Carla Harris: Hello. Hello. How are you? How are you?
Angel Gregorio: Good.
Carla Harris: Good to see you.
Angel Gregorio: Same.
Carla Harris: Wow.
Angel Gregorio: Welcome.
Carla Harris: Wow.
Carla Harris: On a crisp winter day in January, I spent the afternoon with D.C. native Angel Gregorio at her new Spice Suite in Northeast. Upon walking into the shop, I am immediately captivated by the matte black walls displaying an eclectic assortment of colorful seasonings, syrups, and sauces. To my right is a cozy lounge area surrounded by lush potted plants. To my left is the check-out counter behind which is signage that reads "Food is Fashion".
Angel Gregorio: So this is The Spice Suite. So this is our newest space, and it is literally everything you need to make food fun, sexy, flavorful. [laughs]
Carla Harris: I love it. I love it. Oh, wow. Where do I start?
Angel Gregorio: Literally anywhere.
Carla Harris: For this special two-part "Black Women Entrepreneurship" series, I had the pleasure of taking Access and Opportunity on the road to highlight the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs in the U.S.: Black women. According to a 2021 report in the Harvard Business Review, compared to 10% of white women and 15% of white men, 17% of Black women are in the process of starting or running new businesses. I headed to Washington D.C. –recently named the best city for Black entrepreneurs to start a business– to see this group of entrepreneurs in action and to hear from women driving this Black business boom by putting community at the center.
Melissa Bradley: Part of entrepreneurship for Black people is that we come from a culture and a race of people who care about community. We are constantly thinking about how do we help all of us, not just how do I help myself?
Carla Harris: This is Melissa Bradley, founder and managing partner of a national business development nonprofit accelerator and venture capital fund for historically overlooked founders. In part two, you'll hear more from Melissa about the cultural and business forces behind the rise of Black entrepreneurship and the marketplace changes needed to further empower its growth. But first, entrepreneur Angel Gregorio shares her journey of founding The Spice Suite and building a community of Black women small business owners who support each other's unique entrepreneurial journey.
Angel Gregorio: I want as many Black women to join me on this journey as possible because I think there are too many myths around there not being enough support in our community or we don't support our own. And I wanna dispel that because for the past seven and a half years that The Spice Suite has been in existence, it has been largely people who look like me who have kept my doors open.
Carla Harris: Welcome to Access and Opportunity. I'm your host Carla Harris, and we're telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Carla Harris: On one fateful day in 2015, former assistant school principal Angel Gregorio took the leap into business ownership by opening a spice shop. Angel didn't grow up dreaming about opening a store one day, but a spice shop seemed to make the most sense when thinking about her love of travel and expression. Today, The Spice Suite pulls in seven-figure revenues and is a small business incubator, due in no small part to Angel's infectious personality, passion for uplifting others and penchant for taking risks.
I sat down with Angel to hear about her motivations to pursue business ownership, to learn how she created the SpiceGirlin' collective, and to discuss what progress looks like for the community that she's built here in D.C.
Carla Harris: Angel, let's start with you telling me about opening the spice shop. You're in education one day and you're an entrepreneur the next day.
Angel Gregorio: Wild, right? [laughs] It's mind blowing to me, even when I think about it, that this is my life. So I literally was walking down the street, saw this “For Lease” sign in a building, and I never paid attention to it before, but for some reason something nagged at me to call this number on this “For Lease” sign. So I called the number and the landlord wanted to know what I wanted to do with the building. I just wanted to know the price out of sheer curiosity. And so I thought it was like an apartment. If you call, they tell you the price, they tell you when the move-in date is. I had no idea, right? Just complete amateur. And when he kept asking me what I wanted to do with this space, I almost got annoyed. And I was like, “Sir, I don't know.” And he said, “Well, we're looking to make a decision on Thursday.” And I was like, “I wanna open a spice shop. Can you just tell me the price?” And I literally hung up the phone and was like, Yo, I'm opening a spice shop. And three and a half weeks later I opened. Two months later, I quit my job as an assistant principal. That was almost eight years ago.
Carla Harris: Wow. Wow. What were those early days like? How were you navigating that?
