From The Corporate World to Creative Entrepreneurship: 3 Memphis Creators Share Their Story
Photo Credit: AfroTech

From The Corporate World to Creative Entrepreneurship: 3 Memphis Creators Share Their Story

They are paving the way for up-and-coming businesses in Memphis

From the jewelry industry to branding and web consultancy, Black innovators are changing the face of entrepreneurship one idea at a time in Memphis. Meet the established innovators who are setting a foundation by inspiring start-up founders to be bold and brave in making their dreams come true.

  • David Quarles, founder of Ivy, jewelry designer and interior stylist 
  • Larry Robinson, founder of Kudzukian Media and a media maven
  • Dana James Mwangi, founder of Cheers Creative, brand and web strategist

With the support of their community, these three founders are proof of the thriving Black entrepreneurial ecosystem that is burgeoning in Memphis.

The founders spoke with AfroTech about how the Southern city has supported their big city dreams as creative entrepreneurs. 

Photo: David Quarles/Jarvis Hughes

AfroTech: When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Quarles: Since high school, I’ve pretty much had a knack for wanting to support myself on my terms. My first entrepreneurial experience took place in pre-algebra class. Uniforms were new to our school system, and many of my peers had khakis with too long of a hem. My dad taught me how to sew at an early age. So putting that skill to use, and seeing a need amongst the students, I would reserve an empty seat in front of me and charge $7 per leg to hem students’ pants during class. My calling as a jewelry designer & entrepreneur came when my cousin and I decided to try selling jewelry we made using materials found at Michael’s. I didn’t know just how much I’d love making jewelry. And after seeing that our creations actually sold during a local festival, I decided to make my newfound passion into something that could possibly support me in the future. And from there IV was born. Second, to me being a jewelry maker, I’m a practicing interior stylist – for both residential and commercial spaces. So to say that I live and breathe in a creative atmosphere would be pretty accurate

Robinson: I believe entrepreneurship is in my DNA, [from my] great-grandfather, grandfather, dad, mom, aunts and uncles. All of them have embarked on entrepreneurial endeavors from real estate and business services to carpentry, construction and art. It became apparent to me that I was an entrepreneur when I was working in corporate America and I was not able to make the decision necessary to improve the business and revenue stream. That really frustrated me; begging others to believe was extremely difficult. I began my marketing company, Lasting Perceptions, in 1997. We did some great business, working with organizations as diverse as pharmaceutical and healthcare entities to record labels, beauty companies, professional entertainers and athletes. For a good part of my professional career, I worked between Memphis and New York for several years, but the needs of my family forced me to make the decision of settling back in Memphis full-time. Back in Memphis, I embodied the mantra of “bloom where you are” and that’s why and when KUDZUKIAN was created. It was my desire to fill a need that currently did not exist. KUDZUKIAN, would fill the void of new Southern Voices that take a real part in the discussion of issues and perspectives that only people from the South, especially Black people, would have. 

Photo: Larry T. Robinson/KUDZUKIAN

Mwangi: In 2007, I started working as a full-time graphic designer in corporate America. At that time, I found myself working so hard to be valued and respected by my superiors, that it impacted the design solutions I knew I could deliver. That’s when I became a freelancer on the side for local Black-owned businesses. What my superiors did not see in me, I saw in these Black businesses. I saw their value. I saw people who wanted to give the world something special, but no one would give them what I knew I could, and that was a chance. The mom-and-pop shops, local artisans and makers were silently making magic in Memphis. I wanted to use my skills to help everyone see that. With that mission, in 2012, I left corporate America to start my branding and web consultancy, Cheers Creative

Photo: Dana James Mwangi and her creative partner, Eso Tolson/Darius B Williams

AfroTech: How has your experience been as an up-and-coming entrepreneur in Memphis?

