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Making Space for Marketplaces of Color

The Downtown Memphis Commission’s Open on Main Initiative allows entrepreneurs, makers, and retailers access to shop space in the Downtown core rent-free for a month or longer.

It serves a couple of purposes:

  • It helps the DMC test out and fine-tune its strategy for bringing thriving retail to the area. The lessons learned will factor into the BuildDowntown Master Plan.
  • It serves as a lab for entrepreneurs and makers to test ideas in a low-risk environment and see what it takes to have a physical store.

Kenya Adjekum Bradshaw was one of the vendors selected to run a monthlong pop-up featuring Gift Wraps, the African head wraps and jewelry business that she co-founded with her friend Rochelle Griffin.

Gift Wraps is primarily an online store and sells in boutiques and museum across the country. The owners intentionally operate virtually and host pop up shops to debut new collections. When asked about aspirations of having a permanent location, Kenya said they’re in no hurry to take on the overhead cost. “Rarely do African-American owned businesses get the opportunity to be able to do brick-and-mortar locations,” said Kenya. So when Gift Wraps and another Memphis-based online retailer Teeny Toes and Bows got a chance to experiment with a physical location for free, they brought along 7 other local African-American owned businesses to showcase. 

We talked to Kenya about the concept behind Gift Wraps, the trajectory of Downtown, and the importance of supporting minority-owned businesses in Memphis. 

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How did Gift Wraps begin?

Gift Wraps was co-founded by my best friend Rochelle Griffin and I. Both of us are educators by trade and really love to travel. In our travel journeys across the world, we were seeing these amazing accessories and fabrics. We were like “This is something that we could be bringing home to our own community and we could be empowering women at the same time.”

Our trip to my husband’s homeland in Accra sealed the deal. We found beautiful Ankara fabric and we were hooked. We initially started Gift Wraps by doing a small line of Ankara print head wraps and then expanded into accessories and other pieces from across the African diaspora.

Our theory around Gift Wraps is that we believe that all people are gifts and should wrap themselves in love, and our accessories create an opportunity for you to visually display that.  

Another key piece of our organizational strategy is around economic empowerment for communities. We strongly believe in recirculating the dollar, and so we are intentional about being African or African American owned business supported from end to end, whether it is our graphic designers, our lawyers, or the women who sew. We pay everyone a living wage and that’s a key piece of what we believe in so that we are supporting and building up communities.

Where are your products sourced from?

Our wraps are made from 100 percent sustainable CmiA (Cotton made in Africa), printed in Accra, Ghana using a traditional rotary machine, and features designs by local artists. Our jewelry is sourced from artisans from different parts of the continent. Our cowrie shell pieces are traditionally from either Ghana or South Africa. Most of our beaded pieces are either made in Kenya, Nigeria, or South Africa. We really try to create art through the jewelry that you wear and we believe in pricing at a reasonable price so that anybody can be wrapped in love.

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Can you tell me about the market for appreciation for international wearable art in Memphis?

‘Black Panther’ was a blessing to the market in helping people to see different styles and how different tribes honor their cultures through attire. If you remember, in the movie the Border Tribe warriors wear vibranium enhanced Basotho Heritage Blankets as armaments. Those are from the Basotho tribe in South African tribe and we carry them in winter (excluding the Vibranium LOL). They are all handmade pieces. I think it gave more exposure to the market and allowed more people to think about how could they incorporate Ankara prints or African prints into their clothing and jewelry. We’ve seen a significant boom since the movie last year but we also just think people are more intentional about honoring their pride in their heritage. Memphis’ legacy of being a leader in civil rights and social justice made it a great place for us to have our home base here.

When you got the chance to do this pop-up through Open on Main, why was it important to you to invite other vendors in and make it a group showcase?

We believe in the power of collective empowerment—that we’re stronger together. We know that very rarely do African-American owned businesses get the opportunity to do brick and mortar locations. We were partnered with Teeny Toes and Bows, which is a really different business from ours. They support moms’ and babies’ wear. Then, we were thinking about what if we tried to service the entire family? We brought in Ele and Ivy Tea, and then King Status Grooming so we had pieces for men. We also had home accessories with Somi Decor. We were trying to create an experience where you could fully do both home and service every member of your family.  

We would love to create more opportunities like this. We would like to explore returning in the spring or summer when Downtown has more foot traffic, but we like the opportunity to expose our community to diverse options, therefore we’re going to be looking for additional opportunities to create marketplaces of color.

As the DMC is working on the BuildDowntown Master Plan, from your experience with this pop-up, what do you hope they incorporate in their retail strategy?

In a community like ours where we are the largest metropolitan minority community in the country, how are we intentional about building up small businesses, and in particular, black-owned businesses? If you look at the data for Shelby County, only less than 6% of contracts actually go to minority-owned businesses. We need to be intentional about changing that and part of that is creating spaces like this so that you can have businesses be able to come in. One of the things that I love about downtown is Trolley Night, but if you go to the businesses, you will see very few of them are black-owned businesses. So, how do we incentivize having businesses that are owned by people of color in place so that we can revitalize this area?

Had you done anything entrepreneurial before starting Gift Wraps?

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bug but I think that for me, while this is entrepreneurial, it’s also about empowerment.  We could have easily done something different like real estate investment. But this was really about how do we expose people to the beauty of Africa because we are not intentional about learning about its greatness in our educational system and our society. How do you show people the beauty of the continent— that was one piece— and then how do you empower people to really love themselves?  How do you them move self-love to community love? That, in totality, was what we wanted to create.

Anything else you want to leave our readers to think about?

How we intentionally spend our dollars is important and sends a message around what you value. This evening, I’m going to go patronize Sage because I value them as a business in this community and being owned by African-American men. We have to be much more intentional about how we spend our dollars.

If you want to see Memphis be a different city, and it’s more than just the investments and parks and arts, it actually has to deal with how we are creating economic wealth strategies that are the going to break our generational poverty as a community. If you love Memphis, you invest in black people because Memphis is a city that is full of richness and soul, and that soul is brought about by the different creative experiences that African-Americans have made in this community. When the boat of African American wealth in this city increases all will be better in this city. We rise and fall together.

Kenya Adjekum Bradshaw

Here's the full list of vendors from the Open on Main pop-up should you want to check them out:

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