An Indie Self-Care Brand Hits its StrideCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | After halting production in March, Alexandra Winbush got new life — and hit new roadblocks. Published: October 27, 2020
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We all witnessed the surge of support for Black-owned businesses in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the summer’s record-breaking racial justice movement. But despite this boost, the pandemic and its economic fallout have disproportionately impacted Black-owned businesses. And those still standing this summer had to scramble to fulfill overnight sales spikes (all while navigating COVID-19 closures, restrictions, and delays). This week, I spoke with Brittney Winbush of Alexandra Winbush, a tea and scented-candle brand that halted operations in March and quickly revamped in June to meet a sudden and staggering rush of orders. Below, our conversation on the nuances of #SupportBlackBusiness and how Winbush is setting up her company — and other women — for long-term success.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why candles and tea?
In my sophomore year of college, I was home for spring break and we ended up having a house fire. It started in my room. My dad was able to get me out because he heard the smoke detectors, but I was passed out from the carbon monoxide. We got out, but I lost the one place I felt comfortable in. I was struggling in college, and I would go home a lot because it was about two hours from school. I even kept a job at home, that's how uncomfortable I felt at school. I struggled with anxiety and depression post the fire. Even though I had already been in school for two years, I was trying to figure out, How do I now make this space feel comfortable, because I'm so used to fleeing from here? Aromatherapy gave me the sense that I can be wherever I want to be. If I want to feel like I'm in the laundry room with my mom, I will get a linen-scented candle. If I want to smell the food my granny bakes, I will get an apple pie-scented one. Scents take us somewhere, remind us of something, give us a sense of warmth and comfort. Then I got into tea leaves that naturally help with sleeping, anxiety, increasing endorphins, things like that. I [found] this winning combination: lighting my candle, brewing a cup of tea, and playing my favorite music.
How did it evolve into your business?
I did this for years and years and years — light, sip, play. One year I remember asking for candles for Christmas, as per usual, and it dawned on me: I’ve been buying candles for several years, I know what I want out of a candle. I also know it can be more than just a candle; it can be an experience. So I decided to take my personal self-care kit and share it with the world in the form of Alexandra Winbush. Light your candles, sip your tea, listen to your music, and create comfort, joy, peace, love, or whatever it is you need to create. It doesn't have to be tied to a physical space.
How did the lockdown in March impact you?
It was really scary in the early weeks. I didn't know whether I was going to be able to survive because the people that worked with me to pour the candles and my tea co-packer had to shut down. I felt stuck. I was out of a job, just like everybody else. I went to a bad place for a minute because I was sad. I felt like, The world needs [candles and tea] right now — everyone is at home and there's no separation of work, home, family time — and I can’t provide them. I felt very discouraged at the start, but slowly I was able to start producing again around June.
Do you have any staff?
[My staff] is very new within the last seven months — a boom has happened. The first person I hired was Maya, the administrative assistant. We've been getting a lot more wholesale and retail inquiries recently, so I brought Imani on board as the wholesale director. Then Skylar, our social media director.
I witnessed and read about that “boom” — the outpouring of support for Black-owned businesses with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. What was it like to be on the receiving end of it?
Someone on Instagram posted seven to nine Black-owned businesses, like, “Instead of here, shop here.” The second day her brother re-posted it [on Twitter], and it ended up with hundreds of thousands of retweets by the end of the week. People were sending it to my mom. I was getting tagged in Instagram posts every five minutes. Within the first week we went from 7,000 to 12,000 [Instagram followers], and in two weeks, we went to 25,000. I was like, Oh, there's been a massive shift. There were a lot of white celebrities like Whitney Port and Drew Barrymore reposting. Then influencers started doing collages of Black-owned businesses. I live with my best friends, all of whom are also entrepreneurs, and we were all experiencing something during that time... It was such a struggle and something we talked about, cried about, felt uncomfortable with.
Can you explain that discomfort?
For one, the traction was overwhelming, but two, I was mourning and I was frustrated. I was trying to figure out what I am meant to do to help Black people in the world, but business was booming at the same time, and I couldn't figure out how to tend to both. Again, I felt stuck. But my friends encouraged me, [reminding me] why I created the business: to tend to people’s mental health. And as long as I'm staying true to that, it is something that could help the movement. It might not be the conventional way that some people are helping, but it is the gift God gave me. So I knew it was time to come back with the website. I sold out in less than 24 hours and had my biggest sales day to date.
What do you mean by “come back”?
I had taken the product page down because of [production interruptions from] the pandemic. So I put the product page back up and made everything available for pre-order with a two- to four-week lead time because of one, the pandemic; and two, to be transparent with people, like, We've had a recent boom and just bear with us as we get your orders together.
Wow. Were all those people who were posting about your brand actually buying products?
Well, in the beginning it was tough because people couldn’t actually buy anything because I didn’t have anything. I did have a GoFundMe up from before the pandemic to [raise money] for a physical space, and it meant a lot to me that people did an extra second of research to find it and support me [that way] instead. That let me know when people were genuine.
It was interesting when super large accounts would post about me, and they wouldn't even be following me. Why would they do that? If I can be transparent, I think a lot of white people panicked. It was like a real mirror was put up to the world for a minute. We've had [the fallout over] Trayvon Martin and we've done our marches before, but what was different about this was we had a global pandemic going on at the same time, where all these things that people have been told they have to do, like go into work, weren’t happening anymore. Now everybody's getting called out and it makes you stop and slow down for a second and try to find sympathy and understanding. For the people who reached out to me with those kinds of sentiments, that meant everything to me, because it's easy to panic and do something very performative.
Have you been more active on social media in response to the influx of new followers?
I avoided it more than anything at first. I was scared. When I had 7,000 followers, it felt like those were my friends, people that I know and that follow me from my personal page. Then when it grew to, I think we're at 27,000 now, I'm like, I don't know these people, I'm scared to look at the comments and check the DMs. So that's why bringing Skylar on board was the next step. Now she's putting things in place to change the way we move on social media.
How’s your GoFundMe going?
We still haven't reached our goal, but we got far enough that I was able to get a space.
Thank you. It became impossible to support my business in my Brooklyn apartment with my roommates while we're all working at home. I had stacks and stacks of candles in the living room. Fortunately, we were able to get a space not far from our apartment and turn it into an HQ for our businesses, which has really changed things. Home feels like home now. One of my roommates is pretty popular online, and her post about us getting the space went viral, which really helped us to fund it. People were sending us money through PayPal, outside of the GoFundMe.
As we're in Q4, which is the busiest time for businesses that sell anything, my focus is providing great-quality products in a timely fashion to my customers. And continuing to learn as a business owner. I don't know everything. I still feel like we're a baby, but we're growing and I'm excited to see where we go. Especially as I continue to get this team in place. I remember moving to New York and having nowhere to live, then having somewhere to live but not being able to pay my rent. To now have a business and be able to pay other women means a lot to me. I want to keep doing well by my business, to continue to grow and support other women.
How to help:
Until next time,