This next collaboration is a modern day love story indeed. Modern day in that Maya and I struck up our friendship over Instagram and we haven’t met in person. Yet. But I can sense that we are like-minded kindred spirits and I look forward to calling her my friend for reals for reals. And it’s a love story simply because I’ve long been looking (and dreaming and visualising) for yoga wear that appeals to my African soul. Something that can cheer things up when the grey Nordic landscape lays it on a little too thick. Something with the color and celebration for life in a way that’s so unique and special to the mother continent (teeny, tiny plug: our Kenya Ashtanga yoga retreat starts oh so soon!) That down to earth swagger. That joy and happiness and art of living. And any chance I get to combine not just the things I feel passionate about, but those which are integral to my identity, feels not only like my duty and purpose, but part of my destiny to share it. With you, yes you, dear reader, the very one who’s reading this 🙂
I’m excited to start a series on the blog that has been bubbling around my head for awhile: a look at women entrepreneurs, or femmepreneurs as I like to call ’em, who are working in some creative field or capacity. The purpose of the series is to interview several women of color here in Helsinki (and beyond) who run their own small businesses. It’s to feature women who are working for themselves and/or are leading a group of employees. The main themes I’m looking to highlight are to inspire women of minority identity to take risks, believing in themselves as business owners and to make choices which come from a place of purpose, passion and creativity.
I start the series with Bianca, an African-American by way of the West Indies who’s lived in Helsinki since 2008. Her father was a military man and the family moved around when the children were young, eventually settling in Texas. She went to a predominantly Mexican high school in El Paso and was one of four Black students there. Bianca was Texas state champ in high jumping, won a track scholarship and attended Southern Methodist University. In terms of study interests, she found out she was more creative rather than technical and had a desire to study Ceramics. She earned a degree in English and Journalism in 2000 and after graduation, decided not to continue with her athletic pursuits by going to Olympic training camp. She felt it was something she’d been doing for so long that it had begun to feel a bit empty and she wished to see more of the world. She felt she’d done what was expected of her by graduating and that now it was time to strike out on her own.
She worked as an editor in Dallas for a bit but felt ready to leave Texas so she went out to New York City to stay with a friend, Sharon (you’ll hear more about her in another post) from university. Funnily enough, the day before 9/11, she’d taken the red-eye back to Dallas and about a month later she packed up her things and, with the help of a friend, drove a U Haul out to the city. Once there, she began the transformation of reinventing herself in the city, working as a bartender and a model; gathering education and skills along the way by studying acting and the culinary arts. She did this for about nine years and felt it was a great period of growth. She’d felt that as far as high-school and college athletes go, they led quite sheltered lives, where everything is taken care of for you. In NYC, which she considers to be home, she felt she truly came into her own, on her own terms. However, after close to a decade in New York, she started feeling that wanderlust itch again and began to think about possible moving out to LA to pursue acting, when fate stepped in and determined that she would actually continue her story in Finland. She met a Finn and after two years of doing the long-distance thing, when she was invited to move to Finland, she accepted and arrived to Helsinki in the summer of 2008.
And thus begins the Helsinki chapter of the tale…
So why don’t we start with your business and the story of how it came to be?
I run a tourist and souvenir T-shirt retail company called Suomesta Rakkaudella*. It’s based at Kauppatori by the harbor and I do the design, printing and embroidering for the shirts. When I first moved to Finland, I was working my boyfriend at the time with his Kauppatori stall. After the relationship ended, I was sort of forced to work for myself and the reason I stayed at Kauppatori was because I felt limited with what I could do career wise due to language limitations. In 2010-2011 I started my own stand with one of those low-key, informal umbrella stalls, four designs and two colors of shirts. Now I have 16 different designs and several colors to choose from. I’m proud of it because I love the design aspect and while there are more glamorous things to design than souvenir T shirts, at least it’s a built-in focus with a market. I’m currently learning to delegate better so that the business can grow.
*From Finland, With Love (which also happens to be the title of Roman Schultz’s tongue-in-cheek book on life in Finland)
The nature of business at Kauppatori is seasonal and tourist dependent. Can you describe how you structure your on and off-season schedules?
Basically, during the summer, I wake up 6am so that I can get to the market by 7am. This past season I didn’t take on an employee, so I sold alone at the stall. I’d only stop for a quick food and bathroom break and it was back to the stall. I’d finish at around 6:30 or 7pm, take a look at the inventory and go straight to print whatever’s out of stock usually until midnight. I work crazy hard in the summer, 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Not much sleep, not much eating, just work. Winter is the quiet time and now the question has become, “What do I do in the winter?” The first winter or two, I enjoyed the time off but after a while, you need to do something to feel worthwhile.
Are you involved in other projects?
I’ve done some TV work. I recently wrapped up filming as an extra on a TV series and when I first came to Finland, I was on Top Chef. Last year, my brother and I made Trinidadian food for Ravintola Päivä. I made roti, chicken curry and several sauces. I’ve also done a bit of modelling but the market is different here. It’s not my market but it’s a nice supplement. Right now, food trucks and the whole concept of street food is booming in Helsinki. And you know, coming from Trinidad, it’s all street food so I’ve had a small thought to have a Trini food truck. It’s hard to make a profit with food though so you need to really love it.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to setting up your own business here?