Quarles: For starters, and like every young college graduate, the goal was to land the corporate job. And that’s the path I took. I started in a call center, and gradually climbed the ladder to becoming a merchandise marketing liaison for the executive team of an organization. But something kept tugging at me and reminding me that my passion wasn’t being fulfilled. So, in 2017 I decided to rent my first studio space (previously, I’d been creating jewelry sporadically on my dining room table). I thought, if I had my own dedicated creative space, I’d fill the void of fulfilling my passion. And for a while, that worked, but trying to balance the demands and culture of the corporate world, while working to remain inspired as an artist just wasn’t cutting it. I had to make a decision between the two. So, in May of 2018, I made the decision to leave behind the world of working long hours in a cubicle and started my journey as a full-time entrepreneur and initially only as a jewelry maker. Since the decision to spread my wings, Memphis as a whole has been nothing but amazingly supportive of my work and the arts community has welcomed me with open arms.

Robinson: Memphis isn’t always easy to navigate, especially not being from here. Being a Black man and not being a native is a challenge and sometimes you have to seize on opportunities that allow people to get to know you. With that being said, Memphis is a great city loaded with potential and it’s great to see it happening right before your eyes. There is so much untapped, underutilized and under-appreciated talent here and in the surrounding areas, it’s mind-boggling! But it makes sense for so many reasons. We have managed to make our way and retain our independence. KUDZUKIAN is somewhat like the rose that grew through concrete. We have managed to flourish, enjoy consistent growth and create something beautiful that enriches the culture and the community. And as most people know, Memphis is a city of soul with soul, which is one of the attributes at the core of our company.

Mwangi: Well, in my pursuit to show everyone Memphis’ magic, I hit a milestone and a roadblock at the same time. In my first year of business, I was newly married and pregnant with twins. Joyous occasions, right? But I had gotten extremely ill, preventing me from getting out and networking locally. I had to find a way to virtually get the word out about Cheers from my hospital bed. Funny thing is, as my twin girls were growing inside my belly, something else grew inside of me too. I knew I had a voice. I had something to say. And I wanted it to be heard. So I began to blog about branding and design, which lead to global exposure in Essence, Forbes, Awwwards, and more. Within two years, I was working with clients from all over the world. But I have to thank Memphis’ small businesses, artists and makers. I saw them, but they saw me first.

AfroTech: How has your journey been as a creative entrepreneur specifically?

Quarles: Whew… there are so many ways to answer this question. I’m not going to sugar coat a thing. The journey has been challenging, especially at the start. And it can be overwhelming to think that you are now in charge of your income, your production, your marketing, and your financial tracking. This is where my brain went after week two of leaving my job. Yet, challenges always yield growth and reward. And I think a majority of the initial difficulty came from having to unlearn behaviors and standards set within the corporate world. Once I figured out my rhythm, how I like to work and how to create a flow that allows me to not work more than I live, all while best serving my clients (for both jewelry and interior projects), things started to fall into place. I realized that in order for me to get the opportunities that I longed for and to practice and share my work, I had to be present in my craft; ultimately putting me in control of the possibility of whether or not opportunity would come my way. 

And specifically as a creative, I can’t stress more the need to create, create, create. I used to have a rule that I wouldn’t create when I wasn’t 100 percent feeling it. Yet, just as with any muscle, we strengthen our creative muscles when we train it in various conditions. That way with time, we’ll condition our creativity to not be dependent upon external factors. Our love and joy to complete any project will thrive by strength from within. And the more we’re able to create, the more likely we are to maintain our livelihood and observe our artistic patterns. I’m still learning [and] implementing the practice of creating under varying circumstances, [which] motivates me to push the envelope more on expressing my vision and take on more custom jewelry and design projects. [This] allows me the chance to have my clients’ needs be met by my creative freedom. But this isn’t to say that when we’re running on fumes, push through anyway. Balance is needed in anything we do. So when we need to take a break, we should take one. The work will always be there. Creatives will always be needed.

