Whitney Osei-Akintaju of Ethnic District: Changing The Stigma Of African Brands
Whitney Osei-Akintaju was looking to solve a personal issue. Despite living in one of the most heavily African populated neighborhoods within the Atlanta metro, she still drives 30 minutes away to the African store to purchase African ingredients. She's heavily connected to her culture and raising her family with strong African influences. As an avid cook of African dishes, she became exhausted by the constant back and forth of driving outside her district to purchase African products. As a busy mom, this was a terrible inconvenience. She imagined that same experience for other Africans and how difficult it would be for someone living in more rural or less culturally populated areas.
So she created Ethnic District. Ethnic District sells nostalgic foods that are hard to purchase. Currently focusing on African products, Ethnic District hopes to provide products from all different ethnic groups. But she also wanted to connect brands in Africa with an opportunity to cross over to the US food commerce industry. The most significant barrier for these brands, she noted, was connecting to the US and a platform that distributes their products for them. Whitney works with brands in three different ways:
Ethnic District buys wholesale and resells products, they do consignment, and some brands drop ship their products directly from their locations to their customers. Whitney reflects by saying that she's thankful she launched before becoming a mom because being younger, there's a bit more courage and a bit more naivete. In contrast, now that she's a mom, she most likely would've hesitated in launching her business. As entrepreneurs, there's always this question of when is the best time to launch a business? She would've been sitting and trying to figure out when would be the best time to launch.
Whitney shared, "I don't think I would've had the courage to launch and just the way that I did, which is just like, I'm gonna go for it and figure it out on the way."
The sooner you launch, the sooner you receive feedback from your customers. Receiving customer input, Whitney pivoted her business model to increase growth and profits while also providing an enjoyable experience for her customers.
What are you most proud of when it comes to Ethnic District?
"Just not giving up because I think people have this like romanticized idea of what entrepreneurship looks like, 'oh I'm going to be working for myself, that means I can like sleep all day, and just do what I want when I want...and you quickly learn, that when you're an entrepreneur that whatever you were doing in your corporate job, you're doing that times two times three. And I'm a mom, and I'm a wife. Now I have two daughters under the age of four. And sometimes I want to close my laptop and say screw it; I'm not going to do it," Whitney shared.
But what keeps her going is her customers and fulfilling their needs. Whitney has figured out that you have to learn to be persistent and not to give up the good because of the bad.
What's the biggest fear you had during your business journey?
"My biggest fear is failing. Like just having to close the business down without getting the business to where I want it to be." Her entrepreneurship journey wasn't just about the business. It's been a personal journey as well, so the thought of having to close down was a huge fear for her considering the sacrifices that she's made to get to where she is today. Whitney reflects on the other ideas that she had that she started but didn't follow through with. And this is the one that she truly committed herself to.
Whitney no longer holds on to that fear because there are pros to being a small business owner. For instance, you can afford to make mistakes and still survive. By staying in her lane and allowing her business to grow slowly and organically, she's bounced back from the setbacks she experienced. Being strategic in her business has sustained her from the impact of COVID-19, although she does worry about the growth. "A lot of businesses, they want to grow, they want to get really big really fast, and I'm actually terrified of growing too fast too soon," Whitney admitted that she does battle with imposter syndrome. She questions whether or not she's qualified to do this work.
Describe what it was like preparing for the pitch competition?
This was Whitney's first pitch. "I didn't know what the hell I was doing." She went into this pitch competition blind and terribly nervous with thoughts of her passing out in the middle of her presentation. Unfortunately, Whitney wasn't able to attend the pitch competitions offered by BGV. However, her mentor connected her to a pitching coach. She practiced only twice. "I said Lord take the wheel, I've done what I can do."
Whitney went on further to say, "Everyone idolizes venture capital, and so not every business is a venture capital type of business. And so I listened in other pitch competitions, and people were like, 'I built robots that are going to Mars,' and I'm like I'm just selling African stuff." She laughed and continued, "I felt embarrassed like my idea wasn't cool enough, like it wasn't worthy of a pitch competition. I was terrified."
