Jackson Ward Collective serves Richmond’s Black entrepreneurs, partners with VCU students

The Jackson Ward Collective, a hub for Black-owned businesses in Richmond, was founded by three Black female entrepreneurs. From left to right: Kelli Lemon, Rasheeda Creighton and Melody Short. Photo courtesy of Courtney Jones

Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer

On a day in the 1940s, Richmonders could take a stroll in the historic Jackson Ward neighborhood and find it lined with thriving Black-owned banks, theaters and clubs — until a plan to revitalize the city in the mid-1950s displaced the African American community. 

Now, three Black female entrepreneurs are working to reclaim wealth for Richmond’s Black community through the Jackson Ward Collective, a hub designed to foster connections among Black business owners and provide supporting resources.

“The support for entrepreneurs in the city is great, but we don’t see Black faces in those spaces,” said Rasheeda Creighton, the collective’s co-founder. “The access for the Black community is not as great as the support that is out there, so we really needed something specific for us.”

The Jackson Ward Collective was launched by Creighton, Melody Short and Kelli Lemon in September 2020. Creighton owns The 3Fifty Group, a small business consulting firm, and Killing Superwoman, an online community for Black women. Short is the co-founder of the Richmond Night Market, and Kelli Lemon, a VCU alumna, owns the local coffee shop Urban Hang Suite.

Businesses currently involved in the Jackson Ward Collective represent a variety of industries such as food and beverage, health and wellness, retail, and real estate. Membership is open to businesses at any stage of development, Creighton said.

The three women were first inspired to start the collective in 2019, when they each realized a need for more Black business support in Richmond. They came together at the start of 2020 to outline the plan for what is now the Jackson Ward Collective.

The process to start the collective was accelerated this past summer, Creighton said. Racial justice protests sparked nationwide after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.

“We were being contacted by our networks of corporations [and] individuals who wanted to support Black businesses,” Creighton said. “While we have vast networks, we realized there were people being left out of the conversations; not intentionally, but because they weren’t plugged in.”

The group’s name pays homage to Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, once known as “The Birthplace of Black Capitalism” and “Black Wall Street.” 

“I just loved the idea of bringing back Black Wall Street and being able to connect with other Black entrepreneurs. I love that as a Black-owned business I can support other Black-owned businesses.” — Fatima Smith, Jackson Ward Collective member

The construction of Interstate 95 in the ’50s cut through and effectively destroyed the neighborhood and its center of Black wealth. The north side of Jackson Ward, now largely isolated from the rest of the city, has undergone years of redlining, gentrification and improper infrastructure, resulting in economic distress and the displacement of African American communities, according to a December article from Dogwood, a Virginia news outlet.

“Jackson Ward, and many if not all of the other Black Wall Streets, were destroyed by systemic racism,” Creighton said. “We chose the name the Jackson Ward Collective to really pay homage to Jackson Ward — what [it] was —  but what we also believe is the beginning of a resurgence of the reestablishment of Black Wall Streets.”

Jackson Ward Collective extended its network to VCU students this year through a partnership with Activation Capital — a nonprofit organization that helps new entrepreneurs with their ideas — and the university’s da Vinci Center for Innovation. The program, titled the Entrepreneurship Academy, promotes economic development and extends opportunities for entrepreneurship skills to underrepresented students.

“We’re really excited about this opportunity,” Creighton said of the partnership. “It’s a great opportunity, most importantly, for our members to get some additional certifications.” 

The Entrepreneurship Academy was launched last month and allows students and community members to participate in online modules to build digital and business skills. It was made possible through a $50,000 grant from the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities. 

According to Lloyd Young, a spokesperson for the VCU da Vinci Center, the goal of the program is to blend classrooms where students and community members can come together while providing 21st century skills to first-generation, low-income and minority students. 

The da Vinci Center at VCU partnered with the Jackson Ward Collective to provide entrepreneurial resources to underrepresented students. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Young said Activation Capital and Jackson Ward Collective will select at least 150 students and 50 community partners. The students will complete a series of four online, asynchronous modules with topics such as digital literacy and the art of the pitch. 

Participants can earn certifications after each module is completed. Creighton said these can be costly to obtain without the aid of the academy, which is free for VCU students. 

“These modules are a reflection of what the da Vinci Center offers in our programming,” Young said. “The opportunity to be able to do something completely virtually and asynchronous will be a great model to be able to offer to both students and community.”

Students and community members can sign up to participate in the academy by filling out an interest form on the da Vinci Center website.

Leonda Jiggetts, a member of the collective, owns a made-to-order bakery called The Sweetest Thing. She said the ability to build community is one of the best parts of being involved with the collective.

“In addition to the knowledge you gain, it’s a great way to network and grow and work alongside people that know what they’re doing,” Jiggetts said. “Having the Zoom calls and conversations that we do, it introduces you to other entrepreneurs and up-and-coming businesses in the area.”

VCU alumna and former VCU employee Fatima Smith has three ventures enrolled in the Jackson Ward Collective — apparel company Color & Culture, consulting group FMS Speaks and nonprofit Collective 365, which aims to invest in communities of color.

Smith and Jiggetts said benefits of membership include access to regular check-ins, workshops, mentorship programs and connections with supporting resources such as attorneys and marketing firms. Smith said she signed up the day membership opened.

“I just loved the idea of bringing back Black Wall Street and being able to connect with other Black entrepreneurs,” Smith said. “I love that as a Black-owned business I can support other Black-owned businesses, so that was an important mission to me.”

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