Entrepreneur Teri Johnson first discovered her passion for Black history and culture while on a college internship in Paris in the 1990s. She immersed herself in tours of “Black Paris,” learning about African American artists like Josephine Baker who found greater freedom and opportunity there.
When Johnson moved to Harlem in 2000, she was excited to recognize those same iconic names from the neighborhood’s rich cultural heritage. As Harlem experienced an economic revival, Johnson contemplated how to participate.
Turning a Hobby into a Business Celebrating Harlem
In 2014, after making scented candles as holiday gifts for years, Johnson had a business idea. She realized she could create a luxury brand that honored the history of the Harlem Renaissance.
“I was encouraged by friends and family who had received my candles,” Johnson told Inc.com. “My goal became to put Harlem on the map with a beautiful, fragrance.”
In December 2015, Johnson launched the Harlem Candle Company. Each candle pays tribute to a legendary Harlem figure like Duke Ellington through custom fragrances and packaging details.
Funding the Business with Money Saved for Her Wedding
Most new entrepreneurs turn to family and friends for startup funding. Johnson convinced her parents to redirect $50,000 they had saved for her wedding to invest in her business instead.
“I told my parents that I wasn’t getting married and that they should give that money for my business,” said Johnson. The initial capital enabled her to buy necessary inventory in those critical early days.
Researching Iconic Figures to Develop Distinctive Candle Scents
Johnson conducts in-depth research to design fragrances that capture the essence of each inspiration. For example, she learned Josephine Baker received roses from admirers. So Johnson’s candle features Baker’s preferred notes of rose and jasmine.
Every Harlem Candle box shares details on the founder’s creative vision and scent development process. Since launching with 25 initial scents, the product line has grown to encompass over 134 different luxury candles.
Rapid Business Growth In Just a Few Years
In just a matter of years after getting started in 2015, Harlem Candle Company is now a multi-million dollar brand generating over $2 million in annual sales.
The popular candles are sold online and in over 134 stores, including luxury retailers like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. The company also has corporate gifting clients such as JP Morgan, Google and Meta that order candles in bulk.
Beyond candles, Johnson plans future expansions like journals, collaborations with estates of Black icons, and more. She credits Harlem itself as the foundation of the brand’s identity and growing fanbase.
Leading a New Generation of Harlem Entrepreneurs
As a member of a new generation of founders, Johnson feels she’s part of Harlem’s re-emerging creative class.
“We are the visionaries and the artists. We are the changemakers,” she says. “With me being a Black woman, having a business based here, and celebrating Black culture…I felt a very strong responsibility to be a part of it.”
Her success revitalizing interest around Harlem’s rich history shows that embracing your local community can be the best business strategy of all. Johnson transformed a hobby into an inspiring mission that does $2 million per year in sales – proving that passion and dedication can make entrepreneurial dreams come true.