Whitney's advice to those thinking about entering a pitch competition is to do it. "Just go for it. It's not the end of the world. This isn't Shark Tank, where it's like millions of people are going to see it. A lot of people are going to see you, but, like, just do it, get the feedback, take it and implement it. And keep doing more and more of it, and you'll get better."
Since the pitch competition, Whitney has a newfound confidence and believes that she will win more pitch competitions. She's taken the feedback and continues to improve. Since the pitch competition, a lot of opportunities have come her way. "Be very clear about your business model, as if you're explaining it to a child." The last piece of advice, "Definitely take advantage of the pitch practice. Black Girl Ventures gives plenty of resources to you even before you do a pitch competition. So make sure you're utilizing all of that to get yourself ready."
Whitney continued to say, "There's a set of unique challenges that Black founders face, and they're like totally different. And so, being in front of judges that understand your struggle, they get where you're trying to go, makes a wealth of difference. I would rather do a Black Girl Ventures pitch competition than go do something like Entre or something."
Tell us about a significant setback you had in your business and how did you recover?
"Funding is the biggest setback, right? Because you have all these amazing ideas, and it takes money to make money, right? And if you don't have a lot of it, you just gotta make do with what you have." Whitney bootstrapped her company and had to get creative in overcoming financial obstacles. Her cash flow would be interrupted when funds ran low. As a result, it would further interrupt the inventory and serve her customers and partners. Whitney now focuses on doing pitch competitions because it's free non-diluted money for her business.
The final setback was COVID. Although she says, it was a blessing and a curse. "With everything that happened, it forced a lot of companies who wouldn't have given a hoot about Black people—it kind of forced them to create initiatives that helped Black businesses. And I've taken advantage of all of those." She laughed. Because of COVID, some of the partnerships and businesses that Ethnic Districts collaborated with went out of business. This dampened their supply chain for months.
Because of limited resources, she used customer feedback to narrow their product selection to recurring essential items that customers would need. The last setback was being a first-generation entrepreneur. No one in her family is an entrepreneur. Therefore she's learning everything as it goes by herself. Not having access to specific mentors and resources slowed her down. However, the resources provided because of COVID helped her to pivot and adjust to the crisis. Whitney used the pitch funding to cover expenses that the business was behind on.
How do you measure success?
"I think for me personally, achieving success means that I've been able to create something that changes the way that people do things." Entrepreneurs and small business owners have been able to impact our lives powerfully. For example, the way we shop (Amazon) and how we get to places (Uber). Whitney is hoping to have that same impact with Ethnic District.
She hopes to change the stigma that African brands are low-quality and they're not well-made. This is why it's essential for her to partner with brands that provide superior products. She also doesn't want the process of purchasing ethnic products to be a stressful experience, especially when America is a melting pot of different cultures. She hopes to have other retailers understand they need to diversify their products and consider other cultures. Whitney will feel she's successful when the retail space shifts.
Support is not always given to women of color in business; when has this shown and hurt or disappointed you the most?
"Every Black woman that's starting a business is going to like feel it. You're going to feel it hard because we're the least funded. So even if you have an amazing idea, you're not going to raise as much money, sorry to say, like your other counterparts," said Whitney. She doesn't want to sugarcoat the experience for anyone looking to get funding for their business. It's hard to compete when you don't have the same resources. "If we don't get the support that we need, then Black women have to get creative and push through with their businesses," continued Whitney.
What's the most critical lesson you've learned about business, in general?
"Delegation! When you're a small business and so strapped for funds, you have to do everything yourself. But then you can't do everything by yourself forever." Because Whitney did everything herself, it led to burnout—which almost made her give up. Meeting deadlines forced her to delegate. "I had to trust people and let them help me. The sooner you learn to delegate, the better."
As small business owners, it's easy to get tunnel vision. Having more than one pair of eyes on her business has helped Whitney see it through different lenses that have helped her thrive.
What's the biggest risk you've taken?
Whitney said quitting her job to work in her business full-time was the biggest risk so far. She quit her job with no savings and no plan. Fed up with working on her business, being a mom, and working full-time at a job she didn't like—she knew something had to give. "It was the best decision ever." She said. She wished she quit sooner. Despite not having a plan, different opportunities presented themselves, and it's been working since then. Whitney laughed and said, "But don't do that, have a plan before quitting your job, have a little savings, don't just quit. You don't want to be an entrepreneur on the streets."
