Motivated entrepreneurs, all dedicated to fostering positive change, are uplifting the community of Harlem, and creating a legacy that extends beyond the neighborhood limits.
This Black History Month, meet these standouts who are shaping city streets for the better.
Founded in 2022, this plant-based restaurant and bar doles out soul food and Caribbean fare, sans animal products.
“After we saw how hard the pandemic hit our community, and knowing firsthand the benefits of plant-based foods, we were determined to bridge veganism with the ‘hood by offering the same taste and textures our community was familiar with,” said Lanise Herman-Thomas.
Before VeganHood, Herman-Thomas and her sister and co-owner Janine Smalls-Gueye founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Young Excellence Society, providing after-school activities, mentorship programs and a summer camp for Harlem children.
“We donate a portion of our VeganHood profits to YES, which has been influential in keeping the doors open to support the Harlem community,” said Herman-Thomas.
The co-owners have never lost sight of the legacy on which they’ve built their business. “We’ve lived here our entire adult lives and loved how the vibrant neighborhood serves as the canvas of the powerful Black Renaissance, the mecca of Black culture and presents itself as the hub of our journey,” said Herman-Thomas. “Walking the same pathways as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and others, we stand on the roots of our ancestors to preserve and continue the legacy.”
For the Black entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow, Smalls-Gueye urges them to be willing to withstand hearing the word “no” a thousand times on the way to one “yes.”
Plus, “always be ready to present your elevator pitch at any given moment because in Harlem, you never know who might walk through your door,” Smalls-Gueye added, noting that Grammy-nominated artist Styles P recently patronized their restaurant and they were subsequently invited to be a catering partner for his nonprofit Farma Cares.
“Every ‘yes’ you receive can be the domino that sets off an avalanche of opportunity.”
Smalls-Gueye also emphasized learning from the community.
“Dive headfirst into your local Chamber of Commerce, join Community Block Associations and attend City Council and Community Board meetings,” she said. “Reach out to fellow entrepreneurs — their mentorship is priceless.”
First off, Beau McCall, creative entrepreneur and founder of Triple T-shirts and Harlem hustler, actually wants Black business founders to know it’s OK to shift their gears down.
“As Black creative entrepreneurs, we are constantly told we have to work 10 times harder than others in order to gain success,” said McCall. “While hard work is important, it’s also crucial that we avoid the toxicity of grind culture, which can wear us down mentally and physically.” McCall knows this firsthand, as in 1995 he decided to step away from his business to pursue other career opportunities — for nearly 15 years.
“I had to recharge by taking a (very long) break from grinding and the hustle culture mentality,” he reflected.
Now, McCall is able to avoid burnout by making time to rest, taking naps, and spending time with family, his partner and friends. “All of this allows me to reset,” added McCall.
The entrepreneur first came to Harlem circa 1988 from Philadelphia “seeking a vibrant place full of history, creativity and business opportunity that was rooted within Black culture.”
Known locally as the “Button Man,” McCall has built a thriving business from creating and selling wearable and visual art using clothing buttons. Additionally, his fashion line, Triple T-shirts, fabricates three upcycled T-shirts into one garment. Finding “a tribe of like-minded people” like those he met through the Harlem Institute of Fashion (now defunct), has provided him support and advice over the years, and fuels his ideas.
“A lot of my work is inspired by Harlem, such as a button-embellished table that Columbia University commissioned as part of an exhibition at the Langston Hughes House,” he said. “It’s important for me to make an impact in Harlem because as gentrification continues, we must fight to preserve Harlem’s cultural heritage and ensure the Black contribution to Harlem is not erased.”
Ashley Cummings-Cort, RN, CLC, moved to Harlem from Boston in 2011, and began making her company’s inaugural batch of body butters in her uptown digs.
She established her body care line, Natural Ash, in 2017, which originated from her experiences as an oncology nurse.
“I saw firsthand a lack of patient skin care wellness and routines, as well as the lack of chemical-free, safe and effective moisturizing products in the hospital,” she recalled. “I then started to look at the products I personally was consuming and decided to make a change.”
At the time, she was paying attention to her reproductive health and choosing clean beauty products. “Now, Natural Ash is focused on providing safe skin care products free from harmful chemicals to support overall well-being during pregnancy, postpartum and beyond,” she said.
The brand’s commitment to community well-being and empowerment is especially important to Cummings-Cort, who is “aware of the healthcare disparities prevalent in Black communities, including Harlem,” motivating her to launch Nurashed, a lactation counseling company to address those care inequities among Black women.
Being among Harlem’s many Black entrepreneurs makes the businesswoman proud.
“I’m able to give back to my community and see progress and positive change,” she said, highlighting she’s had the chance to participate in initiatives like the Harlem Makers Collective and the Lululemon x BOM Black Wellness Festival.
“Being a part of the Harlem community is significant to me because it now represents my family,” she said. “My husband was raised here, and we are raising our son here. I feel I must give back to the community that has given so much to my family and will continue to as our son grows.”