Angel Gregorio: I don't know. [laughs] It was crazy. It was just crazy. So at some point I was doing both, right? So I was only open in the evenings and on weekends. So I would leave my job as an assistant principal, go uptown to The Spice Suite and open the shop, and then on weekends I'd be open. Crazy, outta my mind tired, right? And then at some point I left my job as an assistant principal and I changed my store hours to only be open during the school day, because I had children. Still crazy. Then at some point I realized that I need help. Like, I can't do this by myself, and I also don't have the revenue to be able to hire folks, so I need to get really creative. And so we had been doing these pop-up shops at The Spice Suite where I would allow Black business owners to pop up, sell their products for free, share space with me. And so now I have this group of women called Spice Girls, and the Spice Girls run the shop for me when I'm not in the shop.
Carla Harris: How did you get the initial capital to start the business?
Angel Gregorio: It was initially just what was in my savings account, right? And my goals were very small in the beginning. At first it was just like, Okay, I just wanna pay the rent and not have to come out of pocket. If the revenue from the store can pay the rent, then I'm good. And we were there. And then I started to grow a little bit, and it was like, Okay, if I can replace my assistant principal's salary with The Spice Suite, then I'm good. And then The Spice Suite started to grow and grow and I started to consistently reinvest the revenue from the store back into the business. So that meant new bottles, new labels, you know, traveling for my spices now and not just getting them domestically. And so it's just really been consistently this like cycle of making money and using that money to make more money.
Carla Harris: Wow. And so what was the community's initial reaction to The Spice Suite?
Angel Gregorio: So it was mixed, right? Like there are some people who were just like, “What's a spice shop? I didn't grow up going to spice shops. Like, why would I come to a store for a spice shop?” And then there were other people who were just like excited. Right? Like, this is something new. This is different. There's some folks who are just taking a chance on it because they wanna support a small business, or they wanna support a Black woman-owned business. And then they fall in love with the spices or the honeys or the syrups and all the fun things that we sell.
Carla Harris: Oh wow. That's amazing.
Carla Harris:The Spice Suite as well as a place to nurture the local community with things like Black-forward farmers' markets, free business classes, and affordable retail space for rent.
Carla Harris: The Spice Suite was buzzing with customers the day I visited Black and Forth. From loyal patrons to first time shoppers.
Customer 2: It's probably been about like six-ish years, seven-ish years since I've known about them. I'm not a local, I'm a DC transplant, and so I think just being able to find niches of community is really important. Every time I come here, it feels welcoming. Dope music. Dope vibes. And now I get to try to experiment and make dope food, so it kind of gives me everything all in one place.
Customer 1: I've been coming to The Spice Suite for about three to four years. It's just really encouraging to see how she really pushes, you know, women of color to really become entrepreneurs. And just to be in this space and seeing how there's so much growth is definitely something that's admirable, right? And it's kind of like, I just wanna come down and see it and be in it, and then I'll purchase some things too.
Customer 3: This is my first time. And I'm from Northeast, so I think it's great that this business is here. It can be uplifting. We need to have more Black businesses, particularly as the city is getting more difficult for people to even live in and own businesses. Black businesses are being displaced through gentrification, so it's really important.
Carla Harris: So let's take a moment to look at the entrepreneurial landscape more broadly. About the time that you were opening The Spice Suite, Black women in the U.S. were starting businesses at a rate of six times the national average. Were you aware of this rising tide of Black female founders that you were joining?
Angel Gregorio: No. Wow. But that feels good to know.
Carla Harris: Now why do you think Black women are flocking to start new businesses?
Angel Gregorio: Yeah, so I think that Black women are wanting to start businesses more because we have so many ideas that we often have to give to someone else and allow them to execute. And I think now is the time when we feel like, You know what? I got it. I can do it. Like I feel confident enough that I can execute this on my own. Like we've been the assistants to CEOs, we've been the brain children behind so many amazing ideas for so long. And I think now there's this collective confidence and this collective sense that my community is gonna support me. Right? Like, there's a lot of support being given to small businesses, to Black women-owned businesses, and so I think Black women are feeling a little bit more secure in their decision to do that.
Carla Harris: And can you share your motivations to just take the leap?