Whatever you decide as an entrepreneur, do what's best for you as some people need to call it quits while others can side hustle until they're profitable enough to make the switch.
What's the most exciting part of the business?
Whitney said, "I love when we bring new brands on board. Also, I love getting customer feedback. I love being able to connect with people and give them that nostalgic experience." Often, her customers are looking for items that they haven't had in years, so reconnecting them with their favorite products and getting a taste from home is something that she loves.
What do you think the future holds for Black women entrepreneurs and small business owners?
"I think the future is so bright for Black women entrepreneurs and small business owners. We basically hold communities together. Like We're the most underrepresented and underestimated but like every street that you go to, whether it's predominantly White or Asian, whatever, you will see small Black businesses within that community.
We're constantly innovating, and we're constantly coming up with solutions to issues that I think very, very soon that we're gonna dominate the small business space if we're not already." Whitney hopes the pandemic resources and revelations weren't just a one-off thing and that businesses continue to support Black and Brown women. When you pour into Black and Brown women, they pour right back into the community.
If you and I were meeting three years from now, looking back, what would it take for you to feel happy about your progress?
Whitney remembers when she didn't have any money, so when her customers purchased an item, she would go herself to the African stores and ship them to her customers. Now three years later, she has more inventory and more partnerships with more prominent brands. Three years from now, Whitney will have a robust supply chain with a 2-3 days delivery time frame. She ultimately wants to be the "go-to" business for African products. Whitney wants to open a retail space that is an ethnic supermarket providing genuine ethnic products from around the world that's easily accessible in every state.
What do you think is an important skill or asset you need to be successful in business?
"You need to be extremely flexible and agile when times are changing. You need to be able to pivot quickly so that you don't get left behind," Whitney said. "You need to be forward-thinking as well and kinda like, anticipate what the trends are going to be and move in that direction, so you don't get squashed by your competitors."
Running a business while balancing a personal life can be demanding and taxing. How do you take care of yourself?
Whitney says she hasn't figured out how to take care of herself and not burn out. "You know, as women, we want to think that we can do it all, and we really can't. Like, being a mom impacted me greatly in owning a business because I'm thinking about my family, you know?" Sometimes Whitney takes a day where she doesn't answer any emails or do anything. But, she hasn't figured out that balance for herself yet.
What is your favorite quote or mantra?
If you're not ashamed of your first product or MVP, you started too late. Just do it. But don't quit your job.
What is your favorite book and podcast?
Podcast: Side Hustle Pro
Girlboss by Sofia Amoruso, You're A Badass by Jen Sincero, and The Richest Man In Babylon by George S. Clason
What's your favorite business hack or app that you can't live without?
For E-commerce stores, Whitney suggests using SEO plugins like Rank Math and Yoast, which educate you on the SEO process. She made her first $60k without any marketing dollars. She focused on SEO to bring in sales. Whitney also recommends using Diib, an analytics tool. They help you to see how your website is performing and which part of your website is generating revenue, and what you can fix on your website.
Name one food item that you have a hard time saying no to.
Nachos! And for Ghanian dishes, Whitney loves Waakye. Rice and beans, with pepper sauce in a tomato stew.
What's next for Ethnic District?
When Whitney thinks about the future of Ethnic District, the growth scares her, which isn't an uncommon feeling for entrepreneurs. Recently, her business received a $25k grant from American Express, where she will receive six months of public relations assistance, a marketing consult, and access to more funding.
With this extra funding, she'll redesign her website to make it more user-friendly and convenient. She also hopes to launch a subscription box to encourage her customers to explore more brands. By doing so, it gives Ethnic District data on which brands to bring on permanently.
"Here's one bit of advice I would give to anyone who wants to start a business because everybody has a ton of ideas but only a few percent of people who actually do it. One thing that really helped me when I started Ethnic District was not sharing it with the wrong people too early because the wrong people would've probably talked me out of it. Like, why are you selling this, and why aren't you selling more luxury—why are you quitting your job to work on this business? Look, if I had listened to those people, I probably would not have started the business. I would not be sitting here with this $25,000 from American Express that I'm about to brag about," advises Witney.
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