Success greets youths' black-themed card business With church's aid, entrepreneurs thrive

November 24, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

It started off a challenge to about 20 youths who belong to the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church or live in the surrounding West Baltimore neighborhood: Stop being employees and become employers.

The youngsters took it to heart. The result: a booming business that features the likenesses of blacks on greeting cards and has yielded sales of more than $25,000 in less than three months.

"This is just the beginning," said Kelly Hawkins, 11, a seventh-grader at Lemmel Middle School. "This is to get us ready for a real job."

Calling themselves the Umoja (Unity) Children and using the motto "Youth From the Hood Working for Good," the workers gather daily to run their business from a two-story rowhouse in the 2100 block of McCulloh St. that was donated by the church.

The entrepreneurs serve as the company's treasurer, marketing representatives, accountants, public relations specialists and sales representatives -- in addition to their daily school responsibilities.

"This is all right for a while, because I can make some money that I couldn't make before," said McKenzie Hopkins, 15, a student at Joseph C. Briscoe High School. "But it's a lot of work."

The challenge to start a business came from the Rev. Curtis A. Jones, pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. When several youngsters asked him to help them find summer jobs, he responded by saying they ought to start their own business.

Shortly afterward, several youths came up with the idea of designing greeting cards with likenesses of blacks on the front.

Finding greeting cards with black faces on them is difficult, they reasoned, so the cards would catch on fast, especially in the inner city. But the youths didn't want to merely sell cards for another company; they wanted their own business.

"That's what everybody wanted to make sure of," said Kelly Hawkins. "We wanted this to be our business, our own."

Using about $30,000 in seed money from the church, the youths designed their logo, hired five local artists to illustrate their cards and paid a printer to produce them.

Some of the cards feature images of a black Santa Claus and child. Others feature a manger scene, angels, and the three wise men.

The youths sent fliers with illustrations of the cards to churches around the country in an effort to drum up business.

They also made presentations to civic groups in New York and Richmond, Va., as well as in Baltimore, that had heard about their business.

Their first shipment of cards -- more than 3,000 boxes, each containing 15 cards -- arrived in September. It was quickly sold, and they had orders for more.

Each box sells for $10.50. The youth who sells the box earns $2, and the rest goes back into the business.

"This has surpassed our wildest expectations," Mr. Jones said. "It has gotten to the point where they now have adults working for them. This exposed them to every level of the operation."

The business is a perfect illustration of what the church-based, grass-roots group Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD) means when it emphasizes the need to empower people, he said.

The fledgling company is starting with Christmas and Kwanza cards. Later, the youths will develop cards for birthdays and other holidays.

The Rev. Karen Brown, youth minister at the church, said some adults work as mentors in the business, but that as the company grows, the adults will have less involvement.

"As they gain more experience, the adults will pull back," she said.

Cleveland Jones, 12, who attends Roland Park Middle School, said the card business is profitable but hard work.

"It's as hard as you make it," Cleveland said. "I consider it more fun than hard work."

Greeting cards

Umoja Children greeting cards may be purchased at 2109 McCulloh St. in Baltimore or by calling 523-7935.

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