A platform for Black-owned goods

After founding support networks, Jessica Winnie now is showcasing products in MN Black Box.

Jessica Winnie with items she distributes through MN Black Box.
Jessica Winnie with items she distributes through MN Black Box.

— Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Jessica Winnie, who has been finding ways to help Black businesses for several years, had a new idea in the spring to increase the visibility of Twin Cities small businesses led by people of color.

In time for Mother's Day, she launched MN Black Box, a collection of products made by Black-owned businesses.

After the killing of George Floyd, her work became even more amplified. His death at the hands of police ignited a racial reckoning that renewed discussions on the economic power of the Black community as well as increased consumer interest in "buying Black."

As leaders and activists continue to grapple with a plethora of wide-reaching conversations on race and society in the wake of Floyd's death, Winnie says her business and those she supports also are crucial parts of the movement to better Black lives.

"I think that communities are making choices to say that we want to support Black businesses as part of dismantling systems," said Winnie, also a sixth-grade teacher in the Hopkins area.

MN Black Box offers a diversity of products each month from coffee body scrubs and compression socks to vegan cake pops and books of poetry.

Some of the boxes are themed — one featured local candle makers. The boxes are made in limited numbers and tend to sell out quickly.

Winnie, who is 44 and a mother of six, assembles and delivers the boxes from her Minnetonka home with the help of her children and other family. Sometimes, she includes her own baked goods from her Wonderland Treats business or her poetry in the boxes as well.

Winnie's lists of Black businesses came from her time spent building networks on social media. A couple of years ago, Winnie, who is a Minnesota native, started a Facebook page called Twin Cities Events dedicated to promoting events and activities. Last year, Winnie went a step further when she began a Facebook group called "MN Women BlackOwnedBusiness Network" to help Black woman entrepreneurs connect with each other.

She also met potential vendors at open mic poetry events. Winnie saw that Black business owners could help each other and their own businesses by acting collectively, which is how the idea of MN Black Box was born. Winnie has featured more than 60 local businesses so far.

"The box definitely has given them a platform," she said.

Floyd's death gave Winnie an added push to continue to drive forward with her business.

"I just think that so much work has come out of that atrocity," Winnie said. "There is this call for action now about how we are intentional about how we spend our money."

Following Floyd's death there has been an uptick in interest with consumers wanting to buy items produced by Black makers. Local Black small business owners and others across the country have reported a noticeable uptick in sales in the last few months.

Winnie, a former Avon and Tupperware representative, was familiar with selling products in assortments. She is also no stranger to running a business, having taken inspiration from her grandparents who co-founded the Steeple People Thrift Store in Minneapolis.

In the future, Winnie hopes to offer subscriptions for her boxes. She also would like to one day have a brick-and-mortar boutique for her businesses that can also serve as a collective space for those interested in the arts.

Her health has provided her with some setbacks this year. Winnie has been on leave from teaching since she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in July and has experienced lingering aftereffects from the illness. But she remains encouraged about the future of MN Black Box.

"It has been exciting to see the growth and be able to help other businesses," she said.