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At St. Petersburg MLK expo, Black business owners dream of expanding

Entrepreneurs came to meet new customers and network with each other in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.
Ava Hardy, 9, wears a crown from the kids corner at the second annual "We are the Dream:" MLK Expo 2022 at Gibbs High on Saturday. The event highlighted local businesses, food, live entertainment, a kids corner, inspirational speakers and raffles. "I think of Martin Luther King when I go to protests," Ava said. "Sometimes I think about if it is ever going to end, if everybody in the world is going to get along before the world ends. I'm not sure. But I hope so."
Ava Hardy, 9, wears a crown from the kids corner at the second annual "We are the Dream:" MLK Expo 2022 at Gibbs High on Saturday. The event highlighted local businesses, food, live entertainment, a kids corner, inspirational speakers and raffles. "I think of Martin Luther King when I go to protests," Ava said. "Sometimes I think about if it is ever going to end, if everybody in the world is going to get along before the world ends. I'm not sure. But I hope so." [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Jan. 15

Antonio Seay wheeled his 6-year-old grandson around on a hand truck as his wife and daughters talked to visitors at Gibbs High School Saturday.

The women in his family each have their own business they came to promote. He came as the muscle, Seay said.

The Gibbs courtyard was filled with tents and tables of vendors like the Seay family, majority run by Black entrepreneurs, for St. Petersburg’s second annual “We are the Dream”: MLK Expo during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend. Many business owners said they came to engage with the Black community, network with others and that they dream to have their own storefronts one day.

Amber Seay, owner of Seay It with Fashion Thriftique, said she hopes to open her own brick and mortar store near downtown St. Petersburg. She started selling her online thrift shop on Poshmark in 2017 to honor her grandmother’s fashion business and her love for thrifting.

“I want it to be where the young crowd is,” Amber said.

But opening a store, especially downtown, is expensive. And in the thrifting world, it’s difficult to get customers to understand that even though she’s selling used clothes, she still needs to sell them at a profit to grow.

Carter Seay, 6, gets a ride on a moving dolly by his grandfather, Antonio Seay, 54, as Deacon Zephyrin, 6, plays with a balloon at the second annual "We are the Dream:" MLK Expo 2022 at Gibbs High on Saturday. Seay had been using the dolly to unload merchandise for his wife and daughter, who own Alley Cat Fashions and Seay It With Fashion Thriftique.
Carter Seay, 6, gets a ride on a moving dolly by his grandfather, Antonio Seay, 54, as Deacon Zephyrin, 6, plays with a balloon at the second annual "We are the Dream:" MLK Expo 2022 at Gibbs High on Saturday. Seay had been using the dolly to unload merchandise for his wife and daughter, who own Alley Cat Fashions and Seay It With Fashion Thriftique. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

While she has family members who had businesses she can learn from, Amber said owning her own “takes a different meaning on its own.” In the long term, she said she hopes her store can be like a Goodwill with both cute and affordable options to clothe people, especially the homeless.

Event organizer Lola Morgan said expos like this showcase “group economics.”

Black businesses can grow together as they support one another while the community shows up to patronize them, Morgan said. The expo was launched last year as the pandemic forced many people to struggle financially. Local businesses needed the support more than ever, Morgan said.

“Majority of the business owners that are here also have 9-to-5 jobs,” Morgan said. “So we want to make sure that they have the time and capital to be able to put back into their business.”

Handcrafted jewelry by Anji Degant at Accent Styles Boutique were on display at the second annual "We are the Dream:" MLK Expo 2022 at Gibbs High on Saturday.
Handcrafted jewelry by Anji Degant at Accent Styles Boutique were on display at the second annual "We are the Dream:" MLK Expo 2022 at Gibbs High on Saturday. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

For the expo’s second year, Morgan and co-organizer Janaye Hardy said they raised $33,000 worth of funds and services for Black businesses nominated by the community. Morgan said as a business owner herself, applying for grants was hard and highly competitive, so they wanted to create a process where people could show appreciation for their favorite businesses and nominees would all get some reward.

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The top recipients would not only get a grant, but business consultation with experts in law, government contracting, marketing and accounting.

“The MLK Expo for me is a way to bring together the Black community and lift everyone up,” Dariana Morton, owner of Moodz by Dari said.

Drum Major LaBron Burgess, center, and the Gibbs High School Band perform at the second annual "We are the Dream:" MLK Expo 2022, held at Gibbs.
Drum Major LaBron Burgess, center, and the Gibbs High School Band perform at the second annual "We are the Dream:" MLK Expo 2022, held at Gibbs. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Morton started selling hand-poured candles in March 2020 and said she dreams of hosting candle making parties in a brick-and-mortar store.

Dani Key, the gothic artist behind Smudgelife Sages, said she wants her own store near downtown but also wants her art to find its way to all 50 states. Events like the expo are a great start to achieving those dreams, Key said, but she wishes members of the local Black community shopped at Black businesses more often.

“We’re more successful when the community comes together to support each other,” Key said.

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