Changing the Face of Retail: Building Tools to Help POC-Owned Small Businesses Thrive
Jennifer Gomez and Marvin François are the founders of oneKIN, Inc. a mission-driven, retail tech company creating tools that help small BIPOC-owned businesses grow. In 2018, to solve for the lack of inclusivity in the retail landscape, they launched the oneKIN curated online marketplace where shoppers can explore and buy from dozens of diverse brands.
Described by Refinery29 as “more than just a marketplace: it’s a cultural experience,” the award-winning platform has helped pioneer the growing wave of culture-focused marketplaces. And in 2020, when countless businesses experienced devastating losses due to COVID, they harnessed the power of their community and demonstrated the impact of collective economics. As a result, the average oneKIN order directly benefited 2–3 small businesses and 5–10 families.
This Spring, oneKIN is disrupting the e-commerce space again with its soon-to-launch live shopping app, twiine™. This will introduce live social commerce innovation — an industry already generating $60+ billion in China annually — to small businesses in the U.S. The app will enable small businesses to cost-effectively and authentically engage their audiences and potentially 10x their conversions; while users can seamlessly tap into live shoppable content, access exclusive deals, and build community from the comforts of their home.
Tell us a little bit about your journey and how you got here.
Jennifer Gomez: I’ve always been passionate about storytelling, social justice, and community work. These values have been ingrained in the fabric of my family, and grassroots organizing was a big part of my upbringing. From a very early age, I was acutely aware of the inequities around me and was determined to play a role in correcting them. I attended Brown University and studied political science and comparative politics with a minor in Africana Studies. Despite my focus in school, I had a deep love for sharing stories and all things creative.
As an alumna of the Prep for Prep program, a NYC-based leadership development program that offers promising students of color access to private school education, I had access to countless internship opportunities across Fortune 500 companies. With Prep’s support and much tenacity, I became the first undergraduate intern in L’Oréal USA’s graduate internship program for MBA students. I learned a lot about product marketing, storytelling, and what it takes to build a brand and a community. My experience there propelled me into the world of marketing and I fell in love with it.
Post-college, I worked in corporate America for nearly a decade for brands like Major League Baseball and Time Inc. Leveraging data insights, marketing strategy, and creative storytelling I launched dozens of first-to-market products and global marketing campaigns. I retired from corporate two and a half years ago and co-founded oneKIN where I’ve finally been able to combine all the things I love about marketing, community building, social work, and storytelling to make a difference.
My two daughters continuously motivate this work. I want them to fundamentally understand that no matter the circumstance, each of us has the power to radically change the world — just as I learned from watching my mother.
Marvin François: My journey was also multifaceted. I started my college career in Boston entirely undecided but landed on Music and Spanish. However, by junior year, my mom reminded me that I didn’t necessarily have the luxury to pursue these disciplines and that I had to monetize my degree somehow. By 2008, I graduated with a degree in Finance; just in time for the Great Recession. Fortunately, I landed a gig at a real estate tech startup, where I spent the first two years of my professional career.
Soon after, I had a bit of a quarter-life crisis. Part of the initial appeal of pursuing a Finance career was ultimately leveraging my expertise to achieve social ends. However, my entire job was quite the opposite and I urgently had to revisit my values. I over-corrected by attempting to enlist in the military, and applying to both a quantitative finance masters program and divinity school. Ultimately, I relocated to New York for grad school with ambitions to pursue a political career. At the time, I genuinely believed politics was going to be the most efficient way for me to advance my social justice ambitions; but I soon discovered it was a farce. It became abundantly clear that the private sector was the real engine behind the American political system. One day I was out in Central Park “occupying Wall Street” when I received a call from an investment bank with an offer.
What was meant to be a short-lived, anthropological experience quickly turned into a 9-year career, and I was in urgent need for a pivot. From education and criminal justice reform to financial literacy, I aggressively pursued opportunities to serve the communities I cared about. It was in this pursuit that oneKIN was born as a comprehensive response to all the social ills I had observed.
