WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 17: (L-R) Co-Founder of Black on the Block Char Edwards, Stefon Diggs and … [+]
On July 17, newly renovated Franklin Park located between K & 14th St. in Washington D.C. turned into an immersive marketplace filled with Black-owned vendors for the city’s first-ever “Black on the Block” event.
“It’s not just your average marketplace, it really has a block party feel for all ages,” Lanie Edwards, cofounder of Black on the Block and entrepreneur, told Forbes.
The event hosted 100 vendors from the D.C. area and across the East Coast, a collection of businesses that attracted some 5,000 over the course of the day. When they weren’t shopping, attendees posed in a 360-degree photo booth and joined a continuous dance party in front of the event stage. As day turned into night, the marketplace created to support Black-owned businesses became a full-on dance party celebrating Black culture.
Collaborating with her sister and fellow business owner Char Edwards—who owns the fashion brand Upstreet Kid—Edwards founded the pop-up festival to highlight and support Black-owned businesses.
“We are both small business owners ourselves and we wanted a way to support other Black businesses because we know how hard it is,” says Edwards.
They also wanted a way to celebrate Juneteenth. The first Black on the Block event took place on June 19, 2021, but is now hosted on a monthly basis in the Los Angeles area, where each one can draw upwards of 7,000 shoppers. The sisters say the inspiration for Black on the Block came from their experiences being the only Black vendors in most marketplaces in LA. While there has been a rise in Black-owned businesses in recent years, a recent study shows that only 6% of business owners identify as Black in comparison to the 70.8% of white business owners.
The Edwardses took Black on the Block bi-coastal after connecting with Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs in June. Diggs, a D.C. native, saw the enthusiasm the event generated amongst Angelenos and wanted to provide a similar boost for Black-owned businesses in his hometown. With the support of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, Diggs and the Edwards sisters presented the first of what they hope will become an annual event in the area. The free event featured local talent like radio host and MC, Raro Lae, and DJ Trilla Kay, as well as a panel discussion with Forbes’ senior executive vice president of culture & community and For(bes) The Culture founder, Rashaad Lambert.
“Doing this event with Stefon Diggs allowed us to reach a broader network and have more eyes on Black on the Block, especially on the East Coast,” the Edwards sisters told Forbes. “With this being Stefon’s hometown, partnering with him helped us to connect with the city more, where we received a ton of support from DC city departments and government that we don’t usually get from LA.”
One thing that the event attendees didn’t see is the mentorship that the Edwards sisters provide. In addition to giving these businesses a space to sell their product and potentially boost profits, the Edwards sisters also offer participating vendors mentorship and guidance on licensing, branding, social media and more to give each entrepreneur a chance to flourish beyond the event.
Diggs and the Edwards sisters say the event is an opportunity to create a space they did not see as children. “It’s about paying it forward and creating a new lane,” says Diggs. “[It’s] something for everyone to be displayed and show off their talents. It’s an amazing opportunity to celebrate and network.”
Two entrepreneurs using the event to spotlight their business were Erinn Knight and Brandon Boone, whose creative agency and lifestyle brand Build Your Own Dreams, BYOD, is promoting mental health care for communities of color. Proceeds from the brand’s merchandise sales and music releases go to the BYOD Fund, a small initiative providing Black creatives with the financial support needed to seek mental health counseling. Today, BYOD is funding therapy for four creatives and hopes to send 12 creatives to therapy by the end of the year.
“If you buy a shirt,” Knight explains, “you’re inspiring yourself and everybody who sees you when you walk past, but you’re also helping somebody to therapy.”
Another vendor on site was Dreams of Triumph, an apparel brand that uses inspirational quotes in its designs. The brand’s CEO and founder, Valentine Akin, says he created the brand in 2011 to share inspiring messages to the masses. Like BYOD, Dreams of Triumph has a social bent: Akin sponsors a mentorship program with Stanton Elementary School in Southeast, D.C. and hosts monthly pop-up shops in which attendees can shop and participate in community service projects like making healthy meals, hygiene kits and more for the less fortunate.
The Edwards sisters hope they can take the pay it forward mindset of their vendors and use that as a guiding principle for future editions of Black on the Block. They’d like to bring it to other cities, creating sustainable and safe spaces for Black entrepreneurs across the country.
“The whole point of [this event] really is for unity and to support each other,” the Edwards sisters told Forbes. “We just want as many eyes on these businesses as possible, and for everyone to feel safe. We really do pride ourselves on providing a very safe environment no matter where we are.”