Robinson: Life ain’t been no crystal stair,” to borrow from Langston Hughes. But that’s the nature of the beast. Many days its “chop wood carry water”  — little fanfare. And at times, it’s a very isolated space. People should know that regardless of the industry, there are no shortcuts or pixie dust. However, I knew that coming in the door. I often remind myself and others, this is a marathon not a sprint. There is no manna raining from the heavens. But if you’re not in the game, you won’t get rewarded. To make a beautiful tasty omelette, you gotta break some eggs! Much of what we do is trial and error, so you have to know that you’ll make some missteps along the way. So make your mistakes early if you can. The most important part is to grow, evolve and learn from them. Mistakes don’t have to end you. Let them empower you to do better. Tweak the formula until you get it right. Sometimes God or the Universe will try you to see how bad you want it! And I want it!

Mwangi: I was an artist who had to learn how to become a businessperson while venturing into a White male-dominated industry as a Black woman. That took a lot of continued learning and generous amounts of self-care. 

My business was growing, but at the same time, I was answering emails, sending invoices, and everything you manually have to do to run your business. I reached a point where the admin work was getting in the way of me being a leader in my own company. I quickly learned that having strong systems in place to put your business on autopilot is critical. So I spent the next several months learning how to build systems to free myself so I could lead. 

But even though I was capable, there were still areas where I knew I needed help. I needed someone who complimented me but stood on their own merit and in their own magic. I needed someone who thought strategically but could ground me when I needed to be grounded. I could not find that in any other person than my creative partner,  Eso Tolson. We were two creatives who combined forces, taking our knowledge of branding and systems everywhere. We went from being brand designers to being teachers and brand consultants, providing greater value to our clients and to our community. 

Photo: David Quarles/David Quarles

AfroTech: What makes Memphis different from other cities in the country when it comes to starting a creative business?

Quarles: I’d say the biggest difference is that making a livelihood for yourself as a creative is a little easier in Memphis as the cost of living is much lower than other relatively large cities, and Memphis’ culture is rooted in the arts. The community here has a deep appreciation for handcrafted work and loves supporting someone that they or their friends might personally know. Memphis absolutely thrives in creativity! In fact, the second largest employer in our city is the arts. I believe when more up-and-coming creative entrepreneurs find out the power we have in our economy, the more likely we’ll be to push even harder to make our vision known, and create spaces for those visions to be shared. Living, not simply existing, in Memphis as a creative and creative business is possible. It takes belief in yourself, hard work, patience, grace, and conceptual agility. And that may seem like a lot, but wouldn’t the same be required of us if we were working for someone else? So why not use our power and strength in our gifts to create a living for ourselves?

Robinson: Memphis is very uniquely positioned. First of all, it’s the gateway to the South and the North in many respects, and it’s a river city. In Memphis there is a convergence of cultures, food, music, socio-economics, and races. All of that mixed together yields a tremendous bounty of creativity and soul. There is so much lowkey talent and dopeness within and around [the city], and that arises out of Memphis. You can start with historical references — Maurice White (Earth Wind and Fire), B.B. King, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Ralph Wiley (writer) and STAX Records. Then fast forward to today —  Katori Hall and Brandee Evans (P Valley), Boo Mitchell (Uptown Funk was recorded at the fabled Royal Studios), Leslie Jones, Elise Neal, Kirk Whalum, Kameron Whalum (he toured with Bruno Mars as a part of The Hooligans) and countless others whose names you may not know but whose work you most definitely know. Or will soon know!Another benefit to being based in Memphis is that the cost of living is reasonable. It’s also “the little big city,” as the natives refer to it. That’s because everyone knows everyone or knows someone who knows someone you need. If you have a family, it’s a great place for family life. It’s also a tight knit community that values loyalty and “family” ties (school/church/BGLO affiliations). For a non-native this can be difficult, but once they embrace you, it’s all love! If you do right by Memphis, we will do right by you!