So, is it safe to say there wasn’t a specific moment that made you want to start this company?
Marvin: Yes, there wasn’t a specific moment. It was more of a combination of a million different things that helped give rise to this idea. One of the things that frustrated me the most was reading article after article about unarmed black men getting killed by cops without consequence. Our communities were victims of state-sanctioned violence and oppression, so we could not rely on the government to intervene.
A thorough investigation of past social justice movements, including the Civil Rights era, and their advancements revealed the central importance of economic empowerment. Our thesis was built around the idea that economic empowerment would be our most important tool; and that if we properly addressed this central thing, we could effectively solve other inequities plaguing our communities.
We realized that with our skills, our resources, and our backgrounds we could do something for BIPOC-led small businesses, and the broader community at large. We wanted to provide a dynamic, multifaceted and robust solution for small businesses to not merely exist but to become multi-million-dollar brands. E-commerce was only the entry point into this important work. We’ve always known that our mandate was much bigger.
Jennifer: Exactly! Marvin and I were experiencing this same urgency to act on behalf of our communities and shared similar ideas about the importance of collective economics, which is something a friend in common noticed, and that’s how we were introduced. When we met, it was so obvious we were on the same wavelength and that was very refreshing. I wanted to ignite change and create more opportunity, and Marvin had begun the research and groundwork on an impactful solution, so it all happened very naturally.
This is such a great founding story. What has been the biggest learning curve so far?
Jennifer: Personally, the biggest learning curve happened after leaving corporate America. I understood the safety net it provided and took for granted the access to unlimited resources. When you’re on your own, you take on all of the responsibility and all of the risk. You really have to learn to trust and follow your intuition, something many people still find is a bit taboo. The biggest challenge has been the entrepreneurial journey itself — learning what it takes to build a business from the ground up and how to navigate the emotional and mental rollercoaster ride that accompanies it. Building a business often feels like an endless sprint so you have to be proactive around scheduling time to rest; adjusting to that was a major learning for me.
Marvin: I can echo some of what Jennifer just said. It’s interesting what she says about intuition. It’s true people see it as a taboo, but it’s actually based on science, it stems from biology. There’s a lot of unconscious thinking behind the scenes that we don’t even notice, and this is what triggers that gut response, that instinct, so it’s very natural and it should be followed and complemented with conscious, critical thinking. It’s challenging to take on all the risk when you’re building a business; anything could go wrong at any moment and accepting that is key, but it’s also not easy. You have to trust yourself to figure things out.
What advice can you give to other people founding an e-commerce business?
Jennifer: The best advice I can give to those seeking to follow their entrepreneurial aspirations is to build to be sustainable. We live in such a fast-paced culture, everyone wants to build and scale fast, but you’ll only exhaust yourself and disenchant your target customer. E-commerce is a saturated industry, so identify your specific niche, analyze it, and then build something that uniquely caters to your intended community of customers.
Marvin: I completely agree. I would also like to add that even though it’s important to be passionate about what you’re doing, passion is not enough to build something long-lasting. It’s important to be passionate, purposeful, and excited, yes! But you also have to get into the nitty-gritty of it. You have to do the mundane and boring work to keep everything in line from a legal and regulatory point of view. Passion is only the tip of the iceberg, but you also need strategy, orientation, and you need to be deliberate about what you want to accomplish and determine the best way to do that.
The e-commerce industry is definitely saturated as Jennifer said. And we were laughing about it the other day because I said my advice would be not to do it at all and I stand by that. Not to discourage people, but to encourage them to think about what they truly want to achieve. You’ll discover there are better tools and networks to help you reach your goals, so my advice is to not do it if there’s another option that’s more tailored to your mission.
That’s awesome. Now I would like to know more about how the idea for twiine™ came about and what kind of impact you expect to have.
