Avery Johnson wanted to work in the food industry, but he was too young to get a job. So he went into business for himself. “As far back as I can remember, the thing I have always been most passionate about was cooking,” says Johnson. “When I wasn’t old enough to get a job and wanted to make some money, I started cooking and selling plates.” Now 16 and a junior at DeLaSalle Education Center, Johnson has capitalized on his culinary skills by creating Dahmillon LLC, getting a jump-start on his dreams.
But like many starting out, Johnson struggled to find outlets to showcase and sell his delectable food. When he heard of the Young, Gifted and Black youth vendor event, he knew it was a perfect opportunity to get his mouth-watering plates in front of new customers, gain some valuable experience and meet fellow young entrepreneurs. He has dedicated himself to perfecting his soul food menu, and on a recent Saturday, he gave away samples of his Buffalo chicken mac and cheese, as well as cornbread. His customers were pleased. This second annual event, held at DeLaSalle, has become a much needed practice ground for young entrepreneurs to hone their craft in businesses and get used to working with crowds early on in their career. It is the the creation of The Village KC nonprofit.
“Just seeing how through the generations having those people who are connected to your life, it really helps to shape who you become,” says Di’Anna Stafford, who founded The Village KC in 2020. She chose the name from the old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. Stafford set out to create that support system for youth who may lack the same strong foundations she received from her family. “The Village KC started out as an idea and a vision for our community’s youth to have access to different types of programming and opportunities that would help to shape what their future looks like. There is a lack of access for Black youth to certain programs, so I wanted to create a safe space for exploration,” she says.
The organization also offers an art program that teaches painting and selling artwork, athletic programs to promote healthy living, hair and nail technical courses and photography classes. At the organization’s quarterly Black-owned vendor events, Stafford began to see more youth with booths. So she decided to create the Young, Gifted and Black vendor event.
One such youth entrepreneur she began to see at vendor events was 11-year-old Laliah McKinley-Smith, who attended with her mother. Three years ago, Laliah created Lai’s Lip Drip, which started out as a lip gloss line that has now grown into customized kid drinks. She targeted the demographic of children like herself. With her eye-catching colorful drinks decorated with fruit and candy inside, Laliah was happy to stand alongside her fellow young business owners. “It is really fun, actually, seeing other young people and being able to interact with my community,” she says. “It was fun and inspiring that other people are able to do the same things I do.”
Jorge Fuller always supports the Village KC and other Black-owned vendor events, but this was his first time attending one dedicated to young Black moguls. “Whenever I am at a vendor event I make sure to spend my money with the youth entrepreneurs when I see them,” says Fuller. “I feel hopeful seeing it. I hope that they will continue in their industries and continue being excited about business.” Fuller was impressed by the kids’ professionalism, some with their own logos, business cards and social media pages. The 34-year-old Kansas City native founded Fuller for the People LLC, which assists in professional development and business education.
“Entrepreneurship doesn’t have an age limit on it. Starting off young helps them to build the product, learn how to present it and the stamina it takes to run a business,” he says.
Participants like Zoé Gray found interactions with customers like Fuller a valuable learning experience. The 13-year-old created Zoe’s Pomades and Potions after receiving a lip balm kit as a gift. She experimented with various scents, and began researching how to make her own balms and lotions. “It felt really good. It felt like my business was being recognized, and it was very inspiring to me to see a lot of different young Black businesses,” says Zoé. “You have people asking you questions, and it lets you get a lot of feedback.” With the success of the event two years in a row, Stafford plans to continue the emphasis on youth entrepreneurship, hoping to start a course teaching the ins and outs of building a company and brand.
“The very best part of the event for me is seeing the looks on their faces when people come to their table and they are able to share about their goods, products or services,” says Stafford. “The consumers support them not only financially but also give them words of encouragement they need to believe they can be a business owner.” Avery Johnson hopes to one day go to culinary school and expand his catering business. He is always on the lookout for catering opportunities, such as local podcasts and family events. He even received permission to sell his food at school. And he is saving his funds to buy a food truck. He hopes other organizations will be inspired to create showcases like the Young, Gifted and Black event to give young entrepreneurs a chance to grow.
“This is my passion and I like doing it, so even when it is hard I don’t think of it as hard work because it’s what I love doing,” he says. “But the hardest part is finding new and returning customers. The biggest thing is support.”