Black-owned businesses in Berkeley demonstrate the city’s economic resilience

All the clothing at Lola’s African Apparel is designed and made in Nigeria by Nigerians. Owner Ifafunke ‘Lola’ Oladigbolu has been in the apparel business for ten years, and one year at her current location on Ashby Avenue. Photo: Pete Rosos

BERKELEYSIDE — This year’s Juneteenth arrived amid mass protests against systemic racism and police brutality across the United States. The holiday marked 155 years since the end of slavery, when General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas and told the slaves they were free. Juneteenth is a celebration, but also a reminder of the deep inequities that still exist in our country.

On the same day this year, small business owners in Berkeley gingerly re-opened their doors. The city had eased restrictions on retail, and many businesses allowed customers inside for the first time in months. The stories of a few of Berkeley’s Black-owned businesses attest to the diversity and resilience not only of the founders themselves, but to Berkeley’s overall economy.

“You can have an authentic experience when you go to these businesses. You’re not tapping into new Berkeley. It’s the real, down-home authentic culture. These businesses have that in abundance,” said YaVette Holts, who founded the Bay Area Organization of Black-Owned Businesses (BAOBOB) in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in 2015. Now, Holts’s story has come full circle. She just launched a new app available on the organization’s website that provides a growing directory of businesses owned by Black people in the Bay Area.

“BAOBOB’s mission is to strengthen the Black economy and by virtue of that, the local economy as a whole,” Holts said. “The idea is to make a really viable, robust tool to help businesses connect with customers who want to be intentional with their dollars in supporting Black-owned businesses.” Berkeley is home to a number of Black-owned businesses and startups that are characteristic of the city’s diversity, not just ethnically and racially, but also economically. Just as Berkeley’s economy includes a wide range of industry sectors, so, too, do the city’s Black-owned enterprises, which include restaurantscannabis dispensaries, camps, dentists, salons and tech/biotech startups. For this special edition of Discovered in Berkeley, we focus on three unique businesses that have found ways to serve our community, even during a global pandemic: Lola’s African Apparel, Feelmore and Spiral Gardens.

Cultivating cultural pride

Cloth face masks at Lola’s African Apparel. When owner Oladigbolu first started selling her masks in March, they sold out in minutes. Photo: Pete Rosos

Lola’s African Apparel is more than just a clothing store. The bright dashikis, wrappers, high-waisted skirts, and crop tops also help cultivate customers’ relationships with African culture.

“It’s not just about selling clothes – it’s about community building,” said Ifafunke ‘Lola’ Oladigbolu, who opened her brick-and-mortar shop in 2017. “Even though I’m selling clothes, at the core of it, I’m supplying people with some kind of cultural touchstone and a pride in themselves and their clothes. A lot of people need to feel a connection to Africa. Having these African clothes for someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to travel makes them feel more connected to their lineage and ancestors.”

Born in Nigeria, Oladigbolu immigrated to the United States with her mother in 1991, leaving the rest of her family behind. After returning to Nigeria for the first time in 2010, she was inspired to bring the country’s fashion back to Berkeley. Now, every item in the store is made by tailors in the fashion district of Oyo, in central Nigeria.

Oladigbolu partnered with her older sister Adenike, who lives near Oyo, to find expert tailors. Oladigbolu sold the clothes they made at the Berkeley Flea Market for years before opening her shop. Now, the business is a major source of income for all the people the sisters employ, from the tailors to the truck drivers who transport the finished product. After working with Lola’s African Apparel, one seamstress started her own fashion design business and now employs dozens of seamstresses herself.

“The business enhances the exchange of cultural matters. It creates job opportunities for our local artisans and it also promotes Nigerian dress and culture,” wrote Adenike Oladigbolu, Lola’s older sister and business partner. When COVID-19 shut down retail businesses on March 17, Oladigbolu had just returned from maternity leave after giving birth to her first child in January. She had to act fast – she shifted her business model and started making masks from the African fabrics she already had in stock. Her first batch of patterned masks sold out in a minute and half.

Ifafunke ‘Lola’ Oladigbolu, owner of Lola’s African Apparel, returned to her business from maternity leave just before the COVID-19 shutdown. Photo: Pete Rosos

Now that businesses are allowed to open their doors, Oladigbolu is excited to continue developing her personal connections with customers, especially some of the repeat clients who frequent her store. But the changes don’t mean everything will return to normal. Because customers still have to maintain social distancing while shopping, business owners will have to get creative once again.

“People may not be coming to that restaurant or to that retail space in ways that they were six or nine months ago. How do you now use the space in this new environment?” said Rani Langer-Croager, co-founder and CEO of Uptima Business Bootcamp, which provides support and mentorship to entrepreneurs of color. Langer-Croager also partners with BAOBAB’s Holts as part of the City of Berkeley’s Business Retention Program to help link business owners with funding opportunities and develop creative solutions to challenges. “How do you rethink your space over a longer period to maybe have personal styling and personal appointments, and make that a more personalized business experience?”

Oladigbolu is optimistic that customers will return to the store in full force. “A mall in San Francisco opened and there was a line around the block. A lot of people are missing the retail experience and starting to value it a lot more.”

Sex is for everybody

Nenna Joiner, the owner of Feelmore. The business first opened its Shattuck Ave location in January 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Nenna Joiner wants to make sex a normal household conversation topic. As the founder and owner of Feelmore, they sell dildos, masturbators, custom candles that double as massagers, and a host of other sex toys. They opened Feelmore with the intention of spreading sex-positivity in the Bay Area to everybody, including Black and brown people.