Angel Gregorio: This was the most serendipitous thing I've ever done. Like, I literally just jumped off a cliff into some spices, into some sumac, and I didn't know what I was doing. And for me, my life is really less about control and more about taking chances and risks. Like, I don't have goals for my business. And I know that sounds crazy to people, right? Like to not have a plan for this. But my goal is simply to guide my business along a path and make sure that the business doesn't go in the red. My goal is not to say, “This is what The Spice Suite is gonna be in five years.” Because had I come into this business with that mindset, I'm not sure we'd be here. I would not have purchased a commercial space and had Black and F set out with this very specific vision in mind, because I have blown my own mind with what I've done.
Carla Harris: Yes. Well, I have to tell you, Angel, this is something that we need to unpack a little bit more and put a playbook out there. Because the conventional wisdom is that if you are going to raise money, especially external money and particularly venture capital money to start your business, then you need to have a plan. You need to be able to articulate where you are going. So this philosophy that you know that you're doing something that you're passionate about, but more importantly, you were willing to learn. You are curious. You were willing to reach out for the help, but without the goal of anything other than being successful today and being successful in a month. But not having a goal of where you were gonna go for the next five years. I think that's important to say because so many people are discouraged from starting their business because they don't have the grand plan. And you're proving that it can be done by having the mentality of curiosity and just guiding.
Angel Gregorio: I think what I also add to that is even though I don't know exactly where I want The Spice Suite to go in five years, I know where we won't go. Like I have boundaries in business. They're things that I won't do. Because if I listen to people or if I didn’t have any real idea of what I wanted for my life and for my business, I'd be trying to open up Spice Suites all over the country. Right? But I know that that's not what I want. So I do know that. So I think that you don't have to know exactly where you will go. You don't have to have a specific destination for your business, but you do need to know that there are certain places that are off limits. Or you open yourself up to just, you know, being everywhere and trying to be everything to everybody in business in the same way that we do in real life.
Carla Harris: That's exactly right, and you bring up a very good point because it's a mistake that I've seen early stage entrepreneurs make over and over again. They get what I like to call “distracted by success” because once you get some visibility and you are successful in one lane, your audience, your investors, your consumers try to pull you into another direction. And sometimes that's not the right call at that time. You know, one of the things that I've learned after a long time on Wall Street is just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
Angel Gregorio: Mm, that part.
Carla Harris: Yeah. [laughs] Got it. I got it. All right, so let's talk about community. One of the things my friend Melissa Bradley loves to say is that entrepreneurship is a team sport. So who are the Spice Girls? You had a lot of entrepreneurs come through your space, but you chose these women to be Spice Girls. So who are they and why them?
Angel Gregorio: Man, the Spice Girls. I literally smile when I think about them because of the amount of gratitude I have for the selflessness and the ways in which they've shown up to support my business. So in essence, the Spice Girls are this collective of Black women business owners who are crazy enough to decide that not only are they gonna run their business, but they're gonna help me run my business. Which is– who does that, right? It started out with just me opening my space to pop-up shops to allow them to sell their products for free. And so initially we did that, and then there were a few business owners who would say like, “Hey, my pop-up went really well. Can I pop up again?” And then they wanna come back over and over again. And at some point I'm like, “You know what? Do you mind being here? Because I have to go to a hockey game for my son, so if you can run the shop for me…” You know, I feel like we trust people anyway, right? Like there would be no difference if I decided to hire someone after those initial exchanges. And so I created this collective of women who run the shop for me and sell their products while they're selling my products at The Spice Suite. And so I have about 17 Spice Girls right now. And they have a collective of products that are handmade or uniquely sourced. So everything from vintage clothing to beard products and bracelets and jewelry, like all sorts of things. If you can think of it, the Spice Girls probably make it.
Carla Harris: Wow, that is outstanding. And can you briefly describe some of the different paths of entrepreneurship that are reflected among this group of 17 women?
Angel Gregorio: Yeah. So the Spice Girls, they represent the microcosm of entrepreneurship. So there are Spice Girls who work for the government full-time, and they distress clothing part-time. Or they are full-time entrepreneurs. Some of them only pop up at The Spice Suite. Some of them travel and pop up at different places throughout the country. So there's literally a range of entrepreneurial experiences among the Spice Girl group.
Sam Smith: I'm Sam Smith. I am the creator of New Vintage by Sam where we have established the Healing Hardware collection, which is essentially helping folks to be more mindful about how we adorn our bodies because the world is crazy, but we can make ourselves the sanctuary. And self-care and self-preservation is key.