As an entrepreneur the scariest thing is thinking that I don’t have a retirement plan. You’re living by the seat of your pants. When you’re doing it by yourself, it’s a lot harder. With a career and a job, all that comes with the package. I think about retirement everyday. In the initial and middle stages, you need to live with the fact that you and only you are providing for your future. There’s no 401K or retirement plan and you need to make enough so that you can retire in the future. There’s more responsibility in your own life which is great but it’s also harder than leaving it up to the government or your job to take care of you. Here in Finland I’d say it’s a bit easier, especially for women. I personally had enough savings so I didn’t need to use a start-up grant, but it’s not like in the States. Finnish offices are supportive and helpful and they want to help you and work with you, as a small business owner.
That first season in Kauppatori, it was make or break. I said a Hail Mary and threw in the rest of my savings. That first year I was thinking to make enough money just to go back home. It’s pretty isolating within Kauppatori as well and you do need some working knowledge of Finnish with them (Kauppatori), to get through the bureaucracy. You need to work very hard yourself because employees are so costly here. Opening anything, you have to love it. You don’t have to know you love it, not in the beginning, but once you’re in it, if you don’t love it, get out, it’s going to suck you dry.
Where do you see yourself (and your business) in the next five years?
I am happy in Finland and Helsinki and so I plan to stay here for the foreseeable future. When people ask me where I’m from I say New York but currently I consider Finland to be my home. Over the next three-five years, I’d really like to have a yoga wear line and move more into the cut and design of fabric. I love the quality of materials coming out of Bangladesh but there’s a lot of stigma attached to it as a result of the unethical and exploitative treatment of textile and garment workers. It’s tricky because when I look at the quality of the products, it really is Bangladesh that’s making the best stuff and, in the end, I want to give the consumer a good, durable product. Another place in consideration is Portugal where there’re some factories within the garment industry which use organic materials and provide fare wages for the workers.
This leads nicely into my next question: As a yoga practitioner, do you feel you make business choices which reflect some of the values and ethics written and discussed about in yogic teachings and philosophy?
The idea of fair pricing. I don’t buy the cheapest or most expensive shirts on the market. I find the best product for my needs and deliver it in the best possible way. I try to keep prices within an accessible range. Honesty, honor, truthfulness, many of the yamas and niyamas are in there. It also comes from a moral core that my mother enforced and just by trying to be a decent person.
Tell is a little bit about how you got into yoga…
I’ve practiced yoga for ten years. I’ve only had a dedicated practice for four years. I started in New York at gym classes, etc. I didn’t become really interested until I went to Jivamukti Yoga there. They introduced me to proper alignment, counterbalancing forces, chanting and meditation. I had only experienced the asanas before and they gave me my first glimpse into what yoga really is, and I was hooked. Then I moved to Finland shortly after. Here I haven’t really found a home studio. I did Bikram for a while at Yoganordic. While they were lovely, it was back to just asanas and I was really missing what I’d met at Jivamukti. So once the breakup happened, I decided to take my “Eat, Pray, Love” journey, went to Bali and got my 200hr teaching certificate. I really never intended to teach, I just wanted to immerse myself and learn and heal. That totally worked, but it also developed a desire in me to teach. Since I’ve been back I’ve been “home schooling” myself by following Meghan Currie’s classes on Cody App. I consider her my guru. I’ve taken on some other teachers whom I respect as well, including Dylan Werner, Ashley Galvin and Talia Sutra. I’ve taught a few private classes, but the market keeps me too busy to really focus there. I also feel that in order to teach, I need to gain more knowledge. I’ll most likely take my 300hr training at some point and I’m continually reading and expanding my own practice. I do a mix of yin and vinyasa. It’s not rooted in any particular style. I couldn’t call it Ashtanga, as I don’t follow the traditional sequences. I like to move but I also like to find stability and ease in static holds. I like powerful flows that are challenging, but I’m hyper focused on alignment and gentle progress. I think your yoga should always help you, not hurt you. Everything comes in its own time.
What advice would you give women, particularly women of color, who may not have much Finnish under their belts, about starting a venture of their own?
When you think of savings, you don’t need to necessarily think you need to make such a large contribution to get started. I started with four designs and put 5K. The important thing is to just start. Really be willing to work for it. I didn’t know I liked tshirts. I’m just lucky that I did. Give it up right away if you don’t love it. You don’t need to know that you love it before you start but when you are in it, you gotta love it. If you find yourself lacking in love, give it up, let it go and start something else!
To end the conversation on a lighter note, what’s your I’m a Dope Ass Queen anthem that you listen to when you need a boost of energy? What are your hobbies?
If I want to get pumped up, I listen to Robyn or Sia but honestly yoga and meditation keep me sane. I’m planning to do a Vipassana meditation course early next year. I also love to play golf. I’m artistic so I like to draw and paint and plan to get back into ceramics at some point.
