Levitea's founder on the challenges of doing business while Black in Wilmington - Technical.ly Delaware

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Jul. 15, 2020 6:41 pm

Levitea’s founder on the challenges of doing business while Black in Wilmington

Tynisha Lomax's six-year-old tea business has been a rollercoaster ride.
Tynisha Lomax, founder of Levitea.

Tynisha Lomax, founder of Levitea.

(Courtesy photo)

There’s one thing Tynisha Lomax hears a lot when people learn that she owns a tea company: “Why did you pick tea?”

In 2014, Lomax opened a brick-and-mortar shop called Levitea on Ninth Street in Wilmington. It was different from other businesses downtown — a tea shop that supported the local arts scene. Lomax, an artist herself, served her own tea blends to residents who were happy to have a unique and eclectic place to hang out.

Getting the location was challenging, and keeping it long-term was even harder. Despite having inherited enough money to secure a loan to open her business, banks were wary of working with her.

“The first hurdle I went through being a minority-owned business was financing,” Lomax said. “I ended up using my own money as a security for a loan with a local bank. And they gave me a really hard time doing that, and then they only gave me a loan for the exact amount of money that I put in as security. There was a huge issue there, and I didn’t know at the time to ask for something different, but they made it seem like they were taking this huge risk even though it was a secured loan. They put me through the wringer.”

Once she had the location, there were landlord issues, even though the shop was popular, and there were times when she felt her business wasn’t welcome.

“One night I had an event and it was all adults there, they were mostly African Americans,” she said. “One of my neighbors who owned buildings across the street came over to me and said, ‘You can’t do this, Tish, the last thing we need is a drive-by.’ I just looked at him and I could feel the anger rising inside me. You can’t just come over here and say that. These people were not ‘thugs,’ but that was the perception.”

Eventually, due to issues with the landlord, she ended up closing the shop in 2016.

“I thought I was going to reopen quickly,” she said. “It didn’t work out that way.”

That year, she was approached by a now-defunct church on Union Street that wanted her to open a tea shop in the front — “It was OK, but being a business that works with a lot of artists, it didn’t really go over as well as they had hoped,” she said.

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Without a location, Lomax looked for ways to sustain the business, while continuing to look for a new downtown location. She went through two incubators: Launcher at West End Neighborhood House, which “was cool, but didn’t really give me a lot of [practical] tools,” and another through VC firm SmartInvest, which offered a free workshop combining business development mentoring and pitching for real investors.

“That was an interesting concept, but I feel like they were using us,” she said of its Spark Challenge program — it seemed like the company was more interested in adding businesses to its portfolio than authentically helping them. “I did meet [a potential investor], but I didn’t have anyone to walk me through that process. OK, so I met a guy. How do I protect myself? What does it mean to have supporters and funding and all that?” (SmartInvest was active through 2017, but appears to have disbanded.)

A woman speaks to a crowd

Tynisha Lomax of Levitea gives her Spark Challenge pitch during Delaware Innovation Week 2017. (Courtesy photo)

“I really believe the biggest impediment for all businesses is mentorship, and for Black-owned businesses even more because it’s hard to find people who will take you seriously,” she said. And, echoing sentiments we heard from Wilmington Green Box’s Jason Aviles: “Relationships, particularly in Delaware, are the most important thing in business. If you’re not part of the right circles, you don’t have access.”

One way she stayed in business while not having a physical shop — aside from the Levitea website — was contracting with restaurants and coffee shops that served tea.

“I had a major wholesale deal with Hotel du Pont, but they weren’t giving me credit,” she said. “Originally there was a director of restaurants and he put my name on the menu. When he left, that stopped, and they barely stayed in contact with me. I would tell people I don’t have any way to prove it, but that that was my tea. I just held on to it because it was my biggest contract and I needed the money to further my business.

“Another business I worked with put their coffee person on the menu but never put my name on the menu,” she said. “People just don’t take me seriously.”

It didn’t help that business is, by nature, competitive.

“I had ideas stolen from me,” she said. “Business is cutthroat like that. You have to scrap when you’re Black. You have to figure out this whole system and then pray that someone gives you a hand.”

In 2018, Lomax had a two-week popup tea shop at Delaware College of Art and Design’s Tatiana Copeland Student Center, the idea of Lomax’s longtime friend who was a DCAD staffer, facilitated by the school’s former galleries and events manager, Kelicia Pitts.

“There was tremendous pushback on that whole situation,” she said. “Their students were some of my best customers. I used to give portfolio reviews to help them because I’m an artist, too. That was part of my draw, I’m an art-based business. No one from the administration came to the popup. Wilmington residents were so excited, I had a professional window display done, I had an art display, and everyone who came loved it. [The administration’s] biggest concern was Wilmington people — ‘strangers’ — going through the building. People supported me, but DCAD was not ready to be a part of the city.”

The culmination of these experiences made Lomax hesitant to identify Levitea as a Black-owned business online, where it’s a growing international company.

“That was something I struggled with, whether I wanted to put my face with my brand and [felt] concern that that would cause harm to my brand,” she said. “I chose to go ahead and do that, but I was gun-shy about it for a while because I did have that pushback early on. My tea was good enough to buy, but not me.”

Still, she has been offered opportunities, even if she hasn’t always taken them.

Buccini Pollin Group (BPG) “approached me for space at [its downtown project] Maker Valley,” she said. “It was fully mine. I could have done it, but I was gun-shy because I was concerned about the price of the rent and renovations and I didn’t think the space was big enough.”

Though she chose not to go with Maker Valley, she notes that BPG has been one of the few to reach out to her.

“They were very cool to work with. I don’t have any problem with BPG, they always treated me with a ton of respect. I still do want to open up a place downtown, I still do want to flesh out my concept. People literally ask me every day to open up a shop, but I don’t want to start something I don’t know if I can finish.”

When it comes to minority-owned businesses in Wilmington as we move forward with revitalization efforts, she’s straightforward:

“This city is a Black city whether people want to admit it or not,” she said. “I think people need to look at that and tap into that as we know we can run our own things. There’s so much being lost because they’re building things to attract a clientele that frankly isn’t coming. If you’re going to revitalize a town, you should look at its residents.

“When they opened DECO, it did so well with African Americans. People love that place, you go in there, you see Black families in there all the time. But they didn’t make it for them. I go to a couple of bars downtown — all young affluent African Americans and other minorities. All these new apartments downtown, I see them filling up with young minorities. I think that’s great. I think that’s beautiful. If everyone in the city would look at what’s really going on, there’s tons of money to be made serving the actual community instead of trying to change its complexion.”

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