Carla Harris: Sam is one of the handful of women whom Angel calls a Spice Girl. Two days before her wedding in 2014, Sam quit her corporate job to pursue a full-time entrepreneurial career running a handmade jewelry business.
Sam Smith: And it's totally different from having a full-time job and then your business is your side gig. It's like, “Nope.” I decided to go full in and figure it out for myself.
Carla Harris: To build momentum for her business, Sam spent years popping up in various places across the DMV selling her wares and getting her name out there. When a friend told Sam that Angel had put out a call for Spice Girls, Sam answered.
Sam Smith: I had no clue what to expect. I just saw this amazing Black woman in D.C. She was funky, she had great frames like me, so I was like, “Okay, so we gotta see what this is all about.”
Carla Harris: Sam officially became a member of the SpiceGirlin' tribe in 2017 and has used Angel's example to establish the version of entrepreneurship that works best for her.
Sam Smith: Her approach to business was just very confident. And while she may not have had it figured out, she always said, “Start now and perfect later.” So a lot of the things in coming into The Spice Suite, it was helping me to kind of like break the ceiling on myself and my own consciousness and my own limitations. Angel really opened my eyes to knowing that you can truly have it all. You can have family, you can have a thriving business, you can have an amazing sisterhood, and then continue to grow with those women by your side.
Tiaa Rutherford: I am the full-time employee who's also a full-time entrepreneur. And so if I can give eight, nine, 10 hours to an employer, I'm absolutely gonna give my business eight, nine, 10 hours. So I'm double timing.
Carla Harris: This is Spice Girl Tiaa Rutherford. Tiaa is an environmental planner for Prince George's County, and she is the owner, maker, developer for TeTe's Butter Company, a plant-based beauty product line for the entire family.
Tiaa Rutherford: I'm very passionate about what I do for a living, but I'm also very passionate about what I do for TeTe's. I work from home and when the day is done, I'll close that computer and go out to walk across my backyard to my workspace for TeTe's and be there all night sometimes, getting prepared for those pop-up opportunities.
Carla Harris: It's not lost on Tiaa that through SpiceGirlin' she is able to chart a unique path forward for her business. And her favorite part is that she gets to do it with other Black women founders beside her.
Tiaa Rutherford: I get to learn from beautiful, intelligent women from all walks of life. We're all doing such beautiful, great things with our business in different arenas. Angel is an awesome role model. We've learned together. We've grown together. And it's just those kinds of opportunities that makes you better, makes you think outside of the box as to what's next for your business, what's next for your brand, how are you gonna grow this year? It's just kind of, you know, the ripple, the rub off. And it's been awesome.
Carla Harris: So since opening The Spice Suite in 2015, you've managed to hit seven figure revenues organically. First, I want to congratulate you on a truly incredible achievement, and not only that you did it, but how you did it. Why was it important for you to reach this milestone in your own way?
Angel Gregorio: I have been approached by big box stores over the years to come into their stores and one, I wasn't ready to scale. I didn't have the right co-packers. I didn't have enough revenue. I wasn't ready to do it, and I didn't wanna take out loans. But I also just really wanted to be able to celebrate this milestone with my community. Like I wanted the community to know that we got here, like we did it, we can do it. So that other small business owners know that they can do it. Right? And you don't have to sign on with another brand or another store or sell to someone else before you can acquire the success. And you don't have to wait until you make it to bring other people along the journey, right? I feel like so often we think that we have to get a seat at the table and then we can pull out a chair for someone. You might not even make it to the table if you don't bring someone with you because the door is so heavy, it's gonna take several of us to have boots on to kick this door down, right? So it's like I'm trying to kick the door in and I can't kick the door in to get the seat at the table because it's heavy and I'm trying to do it by myself. So I have really tried to personify this African proverb of “Lift as you climb”, right? Because that is how I got here. That's not just the financial part, but even just like getting to a space where my business is what I consider successful. I've gotten here by bringing Spice Girls with me, by inviting other Black people to pop up and share space with me. And I did not know that out of that model of simply sharing space and inviting community into the space that I would create what I now call Black and Fwith Black business owners and particularly Black women.
Carla Harris: Wow. Wow. And let's talk a little bit about Black and Forthyour marketplace.
