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Black Business Expo brings entrepreneurs, creators and community together

Mark Briggs, owner of Quality Gifts of Charlottesville, knows what it’s like to rebound — on a basketball court, from the downturn in business due to COVID-19, from a pulmonary embolism, prostate cancer and kidney disease.

A former basketball player for Charlottesville High School, he has had to keep moving forward and re-inventing himself.

He trains athletes, goes to Piedmont Virginia Community College and runs a business selling jewelry and all-natural beauty products.

“I’m alive just by the grace of God,” said Briggs. And he’s trying to bring his business back to where it was when he had to shut down right after the pandemic began.

That’s why he was happy to be at the Black Business Expo at IX Art Park Saturday along with 41 other Black business owners to celebrate Black businesses in Charlottesville. The owners also networked, and some sold products to the hundreds of people who attended. Six were selected to present pitches for two grants to help them expand their businesses, their advertising or to buy equipment.

Among those was Nicole Hawker, owner of Heart & Soul Fitness, a center she hopes to open on Cherry Street to help Black women make their health a priority.

“I want it to be accessible to women in that area and to offer reasonable rates that would be on a sliding scale,” she said of the nonprofit.

And then there were Jamie and Sodora Jones, owners of Jones Heating & Air, the only Black-owned HVAC business in the area. The company has been in business 15 years. When the business first opened, Jamie Jones said the hardest part was “the financial part, how and when to pay taxes, that kind of thing.”

The company “did very well” during COVID, said Sodora Jones, as people stayed home and discovered noises in their heating or air conditioning systems — and realized it was time to get help.

At a nearby booth, Christina Steele, owner of a new company named Cookie Soul, was getting help from her sister, Destiny Jackson, to sell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and slices from a sweet potato cake. They had a vegan, gluten-free chocolate chip cookie, too.

Financial adviser Janasha “Jay” Bradford had help from her nieces, Karmen Jackson and Mahogany Matthew-Greenwood to promote her self-published book called “Mahogany Goes to Wall Street.” In the book, a little girl goes to Wall Street while her parents sleep, sending the message that it’s not only OK for Black girls to want to work on Wall Street but also that financial knowledge is critical for Black girls.

It’s a lesson that was hard-learned for Bradford, she said.

Her father died when she was a teen, leaving her mother with a substantial amount of money, she said. But when the Great Recession came along, her mother’s finances were ruined.

“As the oldest in my family, I was there to help my mother figure things out,” Bradford said. “I knew I didn’t want that to happen to any other Black women.”

In addition to the book, Bradford was selling Black Mahogany dolls and T-shirts.

It wasn’t about just selling merchandise, many people said. The Expo was a chance for Black business people of all backgrounds, including accountants, insurance brokers and others to celebrate and network.

Expo founder Ty Cooper was delighted by the turnout, he said.

“We started this as a response to 2017,” he said. “It was very much that we want to stand up to those who wanted to show their hate. We wanted to celebrate and to provide the platform for people to learn about Black businesses and to support them.”


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