Friday, Nov. 6, 2020
Throughout her career, Kelli Lemon has always tried to build bridges and make connections. The Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and former employee owns the Urban Hang Suite coffee shop in Richmond and recently co-founded a business hub to help improve Black entrepreneurship.
Lemon grew up in Hampton, Virginia. As she likes to say, she is a “Tidewater girl who moved to Richmond and fell in love.” After high school, she attended the University of Virginia and graduated with a bachelor’s in sociology. She enjoyed the college experience, but was unsure of her direction after graduation. Lemon had always been interested in sports, and through some connections, landed a job as the first assistant director for women’s basketball operations at VCU.
She loved the job and became more involved in the athletic program through student engagement. She did a little work as a sideline reporter during men’s basketball games and landed a job at Radio One. She also earned her master’s degree from VCU in sports management and leadership.
At the same time, Lemon was also making a name for herself in Richmond. She did a local arts and culture show on NBC 12 and started a beer festival. She also co-created a weekly podcast called “Coffee with Strangers,” where she interviews strangers and learns about different areas of Richmond. She was a member of several boards and also began organizing events in the area, which opened the door to more opportunities.
Lemon eventually transitioned from athletics to Student Affairs. She ended her VCU career in the University College as the director of new student programs. After 14 years at the university, she realized it was time to move on.
“Fourteen years was a long time,” she said with a laugh. “I watched four classes graduate. I came in at 22, and it was time for me to graduate. I needed to go beyond the VCU walls.”
Learning the hospitality business
While she had spent her career at VCU, Lemon was drawn to the hospitality industry. Her outgoing personality and desire to build connections were a perfect fit. She had hosted some special events and worked as a bartender on nights and weekends.
A friend, Lester Johnson, who owns Mama J’s restaurant in Jackson Ward, had asked Lemon to join the staff as bar manager. When she left VCU, she got promoted to general manager.
Meanwhile, “Coffee with Strangers” provided a chance for Lemon to build bridges within the community.
“We stayed away from interviewing any of the CEOs or presidents,” Lemon said of the podcast. “We wanted to talk to the people who were putting in the work. What we found was people in Richmond were living in these completely different ways. When you sit down and talk with people, you get to see how different the city is.”
Starting a business
Lemon left Mama J’s in 2017 and then did some soul searching. She wanted to open a business in the hospitality industry but was not sure a restaurant was the right direction. She eventually landed on the idea of a coffee shop, because she found herself in many of them for the podcast. She loved the conversational nature of her podcast and wanted to find a way to create bridges within the Black community. She was taken to a spot on the edge of Jackson Ward by another restaurateur and the location spoke to her immediately.
Lemon remodeled the space with her father and spent her own money to open the business. The community embraced Urban Hang Suite as a gathering spot. The coffee shop has become a fixture in Jackson Ward.
Lemon enjoys the freedom and challenges of being a business owner, but it has not always been smooth, especially during the pandemic.
“I tell people opening Urban Hang Suite is the best-worst thing I have ever done in life,” Lemon said. “You have to be a little bit insane to open up a business, because you don’t know what the next day will bring you.
Starting the hub
Before the pandemic, Lemon and several members of the Black community had started talking about ways to support Black-owned businesses. Richmond has a large community of Black entrepreneurs, but a central organization did not exist to help them.
One Sunday earlier this year, Lemon and fellow business owners Rasheeda Creighton and Melody Short discussed the challenges for Black business owners and the need to improve their economic prospects. Out of those conversations, they created the Jackson Ward Collective, a business hub aimed specifically at promoting and growing Black entrepreneurship.
The original plan was to grow the idea slowly and launch the organization in late 2021 or early 2022.
“But then George Floyd happened, and the world got to see how Black Americans were not treated as fairly in America,” Lemon said. “Soon the phone started ringing off the hook.”
The Richmond community began asking questions about what resources were available to Black-owned businesses and how to help the community create generational wealth. Most of the commercial property, even in the historically Black community of Jackson Ward, is not owned by Black community members. Lemon, for example, rents her space.
The collective launched in September. Membership is $99 a year, and the group was inundated with people who wanted to join. They had to cap membership at 160. The collective is now working to connect aspiring entrepreneurs with resources.
“We want to focus on Black ownership,” Lemon said. “Traditionally, the focus of innovators and hubs is the tech industry. But we are not there yet, because only small amounts of Black entrepreneurship are in that industry. We are more so in the service industry and the trades. It’s a lot of restaurants as well as things like plumbing and electrical. It’s also cleaning services, lawn care services. We are talking about hardcore work. But we also have the creative industries like web design.”
The group is also gathering data on business ownership. Currently, no data exists on the number of Black-owned businesses in Richmond. The idea is to gather that information and use it to apply for seed money through grants and donations. Lemon envisions the collective eventually owning a piece of commercial property in Jackson Ward and renting space to Black business owners. The group wants to foster entrepreneurship and build wealth within the Black community.
“Our parents will work until their bones fall off and have nothing to show for it,” Lemon said. “The Jackson Ward Collective is about creating generational wealth. It’s about being able to pass on legacies to our children.”
It’s also about restoring the legacy of Jackson Ward, Lemon said. The neighborhood was once known as “Black Wall Street” and was the home of Maggie Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States.
“Jackson Ward was the birthplace of Black entrepreneurship and capitalism,” Lemon said.
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