Mwangi: I must be honest…I feel a bit spoiled being from and living in Memphis. The same way the universe brought Eso, it brought a host of other Black creatives of the same caliber, each with their own superpower. There’s a creative entrepreneurial group here like none other. We have had friends visit from across the world, and each one is spellbound by the spirit, support, love, and comradery of our circle. Memphis has given me a cocoon of support that has kept me thriving all of these years.

Photo: Larry Robinson & Howard Robertson/KUDZUKIAN

AfroTech: What are some valuable lessons you have learned as an entrepreneur?

Quarles: This is the year to break out of our comfort zones to find new and innovative ways to ethically provide for ourselves, and maintain the passion that fuels us. So as far as recession-proofing a creative business, I think we’ve all seen the importance of an online and virtual presence. Whether it is through online courses, fitness classes or tutorials, we now have a new and open environment where we can expand what we offer as creatives. With a plethora of free and paid online learning tools available now, we should take advantage of any opportunity we have to broaden our knowledge of digital practices. We can’t say how long the current state of the world will continue. But we can control our movement in this world. Even though it’s one more thing we have to learn as a creative entrepreneur, lessons in developing [a] rewarding online presence and traffic is the direction of the future. In the end, we’ll only diversify our portfolio and/or offerings as a business fueled by the arts.

Robinson: Valuable lessons from Robinson summarized:

  • Be like water! Life comes at you in a myriad of ways so it’s important to be flexible and always look for the next innovation. Actively look for your pivots.
  • The Four Agreements: Speak impeccably. Don’t take anything personal. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best.
  • Life is a team sport. Your team will determine your level of success.
  • Read, read and read some more. I gain so many ideas from reading articles from websites, newspapers and magazines. 
  • Plan the work and work the plan. But be ready for God (or the universe) to laugh.
  • Keep going no matter what, this is a marathon not a sprint.
  • One person’s no is another person’s yes.
  • Follow your gut. Gut instinct is one of the most valuable qualities one can possess. It will never lead you astray. When you feel off-center or unsure, find a quiet space and let your intuition lead you.

Mwangi: I’ve learned that my path is my path. I’ve learned that I can be my full self in business and be successful. I’ve learned to define what success and freedom looks like for me, which looks like taking my kids to the park on a random Tuesday. I’ve learned how to lead with confidence and compassion. 

AfroTech: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Quarles: Yes, there is. Self-care. Earlier in the interview, I mentioned how starting out, we have to fulfill every role for our business. Although we’ll get to the point where we will hopefully be able to empower and employ others to help us out as our business grows, in the meantime, taking care of self is key. I like to say, “you can’t withdraw funds from an empty bank.” And the same is true for operating as a creative entrepreneur/business. Just as we schedule time to work on any given project, we need to schedule and adhere to time for self-care. Whether it’s soaking in a tub by candlelight, reading a book while drinking a cup of our favorite tea, taking a walk, or simply staring into space for a moment to collect our thoughts, we need to incorporate some activity that replenishes our souls to allow us to continue in our heart’s work. Like I said before, creatives will always be needed. We need to make sure to always take care of ourselves so when we need to be present, we show up fully.

Robinson: Actively find the thing(s) that makes you happy. The thing that you would do regardless of pay. Start there, follow your happiness and it will lead you to your purpose!

Mwangi: So many times, throughout my career, I’ve been advised not to tell people that I’m from Memphis, and to let people think that I was from a bigger city. I was told I should not show my face because I would get more business if people didn’t know I was Black. Memphis and my being a Black woman is the best thing to ever happen to me. 

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Quarles, Robinson and Mwangi reigns supreme in the entrepreneurial arena. All three individuals took bold and audacious steps to pursue their creative passion, which lead them to become trailblazing innovators.

Memphis grooms you to be fearless and brave, and with support from the community you have no choice, but to be successful. Want to know how to follow in the footsteps of established business leaders? Learn more here and check out this video below. 

This piece has been brought to you in partnership with Epicenter.