Marvin: twiine™ was something that was always in mind, from the very beginning. When we launched oneKIN, we were thinking of it as a small business advisory firm. But considering everything we wanted to accomplish, it seemed like e-commerce was the best point of entry for us — in terms of being able to quickly create a tangible product for small businesses, but also to get some real-time insights and data that we could leverage.
During the first year or two, we leveraged our e-commerce knowledge and it gave rise to this new product called twiine™, but there were a number of contributing factors as well. We observed the place of content consumption in our lives. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, content consumption defined people’s daily lives and experiences. It has become essential; it’s like sustenance at this point and it’s deeply ingrained in us. Part of the idea was to create something that was familiar and that people could naturally integrate into their daily lives.
Another factor was the shifts in the retail industry. We’ve seen the decline of traditional retail, which was accelerated not only by Amazon but also by Etsy and so many other players in the e-commerce industry. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that by five times.
This realization motivated us to create something that would last. And more importantly, something that can survive the cycles, that part is critical to us. Like Jenny said before, we’re focused on helping build sustainable businesses, and a big part of doing that is thinking about how your business performs across all market cycles. Thinking about how you keep the lights on, even if the economy takes a dip.
This last factor was specific to our community. Black and Brown retailers, in particular, gravitated towards farmers’ markets, pop-up markets, bazaars, and trade shows as a way of getting real-time interactions with their customers, but also selling their products. That is how most of our vendors made from 50 to 90 percent of their annual income. However, these channels were becoming very cost-prohibitive. That’s why a lot of retailers, even before COVID, were looking for strategies to stray from these pop-up markets; they were consuming too much of their bottom line. When COVID hit, that need to increase because there was just no way for retailers to interact with their customers in real-time anymore.
All these factors came together and we realized we needed to create the pop-up market experience in the virtual world and figure out a way to do it naturally, organically, and regularly. That’s how the idea came to life.
Jennifer: Yes, absolutely. Building on what Marvin has said, we also wanted to reinforce the power of collective growth by creating a space for small businesses to come together and support one another; that’s where the name twiine™ came from. Twine consists of multiple strings of cotton twisted together to make one strong thread. That’s a perfect visualization of what we want to accomplish with this new product. Cotton also triggers a painful part of American history so using it as an instrument to bring historically disenfranchised communities together and pull each other up from generation to generation is a powerful symbol.
So twiine™ will merge the best of in-person and online shopping. We are building a virtual community and leveraging technology people already know and enjoy for content consumption. The app will combine the discovery and connection of in-person shopping, the convenience of home shopping TV networks, and the engagement of Instagram live — all in one easy-to-use app. This is the future of e-commerce.
We are rolling out with a series of exclusive and intimate beta events with targeted groups in our community as well as select press, influencers, and loyal oneKIN customers this Spring. True to our roots, we are giving our community a behind-the-seams look at twiine™, and strategically crowdsourcing their feedback to help us finetune the app to their liking before we officially soft launch the app with a series of curated events this Summer. So if there’s anyone reading this article that’s excited about joining the oneKIN community, they can sign up to participate in our twiine™ beta events!
Amazing. So, you’ve talked a lot about POC-owned small businesses and vendors. I’m interested in knowing what you’ve learned from these businesses when it comes to creativity and staying afloat, especially at a time like this with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jennifer: There’s something so empowering and beautiful about our communities. We are so resilient, resourceful, and creative; it’s almost like magic. We get to witness that kind of magic every day when we talk to all of these entrepreneurs. It’s been amazing to see them embrace the changes of these past few months, this past year.
I’ve found that the most successful brands during this time have made a genuine effort to create kinship amongst their customers. By listening to and focusing on the current needs of their community, they’ve been able to find alternative ways to still reach their business goals.
They pour their knowledge, craftsmanship, passion, etc., into their content and they serve their communities exactly what they need. They add value in very creative ways and it comes to life beautifully. It’s what sets them apart. And this past year, we all got to witness how important community is to business.
Marvin: That was perfect, I agree completely.
On a Mission is a bi-weekly publication of interviews with first-time founders trying to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.