Inspirational interview with Whitney Coleman, founder of WC Artistry, a fashion label that uses vibrant African fabrics and sustainable materials to create beautiful jewelry.
On Your Voices, we continue to bring you the success stories of African American men and women in different sectors of the economy. Today’s guest is Whitney Coleman, a young and enthusiastic Black woman making strides in the fashion industry with jewelry made from sustainable materials and African fabrics. She tells us of her unexpected journey into entrepreneurship and how she is changing the fashion landscape with products that are totally different from the mainstream. She also talks about her plans to use the resources available to her to give back to the African economy. Her tip for aspiring Black entrepreneurs: If you have a dream, just follow it!
First of all, can you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us briefly about yourself, how you started the business and the products you make.
Sure. My name is Whitney Coleman, and I’m a New York native. I was born in Brooklyn and I moved around a lot when I was a kid, but I ended up back in New York for undergrad and graduate school. After school, I started working with a few non-profits. Through my travels, I ended up in Accra, Ghana, in West Africa, and I was there working as the business manager for an elementary international school that was just getting off the ground. While I was there, I also got to know the culture a little bit better and I really fell in love with the craft there. A friend of mine gifted me a pair of earrings made out of fabric, and I really loved them. I wanted to get a bunch more to send to friends and family, but when I went to the shop where my friend told me she got them, the lady who made them was no longer there. So I began to think what it would look like if I started making jewelry out of beautiful African fabric, and so that’s kind of essentially how it all got started. What I really wanted to do was work with sustainable materials, so I started experimenting. When I came back to the States, I brought a bunch of fabric with me, and I started giving out my work as presents. A lot of people were like, “It’d be so nice if you could sell these at an Etsy shop.” So I started my first Etsy shop about a year ago, and then it just took off. I go to different events, craft fares, shows, and I was at the Black Business Women Rock Conference in L.A last weekend.
What inspires you to make these products?
My inspiration is to make this kind of fashion more mainstream. My idea is to use African fabrics to really accentuate somebody’s style that is already there. What I do want to do eventually though, is to start an entrepreneurial program for young women, because a lot of the crafts that I saw in Ghana are made by young women, and a lot of them do it just to get money for school. And so I would like to do some kind of entrepreneurial program where I teach young women not only how to make jewelry, but to sell it and use that money to better themselves, giving them the tools and resources that they need. Eventually as things expand, I plan to use the different resources and different endeavors to give back to the African economy. I import the fabrics that I use for my jewelry from Ghana because I want to be able to support the country.
You use colors and designs that are associated with Africa in your work. Many Black people have lost their connection with Africa. Does your art and business help you and other people to restore this kind of connection?
I definitely think it does. I think my work shows the versatility of the African culture. There are those main colors, but then there are also some other really beautiful colors that are infused into African fabric that I think a lot of people don’t know about. I think that once they get exposed to the different kinds of fabric and the colors and the designs, they’re a little bit more open minded. A lot of times, we come in with the notions about what Africa and African and even African American mean, but I think that there’s versatility in that and in my jewelry. Even though my work may come up as something different, I think after a while they can embrace it and see the beauty in it.
Who do you think is your main customer? Who are your products intended for?
My primary customers are young African Americans, young adults between the ages of 20 and 35, those who are really into Afrocentric items and African culture. That could be white or Black people. I had an event a Johns Hopkins University, which is primarily a white school, and I sold a good amount of items. But also around that same time, I went to another event in Philadelphia which was geared towards young African American women, and for that event I actually didn’t sell well at all. So I think it just depends on what the people are into.
How are people receiving these products?
People are buying. I think because of the versatility that my work brings, some people that have never experienced or encountered work like mine before have a bit of a mixed feeling about it. They’re like, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this!” Some people will say that and walk away, but others will say it and go ahead and buy it.
As I know, businesses like yours usually start with the help of friends and loved ones who love what you create and would like to wear them and use them. How has support been from your family and friends and how has that helped you?
I think I wouldn’t have a business if it wasn’t for the support of my friends and family. They’ve been pretty much the bedrock to help me get it started. I’m not one of those people that dreamed about starting a business when they were young, I didn’t go to school for that, it was never something that really crossed my radar, but I had a vision and so I ran with it. And what I appreciate about my friends and family is that they ran with me. They’ve been gracious to help me educate myself, and they come out and support different events that I have. I have a friend who’s been with me since high school, and she’s a wonderful person. I remember the first couple of shows I had, I had to make a certain amount of jewelries. It was a good amount, I had waited till the last minute and she literally stayed at my house for three days straight to make sure that I had everything and went to the place with me. You can’t really put a price on stuff like that, but without her I wouldn’t have got anything done. For me, support is everything.
We understand that every business has a main message that the founder or the creator wants to share with people. What do you think is the message in your art?
The tagline of my whole business is ‘Ecofriendly, motherland inspired.’ And so I think that in itself, is just like me saying, “Everyone stand out and stand boldly!” Because the colors that I use are very bold, and a lot of my earrings are really big, I think the message that I’m sending is “Stand out and be proud about it!”
What plans do you have for developing your business? Do you plan to expand and to hire several Black women who can help you in creating more beautiful products?
I definitely want to expand the business and then from the profits and the different revenues, make it so that I’m able to give back to different communities, in particular the African community in Ghana, and then also give back to young men and women in terms of education. Entrepreneurial education is very important to me, so I just want to expand it for the purpose of being able to give everything that I’ve learned and acquired from it to other people. I would love to see a lot of my work become more mainstream and have celebrities wear them. I just want to make a statement about African culture, standing out, being bold and then giving back.
What special message do you have for our readers ahead of the Christmas holidays?
I would just say, enjoy your family, enjoy your loved ones and pursue your visions and your dreams because they’re there for a purpose. Even if you don’t have experience in it, don’t let that hinder you because you have no idea how it can work out. Just try.