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Black School Supplies Company Aims to Give Back to Community, Sells Out in First 24 Hours

Innovative Supplies/Zola Arts Factory

Innovative Supplies/Zola Arts Factory

Nneka Brown is a single mother who was inspired to open Innovative Supplies after leaving the military one month ago. As she looks forward to starting college this fall to become a history teacher, she has decided to make a step toward making a positive change in her community of Columbus, Georgia. Her online retail store – which is dedicated to selling school supplies that promote Blackness – launched July 27. It immediately sold out with more than 8,000 orders of custom-made notebooks in the first 24 hours.

The company website lists several goals. One includes opening an account with Black-owned Citizens Trust Bank and depositing profits there. This was an important step for the Army veteran, who sees it as a way to give more accessibility to fellow small- business owners – another one of her goals.

“The more money that’s in a Black-owned bank, it gives Black – minorities of any race – the chance to acquire something that they probably would have a lot of red tape around them [when] trying to go through predominantly white-owned banks,” 27-year-old Brown told Atlanta Black Star. “Establishing the profits in a Black-owned bank would really help others that are trying the same thing as me.”

One other goal is to hire minority youth. Currently, six teens are on staff – Brown’s 16-year-old brother and his five male friends. They’re looking to bring on two teen girls next week for sales representative and social media relations positions.

Innovative Supplies founder Nneka Brown and her teen employees (Innovative Supplies)

Innovative Supplies founder Nneka Brown and her teen employees (Innovative Supplies)

Brown said it was important to hire a teen staff to give them a chance to get job experience that they would otherwise be missing out on. That includes experience in managerial, staff, shipping and business roles.

“If they’re not working for McDonald’s or Burger King for a part-time job, then no one really looks out for them or hires them for anything. They want someone that has that work experience right off the bat, and they’re never gonna get that if you don’t give them the chance,” she explained.

The students break down notebooks for the first two hours of the work day. They replace stock covers with custom-made designs. Then, they package shipments in the last three hours. The teens are currently working a strict five-hour schedule, and once school begins, they will work three-hour days. But they’re committed to their duties.

“They did ask me if they could stay late on Friday and Saturday and come in on Sunday as well,” Brown said. “So I told them, ‘Of course I would love that, but ultimately it’s dependent on your grades.’ ”

After 8,550 orders came through, the store was quickly sold out and shut down July 28.

Though the group aims to complete order shipments by September 1, the company is playing it by ear. It has set up a GoFundMe campaign to buy a machine that automatically binds and coils 600 notebooks per hour.

“Our end goal is to have the shelves filled where we’re not spending half the day making it and then packaging it,” the CEO said.

The “Be Unique” notebook was the top seller of all the items in the store – selling over 3,000 units. Brown gives the cover artists 30 percent of the profits from the notebook featuring their work. Brittany Zola of Zola Arts Factory earned an $800 royalty check for her cover art within the 24 hours that it sold out.

“When we open back up, she’ll still get 30 percent of whatever she sells from this day forward,” Brown explained.

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