A customer talks with an entrepreneur at a Mary B. Poppin pop-up shop. Courtesy: Cathy Harris

Berkeley resident Ghanya Thomas started her business because of one of her life’s simple pleasures — her love of the embracing scent and feeling of lighting candles.

“I love candles and am always purchasing candles and have candles going in my home when I am getting ready so I can create a calm environment in my home,” she said.

The Mary B. Poppin pop-up shop featuring 16 vendors will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14, at 2037 Fourth Street, in Berkeley.

So, in 2019, she started doing the legwork to launch her business, West Street Candle Company, which included more than a handful of tasks like researching suppliers, networking with other entrepreneurs, creating budgets and getting down to brass tacks making lovely scents for her soy wax candles like Juicy Peach and White Tea & Ginger.

Thomas will be one of more than a dozen Black entrepreneurs showcasing their work at the Mary B. Poppin pop-up shop Saturday on Fourth Street in Berkeley.

Black women entrepreneurs are one of the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs, according to a recent article in Forbes Magazine. And Saturday’s pop-up event is all about the Black female businesswomen — women who have set off on their own to follow their dreams. Not only will the women at the stalls — chefs, hair experts, vintage clothing dealers, a custom Crocs artist — be women of color, but the person behind the pop-up event organization Mary B. Poppin, Cathy Harris, is also a female Black entrepreneur.

“Mary B. Poppin is a business born out of a desire to create opportunities for women to showcase their brains and their brands,” Harris said. Although anyone is welcome to vend with Mary B. Poppin pop-up markets, her current demographic is women of color which bring a special kind of feeling to the shopping experience.

Courtesy: Cathy Harris

“For me it’s community. We feel safe, we are supporting each other economically, we’re keeping the dollar in the community,” Harris said. “You don’t have to go to Walmart and Target. Let’s shop amongst our own, let’s change the narrative. We’re just a small pebble in this big pool. We’re all in it together.”

Pop-up shops hosted by Harris’ Mary B. Poppin brand are temporary, usually one-day events like a street fair that acts as a temporary store for local craftspeople and artisans. Harris started the Mary B. Poppin business in 2019 after a business mentor suggested she follow her dreams and create opportunities for other business owners. 

“I knew I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what,” Harris said. “Her giving me permission to just start and see what happens …that’s what happened. Mary B. Poppin was formed.”

Harris not only offers space through Mary B. Poppin, but showers her vendors with encouragement and gives them tips on the best way to sell their work at such a venue, like practicing their “elevator pitch.” She sees the Mary B. Poppin name as a character of sorts, one that is community-minded, strong-willed, and inspiring.

“She’s symbolic of a woman who is just going for her true north. She’s putting herself first, unapologetically, to move her life, to do better, level up in every sense personally, professionally and going after her dreams,” Harris said. “She’s a badass.”

The company’s first pop-up shop was in Vallejo in June and Saturday in Berkeley will be the third venture. 

Like Harris, candlemaker Thomas has had leadership in her entrepreneurial life as well, connecting with Nikki Porcher of the national nonprofit organization Buy From A Black Woman. Porcher is based out of Atlanta, Georgia, and travels extensively to events that promote Black women entrepreneurs. The organization buys billboards promoting Black women-owned businesses and puts the needs of entrepreneurial people of color on the front burner of discussion.

“Our motto is when you support a black woman, you’re supporting the community, not just the Black woman,” Porcher said. “You’re supporting what she believes, what she supports, what she pours her resources and talents in.”

Buy From a Black Woman lists 617 Black woman-owned businesses in their directory, with businesses ranging from resume writing to fine arts. Buy From A Black Woman members are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and high school dropouts, they are college graduates and grandmothers — all following their dreams.

“We support people in the idea stage,” Porcher said. “We also support people who are not Black women. They download our worksheets and listen to our webcasts, which is exciting.”

Cathy Harris is the owner of Mary B. Poppin pop-up shop. Courtesy: Cathy Harris

Thomas has taken full advantage of everything Buy From A Black Woman has to offer, as well as tools to start a business from other sources. She’s learned from attorneys about trademarking her products and designs, and from public relations professionals on how to market her candles.

“Buy From A Black Woman is a great resource for me because they do a lot of motivational videos and videos featuring other Black woman entrepreneurs,” Thomas said. “I am just amazed at what we are all doing. It’s really inspiring.”

Thomas hopes to keep growing and growing. Her Esty shop (named West Street Candle Shop) has a four-star rating, though she has yet to attract a tidal wave of customers.

And she keeps plugging along, growing.

“Flames represent home,” Thomas said, adding that her grandfather owned a home and business on West Street in Oakland, where she also grew up. “That’s why people say, ‘I am going to leave the light on for you,’ the candle represents home. That’s how you know that you are home.”

She also points to the innovation and transformation west has always symbolized, another motivation behind her business name.

“Candles can get you into a space of creativity, that’s another of their connections to the west,” she said. 

Laura Casey

Laura Casey is a freelance writer covering Berkeley and the East Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has written for a number of local publications. She is also a full-time investigator at an East Bay law...