Melissa Juried Kriebel
August is National Black Business Month. From sneaker insurance to subscription boxes, meet the faces behind four up-and-coming Black-owned business ventures in St. Paul.
Each one was recently chosen by Lunar Startups, a St. Paul-based startup accelerator, to complete its six-month training, networking and mentoring program. Lunar, which launched in 2018, reports it has generated some $254 million in economic impact in three years, including creating 133 jobs.
When people buy something of high value, like a house or car, most people buy insurance to protect it. In fact, in most cases, it is required as a protection for this investment or against liability.
But what about when you buy high-end shoes?
“Traditional insurance hasn’t caught up to the more niche or culturally specific values of different communities,” said Phil Terril, the founder of SoleSafe, which aims to fill this gap in the insurance market.
Terril describes SoleSafe as an an asset management platform “for sneakerheads, by sneakerheads,” based in the East Side of St. Paul. He and his team are weeks away from debuting a mobile app that protects high-end sneakers using a valuation and appraisal model. Users can upload their sneaker profile to the app to get authenticated. If anything happens to the shoe, the owner is compensated based on its market value.
Terril, 32, says he’s been a sneakerhead since day one — he still has his first pair of Nike Jordan’s, size 1, sitting on his office desk. He bought and sold sneakers through his college years, and has his own collection of over 300 pairs.
SoleSafe came out of Terril’s own search for a way to protect his sneaker collection. He found that most traditional home and renters’ insurance policies have high deductibles and a limit to the amount of high-value clothing items owners can claim.
“In the world of sneakers, you’re sometimes paying four to five times the price it retails for,” he said. “And if you have hundreds of them, traditional insurance leaves a gap in your protection.”
Terril didn’t know much about insurance at first. But he started researching in his free time. Then he got his insurance agent license. Then he started applying to startup accelerators. Just this last year, he raised over $1 million in a four-month period to fund the launch of the SoleSafe app.
Now, SoleSafe has a team of three full-time employees, as well as 12 outsourced people developing the app in India, preparing to launch in early fall. Having the right people around is one of the most valuable assets for a small business, Terril said.
“It’s important to have your tribe that you can lean on when you start doubting the process,” he said.
Tameka Jones always wanted to start her own makeup line. But it wasn’t until she was furloughed from her job during the pandemic that she saw the opportunity.
“I was tired of all the trauma around me, and wanted to figure out a way to bring healing to myself and my community,” she said.
She started LipEsteem, a plant-based, gluten-free and cruelty-free cosmetic line specializing in lipsticks.
“I wanted to give people something that makes them feel good during a time when things aren’t good,” Jones said.
During the pandemic, Jones started experimenting with lipstick formulas in her kitchen. Once she settled on a recipe, she partnered with a production company that used the ingredients she chose. Then Jones’ started building her customer base at local farmers’ markets in the area.
Jones says the success of LipEsteem comes down to timing. It originated in 2020, so people working from home were looking for new lipsticks for their video calls. And after the civil unrest in the Twin Cities that same year, the communities she sold in had a heightened awareness of racial injustice and were motivated to support minority-owned businesses, she said.
Sales were going well between e-commerce and local pop-up shops. But Jones knew she wanted a storefront in Rondo, St. Paul’s historic predominantly-Black neighborhood. Rondo was once the center of many Black-owned businesses before Interstate 94 was built through it. Jones’ mother grew up in Rondo, and Jones later raised her daughter there. LipEsteem now has a brick-and-mortar location at 876 Selby Ave.
“The Rondo community built me into who I am today,” she said. “The reason I want to give love to that community is because that community loved on me.”
DREAM GIRL BOX
Eboni Bell is a school counselor at Creative Arts Secondary School in downtown St. Paul. Over the years, she’s been observing how social media has affected young girls.
“It leads to a loss of identity,” she said. “They’re constantly comparing themselves to other girls and very focused on their physical appearance.”
Bell decided to create Dream Girl Box, a subscription box focused on female empowerment and mentorship for girls ages 6 through 16.
“Most subscription boxes these days focus on the outer beauty of girls, but my goal was to focus on the inner beauty,” she said.
Each box has a different theme — courage, self-esteem, creativity — and includes a social-emotional learning workbook she wrote herself. Social-emotional learning, Bell said, has become a centerpiece in public school, and focuses on skills such as self-awareness, good decision-making and character building.
For a while, Dream Girl Box was a one-woman show. Bell, who is a trained visual artist, started designing all her own products and launched a website in 2018. When orders rolled in, she rented out a storage space in St. Paul and packed the boxes herself.
Since then, she’s shipped out thousands of boxes, and recently started working with a distribution center. She’s even started an international partnership, and has an annual partnership with schools in Uganda and Kenya to deliver boxes and menstrual supplies. Next, she’s planning to market directly to school systems in the U.S. And this winter, she’s launching her first doll, which will become the face of the Dream Girl Box brand.
“As a school counselor, it’s important to me to reach all girls and make them feel represented, no matter their race or socio-economic status,” Bell said.
Tatiana Freeman is passionate about snacks. Specifically, she wants to make healthy, nutritious snacks easily available to anyone, no matter which neighborhood they live in.
In 2021, she decided to start Nosh Posh, a snack service in St. Paul. Initially, she hoped to open a brick-and-mortar location immediately, but struggled to find a location. So she took a new approach: curate subscription snack boxes and send them directly to customers.
“I spent hours researching and testing products,” she said. “I really wanted to focus on featuring Black and female-owned businesses.”
Nosh Posh snack boxes became especially popular with companies that had moved to remote work during the pandemic. Companies would order her packages to send to their employees to maintain a sense of unity and connection, she said.
And Freeman has been keeping a pulse on work culture. As people are moving from home to the office again, she’s preparing in-person snack services, too. This month, Nosh Posh is launching their first vending machine at The Wilderness Fitness and Coworking space in Minneapolis.
“At this point, I want to focus on subscription boxes and launch an additional two vending machines,” she said. “Then I’ll start working on the brick-and-mortar location.”
It’s a battle to find time to manage her small business. Freeman currently works a few different jobs to support herself, and the first few years of launching a small business are always costly, she said. But it’s worth it for her.
“The most rewarding part is uplifting other small businesses and giving them more visibility,” she said. “There are so many barriers for small emerging businesses to get into convenience stores and retail markets. We have to support each other.”