Black Business Expo brings entrepreneurs, creators and community together


Mark Briggs, owner of Quality Gifts of Charlottesville, knows what it’s like to recover — on a basketball court, from a downturn due to COVID-19, from a pulmonary embolism, prostate cancer and kidney disease.

As a former Charlottesville High School basketball player, he had to constantly evolve and reinvent himself.

He coaches athletes, attends Piedmont Virginia Community College, and runs a business that sells jewelry and natural beauty products.

“I only live by the grace of God,” Briggs said. And he’s trying to get his business back to where it was when it had to close right after the pandemic began.

That’s why he was excited to join 41 other black business owners at the Black Business Expo at IX Art Park on Saturday to celebrate black businesses in Charlottesville. Owners also networked and some sold products to hundreds of attendees. Six were selected to present pitches for two grants to help them expand their business, advertising or equipment purchases.

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Among them was Nicole Hawker, owner of Heart & Soul Fitness, a center she plans to open on Cherry Street to help black women make their health a priority.

“I want it to be accessible to women in this field and have reasonable prices that are tiered,” she said of the nonprofit.

And then there was Jamie and Sodora Jones, owners of Jones Heating & Air, the only black-owned HVAC company in the area. The company has existed for 15 years. When the store opened, Jamie Jones said the hardest part was “the financial part, how and when you pay taxes, things like that.”

The company has “done very well” during COVID, Sodora Jones said, as people stayed at home and discovered noise in their heating or air conditioning systems — and realized it was time to get help.

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At a stand nearby, Christina Steele, owner of a new business called Cookie Soul, enlisted help from her sister Destiny Jackson to sell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and slices of sweet potato pie. They also had a vegan gluten free chocolate chip cookie.

Financial advisor Janasha “Jay” Bradford had help from her nieces, Karmen Jackson and Mahogany Matthew-Greenwood, to promote her self-published book, Mahogany Goes to Wall Street. In the book, a little girl goes onto Wall Street while her parents sleep, sending the message that not only is it okay for black girls to want to work on Wall Street, but that financial literacy is vital for black girls is.

It’s a lesson Bradford learned hard, she said.

Her father died when she was a teenager, leaving her mother a substantial amount of money, she said. But when the Great Recession hit, her mother’s finances were ruined.

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“As the oldest in my family, I was there to help my mom figure things out,” Bradford said. “I knew I didn’t want that to happen to other black women.”

In addition to the book, Bradford Black sold mahogany dolls and t-shirts.

It’s not just about selling goods, many said. The expo was an opportunity for Black business people of all backgrounds, including accountants, insurance brokers and others, to celebrate and network.

Expo founder Ty Cooper was excited about the participation, he said.

“We started this in response to 2017,” he said. “It was very important that we stand up to those who wanted to show their hatred. We wanted to celebrate and give people a platform to learn more about and support black businesses.”

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