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How These Black and Indigenous Merchants Are Empowering Their Communities



For many modern business owners, community impact and identity are crucial pillars in their brand’s story and ethos. Starting a business for some is not simply something to do, rather, it can be an expression of who they are, and the culture, location, or history their brand carries within their products. 

Indigenous and Black entrepreneurs, in particular, have rich stories behind the products they sell and the ways in which their communities have informed those business decisions, often with deep roots in the cultural traditions and practices of their ancestors centuries behind them. It is also true that merchants from these groups have historically faced numerous barriers to founding and growing their businesses. By going back to such practices as merchants, Indigenous and Black business owners are directly helping empower vast, distinct groups of people. It’s not always about a product for these merchants, but a purpose. 

Today’s diverse entrepreneurs tell the stories and expressions of their identities through the brands they build. At Shopify, we don’t just empower these businesses with tools to start and grow their businesses online—we also love to shop with them too. Here, we will detail a few of the many Black and Indigenous merchants on Shopify explaining how they’re uplifting their communities with their products. 

Going beyond product

First, we must understand why many entrepreneurs on Shopify, and around the world, trot the business-owning path. 

It has become increasingly obvious that authenticity is a key reason for buyers when they are shopping online or in-store. Whether this began as a trend, or with some folks intuitively leaning toward merchants and brands centering their purpose in tandem with their products, the fact is that a true expression of identity is powerful, and buyers respond. According to a report by Stackla, 86% of buyers said authenticity is a key reason they are buying from a particular brand. 

What’s more authentic than individuals directly selling products and services based on their cultural and ethnic communities? And to that point, if merchants with deep community roots are centering their products, services, or purpose on those in that community, what is that impact? 

It is harder for diverse, BIPOC communities to start and maintain their businesses. A Shopify report explicitly illustrated the barrier between white and non-white businesses by demonstrating how much is spent in the first year. White business owners spend nearly $33,000 in their first year, while BIPOC businesses double that spend. The gap in funding and revenue or loss is not the only barrier many non-white business owners face: it’s in the lack of representation, or social capital and access to resources, or access to digital tools and commerce teachings, and institutional biases. This is why it is important to the many who are successful, and stable, to show how their brands support or emphasize their communities. 

Communities are able to empower each other this way. Commerce is one path for individuals to pursue a meaningful connection to both themselves and a people, paying it forward to the community they are part of. Entrepreneurship gives business owners a voice and space to express many cultural traditions, ideas, and feature groups of people while servicing specific folks’ buying needs without compromise. Such an act reinforces identity on one’s own terms. 

Black and Indigenous merchant spotlight

The products from these brands on Shopify tell the story of the founder, a culture, or a people—all with extraordinary and rich histories. So much of what these founders and brands represent is rooted in community and the way it is preserved through new technologies and pathways like ecommerce.

Black Travel Box

Orion Brown founded Black Travel Box in 2017 as a way to give women of color a brand they could confidently trust in for their travel and personal care needs. 

For Orion, representation and community always matter. “My community is made up of millions of African-American travelers who love travel as a form of self-care and are looking for their tribe,” she says. Even though it is still very new to the market, that’s the core of Black Travel Box.

Off the Cuff NYC

Off the Cuff, founded by Cristian Palma in 2020, is dedicated to exploring the untold stories of rising leaders, one at a time. Palma’s mission is to inspire, educate, and influence those around him in hopes that it will honor his grandmother’s message of paying it forward.

Beyond selling merchandise, Off the Cuff is a storytelling platform. Off the Cuff’s narrative arm acts as a means of appreciation for underrepresented folks, giving them space to speak and be heard, and truly value what that means to them.

“My audience is underrepresented people of color. I want to just amplify the voices for those that are unheard and pay that message forward,” Palma says. “The biggest thing for me is giving people their flowers and appreciating what they do.”

Nurilens

Nurilens was founded by Juliette Nelson in 2020 with the vision to create a fashion-forward product celebrating the cultural background of its customers, and what makes them unique. 

The brand mantra—“see through the lens of your purpose”—means that every time a customer opens up their eyeglass case, they’re unraveling a treasure; an experience reminding them to be the best version of themselves. That being purpose-oriented, and remaining on a path to excellence, no matter the challenges leads to a sense of clarity.

“Even having blue light blocking lenses in every pair, they protect your eyes after sitting in front of the computer for long hours. They also contribute to how you're working toward your goals, walking in your purpose, and making it an impact. So just the meaning of the brand itself. That's how it impacts our customers. That's how it impacts the community,” says Nelson. 

Eighth Generation 

Eighth Generation is a Seattle-based Native art and lifestyle brand owned by the Snoqualmie Tribe. The brand partners with community-based Native artists to design, manufacture and market beautiful wool blankets and gifts intended for everyone around the globe. 

​​The business developed as a way to solve the problems that were in front of Indigenous artists who were trying to make a living from their cultural art. Through its Inspired NativesTM initiative, arts entrepreneurs manufacture products under the Eighth Generation brand and help expand the regional appeal of the brand while educating the public about the tangible costs of cultural appropriation.

“Throughout the Eight Generation journey, we've been giving back to the community as much as we've received, and we have a nice, healthy cycle of support going,” says Louie Gong (Nooksack) Eighth Generation, Founder and CEO.

Totem Design House

What would become Totem Design House began around 2004 when founder Erin Brillon began to tire of seeing poorly designed interpretations of Northwest art on apparel. Brillon, with the help of her brother Jesse, decided to start a business that authentically featured Haida designs on clothing and home decor products. Brillon, in tandem with this brand, works on Copper Legacy Indigenous Empowerment Society, a non-profit organization that supports Indigenous programs and projects. Copper Legacy develops programs that are part of four foundational pillars: cultural revitalization, enhancement of NWC art, health and wellness, and sustainability projects in northwestern, coastal First Nations communities. 

Brillon's priority with Totem Design House is for her community first and foremost. “I'm like, ‘what do our people want?’ Because those are the people that I want to make proud,” Brillon says. “Those are the people that I want to make happy. And if other people like it, that's a residual benefit that I'm happy that that happens, but I'm definitely not focused on.”

Maimoa Creative

Aroha Tamihana founded Maimoa Creative with a mission to promote the Māori language through unique hand-lettered printed goods and resources. Tamihana wants to normalize the use of te reo in everyday life and to empower people to be proud of their culture.

“I just got really frustrated just from the lack of products out there that celebrated Mōari culture,” she says. “[The brand] is not really only about the products anymore. I mean, that's kind of my platform and that's what I sell. But I'm all about the community that I've created on my social media platform.”

What’s next? 

These are a few examples of so many brands growing their business in harmony with their communities—in addition to connecting multiple communities together—through Shopify's ecommerce tools. The fewer commerce barriers folks in diverse communities face, the better it is for their work and products (and identity) to be more visible in the market. There isn’t a sole pathway for entrepreneurs to follow to drive change through commerce, which is really beautiful. There is space for everyone—for all types of businesses to grow on Shopify and invest in their communities going forward. 

With our 1MBB and Shopify Indigenous programs, we’re offering exclusive peer mentorship through our digital communities, as well as, exclusive opportunities, training, and resources to empower aspiring and existing Black and Indigenous entrepreneurs to start, grow and thrive.

We want to advance our mission to break down barriers and help more Black and indigenous businesses build the future of commerce.

To apply to be a part of the Build Black community visit here

To apply to be a part of the Shopify Indigenous community visit here

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