among other efforts to push the industry forward. “I stay in the faces of the powers that be to make sure of a few different things,” she says. “One part is to get people to understand that this plant is actually our friend. The other part is letting Black and brown people understand this industry and how to be a part of this industry, on different levels and in different stages.”

What personal quality has served you best as an entrepreneur? 

I would say passion and endurance. If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, you have to be able to dedicate all that you have in what you want, into that outcome. It takes a lot. Entrepreneurship and ownership is not a life that everyone can withstand. And you have to be able to have that endurance, and that passion and drive. That passion is what makes me stay up all night, you know, late nights and do 12-hour days, 16-hour days. That passion says I can’t go on vacation.

What’s one thing you thought you knew about entrepreneurship that has been proven wrong? 

I thought that everyone played the game fairly. And that has been proven wrong time and time again.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs? 

My advice would be to know that you want to be in this space. You have to have the passion for whatever direction you’re heading. Never chase the dollar – the dollar will come. Chase the passion. That passion will take you to heights that you will never dreamed it would have.

Gregory Jackson, Jackson Asset Management, Jackson Automotive Management

Gregory Jackson

Gregory Jackson is the chairman, president and CEO of Jackson Asset Management, a parent company consisting of several entities, including Prestige Automotive Group. Founded in 1993, the multimillion-dollar auto group has owned 18 dealerships, plus a body shop. Prestige Automotive has been named one of Black Enterprise Magazine’s top Black-owned companies for 27 years in row. In 2015, Jackson made history by becoming the first African American to lead a dealership group to more than $1 billion in annual sales. 

What personal quality has served you best as an entrepreneur? 

Hard work. What I mean by hard work is there’s no such thing as No. And there’s no such thing as Stop, it’s a continual due diligence to sticking to the task. And I think that is the personal quality that defines most entrepreneurs – they don’t live by a clock. I’ve oftentimes said that I’m not always going to be the smartest person in the room. I’ve met very few people who would outwork me. 

What’s one thing you thought you knew about entrepreneurship that has been proven wrong? 

I could probably say several things, but one thing is that money makes all the difference. The answer to that is that it doesn’t. The next this is that the smartest person wins the race. That’s not true, either. And then the third thing would be that somehow entrepreneurship was going to be easier than just working a job.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

I’d say be a student of the game. Whatever your entrepreneurial interest is, immerse yourself in that. Immerse yourself in that industry and learn everything about it.

Ashley M. Williams, RIZZARR

Ashley Williams

Ashley M. Williams is the founder and CEO of RIZZARR, a tech-enabled content marketplace in which brands can find and work with millennial and Gen Z content creators worldwide. Williams also moderates or speaks around the world for entities such as the U.S. Department of State, traveling to U.S. embassies and consulates. She also hosts a video and podcast series called The Ripple Effect of You. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Williams was an award-winning journalist, working for NBC News, WBAL Radio and USA TODAY. She’s been recognized by Forbes on its “Next 1000” list, by DBusiness Magazine’s “30 in Their Thirties” and by Corp! Magazine with its millennial award.

What personal quality has served you best as an entrepreneur? 

Grit. This journey is full of a lot of rejection, a lot of twists and turns, a lot of moments being backed into a corner, a lot of crazy roller coaster rides and a lot of insane fun houses to navigate. At moments, I have found myself beside myself, knocked down or wondering how I could even push forward. In these moments, my grit has always gotten me through. It’s allowed me to keep my faith, to keep my belief in myself, to keep my courage and to just keep hanging on.

What’s one thing you thought you knew about entrepreneurship that has been proven wrong? 

The one thing that I thought I knew about entrepreneurship that has been proven wrong was that the experts, serial entrepreneurs, investors and/or just more knowledgeable people have all of the answers and know more than me. I am not saying I know everything. In fact, that is quite the contrary. But what I am saying is that I’ve realized even “experts” get it wrong. No one knows everything and if they all did, then they would all be crazy rich and mega successful.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

Know that, yes, entrepreneurship is a crazy ride, but it’s also a beautiful one. The impact that you can have on people’s lives is so humbling and will inspire your belief in how all things are truly possible. Never give up on yourself. Realize you only have this one life to live. Make it count, make it stand for something. Leave this world a better place.

Quiana “Que” Broden, The Kitchen, by Cooking with Que

Quiana Broden

Culinary innovator, executive chef and founder Quiana “Que” Broden delivered Detroit’s only demonstration kitchen and culinary shared space, The Kitchen, by Cooking with Que. It serves as a café by day and an event space by night, where Broden offers zestful and earth-conscious dishes that encourages coexistence between vegans and meat eaters. The Kitchen boasts two state-of-the-art kitchens, one for live demos and lunch, and the other to be used as a shared-use rental kitchen for culinary experts without physical brick-and-mortars. The space also offers an intimate 16-seat kitchen classroom where guests can enjoy chef tastings, cooking classes and the like. Broden urges us to eat to live.

What personal quality has served you best as an entrepreneur? 

Positivity. I think because I look for the positive in everything it keeps me grounded and protects me from falling into a failed mentality. I think of failures as lessons – falling forward. Even in falling there is a positive. You can get up again.

What’s one thing you thought you knew about entrepreneurship that has been proven wrong? 

I thought all entrepreneurs have it all together. A whole lie. We are all striving and thriving to get better each and every day. Understanding that you are continuously learning is kind of the best part.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

Stop overthinking and start. We are taught to have everything together to start, and the fact is you will never have it all together! The goal is to start. If you never start you live in Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda land. It sucks there. Just go out and do it. I live by build the boat as I go and figure it out, because it can’t be that hard. Oh, and stop accepting every piece of unsolicited advice you get. It’s not always for you. Don’t ever allow anyone to give you their fears. There is a reason God gave you the vision! 

Thurston Campbell, Junk Starz

Thurston Campbell
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

Thurston Campbell had worked in the junk removal industry for about six years for other companies, and four years ago, he decided to start his own operation. Junk Starz services the metro Detroit area. He truly loves the adventurous day-to-day of cleaning up residential and commercial properties, and finding the unknown. It’s like a treasure hunt that perfectly fits his personality – a marriage made in junk. He’s committed to recycling up to 60% of the material he collects, helping to make the world a cleaner place. Junk Starz recently added a dumpster rental division.

What personal quality has served you best as an entrepreneur? 

One personal quality that has served me well as an entrepreneur is my desire to provide above average professionalism. It’s one of two things that I stand on firmly: timeliness and professionalism.

What’s one thing you thought you knew about entrepreneurship that has been proven wrong? 

I come from a father who was an entrepreneur so there isn’t much I’ve encountered that I didn’t expect. If I had to name one thing, though, it would be the ability to maintain good help. I am fortunate that my company has been able to retain several of our employees, but from speaking to other entrepreneurs, whether one year in business or 10 years, they echo my sentiments.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

Your success is only as good as your team. Your team could be made up of family, friends and other entrepreneurs. Confidence is key as well. Believe in your product or service and know its worth. Learn the key components of branding, and don’t be afraid to reinvent the wheel or create a new lane. Don’t limit yourself!

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