Angel Gregorio: I purchased this commercial space back in December 2021. It was an old tow truck company, and I knew I wanted the space the day I saw it. Similar to The Spice Suite, I walked into the space, I saw these garage doors, and for some reason I said, “I need it.” And so I transformed the space. Like there's the flagship store, The Spice Suite (so that's what anchors the space), and then I used shipping containers to build out salon spaces. So there are four salon spaces on the property, as well as The Spice Suite. And I use these containers, one because they feel industrial and fun and it's something that D.C. aesthetically has not seen in this way before, so I wanted to do something different. But I also wanted to start a conversation nationally about affordable commercial space. We talk about affordable housing, and we know that that's important, but we don't talk about affordable commercial space. And so this allowed me to put these containers on the property and not spend a ton of money on it and not have to transfer that cost to my tenants. So they're almost like low income units for them to allow them to grow their businesses. Because the goal is that some other Black women come along this journey with me, occupy these containers for a really long time, and grow their businesses in a way that they then can pay it forward to someone else.
Carla Harris: Wow. That's beautiful. And the people who are in the collective and the community, what other resources do they get?
Angel Gregorio: Yep. So the Spice Girls and the tenants have access to The Spice Suite space, which is the largest space on the property, so they can host events there for free. If they wanted to charge folks for a ticketed event, they're welcome to do that. We also have a community business school. So for the past seven years that I've had the Spice Girls, I used to have Black women experts come into my home and teach us everything we wanted to know about business. So marketing, branding, accounting, imagery and photography, all the things that you could imagine, I would have folks come in and teach us. And so now that I have this larger space, I decided to expand that model through a nonprofit that I have, Dream Incubator, to have a community business school. So now we will host that at The Spice Suite, where the tenants, the community, any Black business owner or aspiring Black business owner can participate in these classes completely free of charge. And they'll be hosted by experts.
Carla Harris: Oh, wow. That is amazing, Angel. Wow. And what is really exciting me about this conversation, it's replicable.
Angel Gregorio: Absolutely.
Carla Harris: Because anybody that has a vision and that can take a page out of your playbook, call you up, ask you how you did it, how did you get this commercial space? Anybody can do that.
Angel Gregorio: And that's the hope, right? Like I talk about my business model all the time because I want people to replicate it. I want there to be multiple versions of this throughout the country. As long as they don't call it ause I own that.
Carla Harris: [laughs] Well, you’ve trademarked it–
Angel Gregorio: [laughs] They could do it, right?
Carla Harris: So they got to pay you to come by here.
Angel Gregorio: But they gonna have to pay me for that. But I absolutely welcome the idea of there being multiple versions of this throughout the country. Like, I don't wanna hoard this. I don't wanna be the only one. Right? Like being the first one in my city feels really good, but to be among a collective, among a group of women who do this, or men who do this, will be even better.
Carla Harris: I hear that. What are some of the key lessons you have for our listeners who are looking to start their own businesses?
Angel Gregorio: My advice is always: start now, perfect later. Right? Like just start. Start with what you have and you can always perfect things. You can always change things. I've had six different spice bottles, maybe nine different labels. I've had three different websites. I've had multiple versions of everything that you see now. And what I have now, I feel really good about. I feel really proud of, you know, the physical space that I have, my branding, my marketing, like where my businesses has come. But it wasn't always that way. And if I had waited until I could afford the designer to do my website or the graphics person to, you know, work on my labels or the money to buy the commercial space, I would've never gotten here. So start now, perfect later, and always reinvest in your business.
Carla Harris: Oh wow. Those are great playbook points. So what's next for The Spice Suite?
Angel Gregorio: In terms of where The Spice Suite grows, I don't know. Like, I'm here for the ride. Like, I'm just as surprised as my followers are when we do something cool. Like, I'm like, “Ooh, wow. What did we do? Like we have a space? I own it? That's mine?” Like, I’m excited too. So I'm just here. I'm just here.
Carla Harris: I hear that. Loud and clear. Well, Angel Gregorio, thank you very much for being on Access and Opportunity.
Angel Gregorio: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
Carla Harris: I want to thank Angel Gregorio and her Spice Girls Sam Smith and Tiaa Rutherford for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity.
Feeling inspired by the stories you just heard? Tune into the second installment of our "Black Women Entrepreneurship" series, available now wherever you find podcasts. We broaden the lens to discuss what it looks like to create an entire business ecosystem where Black women founders can thrive.
What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systemic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.