“I wanted to have a store that also kept brown people in mind,” Joiner said. Talking about sex can be stigmatizing in general, but especially for people of color. “I wanted to change that narrative, and to do that, I had to work in the adult business.”

So when Joiner opened their first shop in Oakland, they made it a priority to make Diversity a core value by having staff that reflect the community in which the store is located. Joiner explained, “In traditionally brown communities, you don’t see a majority of people who look like us working in those spaces. We wanted to be inclusive from the beginning.”  Feelmore also fostered inclusion by making sure their shop didn’t sell products with offensive names..

Previously an award-winning pornographic filmmaker, Joiner opened their first store and gallery in Oakland in 2011 and expanded into Berkeley with a second storefront in January 2020. In that time, they also extended the branding of Feelmore by creating and selling their own vibrator, designed to ensure people with disabilities could use it as well.

No matter your race, gender, or sexual orientation, Joiner wants the experience of shopping for sex toys to be inclusive. “Sex should be something that’s very common,” they said. Alongside sex toys, Joiner displays historical artifacts – parts from a 1970s-era condom machine are reshaped into a piece of art. “A product is very personal. We bring in historical references to sex so we have something to talk about beyond a product. Now, we get to talk about where sex lies in history.”

At the Berkeley store, Joiner frequently observes UC Berkeley students coming in to discuss and purchase sex toys together. A long conversation about masturbators between three young men epitomized the kind of comfort around sex Joiner hopes their shop will encourage. “They’re having a dialogue with their friends and there was no shame that was happening there. It was really beautiful to see,” Joiner said.

When COVID-19 hit, Joiner switched to online orders. Still, they continue to prioritize relationship-building and exceptional customer service: Joiner often makes personal deliveries to homes in Berkeley. “It doesn’t cost anything to be kind, to show people they’re appreciated. The barrier to acceptance or openness comes down a little more,” they said. Though sales have dipped, Joiner says customers are buying a lot more lubricant since they began sheltering-in-place.

Community engagement is at the core of Joiner’s vision. Their family has lived in Berkeley for a long time and their cousins attended Berkeley public schools. After their aunt taught safe sex with the San Francisco AIDS foundation, Joiner followed in her footsteps, teaching sex education at private schools like Maybeck High School, speaking at UC Berkeley and Stanford, and working with the Berkeley Free Clinic.

Joiner is also a commissioner on Berkeley’s Loan Administration Board, which reviews and approves Berkeley business applications for the city’s revolving loan fund. They hope that Berkeley will see more businesses run by people of color, women, and queer people in the future. They try to be intentional with their dollar, patronizing local businesses whose owners they have positive relationships with – they hope that others do the same.

Health and food sovereignty

Spiral Gardens in Berkeley. Photo: Spiral Gardens Facebook page

Every weekend, a line of customers wraps around the block, waiting for seedlings at Spiral Gardens Non-Profit Nursery and Community Farm. Co-Director Kanchan Dawn Hunter says the enthusiasm for home gardening has only grown stronger with the approach of the summer months.

“It’s an all-day mad rush of people coming through. We’ve never had as much interest before,” Hunter said. “Now people have more time and space so they’re being a lot more proactive about growing their own food and also volunteering.”

Across the world, seed sales have skyrocketed. People have turned to gardening as a family-friendly, outdoor activity that can help them cut down their trips to the store. It’s also been a response to food insecurity. Spiral Gardens is meeting this renewed interest by doing what they’ve always done: helping people grow their own food.

“We’re here, we invite you to be here to really get deep with the soil, because I believe that being connected to the earth is what makes us stronger – spiritually, emotionally, physically. And we need as much strength as we can get right now,” Hunter said. “It’s what we’ve preached all these years.”

The community garden is 27 years old and in its 17th year at its current location on Sacramento in South Berkeley. In that time, its surrounding community has changed, but its mission has not – provide healthy food and teach food sovereignty.

“Our work here is to support food security in a community that has historically been deprived of such,” Hunter said.

When the garden came to Berkeley, the surrounding neighborhoods included mostly Black people and few options for healthy food – a few corner stores and a number of liquor stores dotted the area. Hunter, who works as the community engagement coordinator, now partners with other urban farming organizations to make sure the farm still caters to a diverse group of people.

“I’m grateful that during this pandemic so many more folks of color are coming in to buy plants and start their gardens for the first time,” Hunter said, pointing to unjust health disparities. “That’s got to change. I’m hopeful that more interest in growing your own food is going to help make that difference.”

An abundance of young plants is stuffed onto every available surface in Spiral Gardens. There are cucumbers, cabbage, cantaloupe and cayenne pepper. There’s also a section for succulents, a shed for house plants and a chicken coop. In one aisle, a customer can choose from cherry tomatoes, Pink Berkeley Tie Dye beefsteak tomatoes and “mystery tomatoes.” “We’ve lost track of which variety these are, so you can buy them cheap. Bound to be a good one,” the sign reads. Or why not get them all? Binge shopping has not bypassed the garden: customers often leave with a large, eclectic bounty. Proceeds from the sales go toward community outreach and education programs.

Though she’s a jack of all trades around the farm, Hunter’s specialty is herbal medicines. Lately, she has been cultivating adaptogens like holy basil and skullcap – herbs that she says help the body deal with stress – to reduce anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic.

This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED helps entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley and thrive. 

What Next

Shop at local black owned businesses – you can find them on BAOBOB’s website and new mobile app.

Find resources to support business continuity throughout the pandemic on the Berkeley Chamber’s website.

Visit Discovered in Berkeley to find more stories about innovative local businesses.