Alright dear ones, that wraps it up for me. I’ll be keeping you posted on developments on the yoga wear line. The next thing to do is book your flight to Helsinki and visit Bianca at Kauppatori. Tell her I said, “Hiiii!”
Happy Monday morning friends. This is a day late. I was on single-parenting duty all weekend and decided not to stress out with getting the blog out yesterday and enjoy time with Sesam instead. Now the kid is at daycare and I am at Good Life Coffee in Kallio and yes, at this very moment in time, life does feel pretty good. My reward for being patient I suppose 🙂
This past week I had a bit of writer’s block and felt this post only begin to come alive at the playground on Saturday evening. I was pulled out of bed at the lonely, early hours on Sunday morning, the witching hour, it seems. 3 am and I was aflame with spirit and energy. I got quiet enough to be led through all that my guide in my dreamscape wished me to write about. It’s a long one and touches upon a range of subjects so settle in and, as the indomitable Fela says in Shuffering and Shmiling,”You Africans please listen to me as Africans and you non-Africans, listen to me with open mind…”
I wish to write about black girl melancholy. I wish to talk about the profound sense of homesickness and heartache I feel not so much for a geographic place or home, for I have had many, but for a sense of being rooted in deep soil. I wish to write about how I felt like I did a Vipassana meditation course in the daily routine of life itself. At first I thrashed and resisted and hated my situation. I searched for any kind of distraction away from myself. I searched for a way to escape this emptiness so full, so alarmingly all-encompassing because, after going down the rabbit-hole of my own mental trip, what can be at the bottom of all this discontent? Then, by and by, as my mind began to drop away, release its vice grip on the yesterdays and the tomorrows conjured in the “in a few hours, days, weeks, months, it’ll be like this”; in the “I need to be doing something anything else besides this,” a deep, gentle peace began to pervade. A moment to moment nowness and I owed to to myself to give it my full attention.
I kept social media and others distractions to a minimum. Social media is the portal to much inspiration and a diversity of voices that’s so desperately needed in this one-world, single narrative view portrayed in mainstream media: However, as a regular participant myself, both in consumption and production of social media, I find that simply because of what it is, it distorts life. It cleans up and glamourises and beautifies life in a way that is just not true and while I appreciate the number of folk who’re trying to live their social media lives and tell their stories with as much authenticity as possible, by default, social media can never really escape its own distorting self. And so, instead of seeking escape through my phone, I made full eye contact with my single parenting task and single-handedly managed that mofo as best I could. Not perfectly, not even successfully. I ditched the potty-training chart, gold stickers and all, because my kid is not yet about it. I bought some potato chips as a way to bribe my way back into his good graces and guess what? It worked! So, you know not perfect, but fun and good-enough. And if by good enough it meant I had a happy toddler who had Monday morning blues about going back to kindergarten after the nice weekend, then, actually, I really do mean successfully.
And all along, this black girl melancholy had me feeling some kinda way. It’s a special kind of longing and heartache, this craving for sisterhood and true, sustaining friendship with other women of color. I’m not saying you can’t experience it with other women. You can and I have and I do. I cherish my friendships with my women friends. But right now I’m talking about that alchemical moment when you meet a like-minded woman of color…that this may be a friendship for life kind of meeting. It’s rare and so terribly precious. Right now, I’m talking about that forcoloredgirlswhohaveconsideredsuicidewhentherainbowisenuf kinda way. It’s that WaitingToExhale… that Nina Simone dish-water-giving-off-no-reflection sorta thing. It’s that sense of recognition that hey, here is someone who resembles me, there are more of us than I knew.
Now, I came of age in late-90s America, where, for better or worse (but I would say for better) the concept and the experience of race was thrust upon my wide-eyed, impressionable self. It confused me and frightened me, grappling to terms with my intersectional identity of black and woman and not-fully American in my black- woman-mostly-Bantu African body. But ultimately, there were answers to be found amidst the difficult questions I was living. I found my community and felt my little pocket of Black America welcome me into her Boston Collegiate, Chicago house, Afro-Brazilian capoeira and samba arms. I almost never left, so entrenched was I in that part of my life story, but somehow the world abroad wasn’t finished with me yet and I felt the ache, the pull to uproot and understand life elsewhere. Now, close to ten years away from the US and I wonder if I am homesick for those specific places where I felt such a true sense of community? For people and friends that I’ve fallen out of touch with and who surely have not remained as I remember them ? Or am I longing more abstractly for a certain time in my life, which memory paints in such pleasing, nostalgic watercolours? I cannot say, but what I can say is that this need to be represented in the place in which I live grows more than ever. I actively seek out channels where I can hear my voice and see people who look like me. And while, there are so many quality podcasts and youtube videos and web series created by intelligent, conscious and creative people of color, at the end of the day, they are there, out there, and I am here, here only. Nothing beats a real live community, a face-to-face talk, a live collaboration. Shared lived experiences.
I started to find my homesickness for black America getting bigger rather than smaller after immersing myself in the online community of color creatives. I felt my dissatisfaction with Finland and Europe grow and wished myself away. I still feel myself hovering around other Diaspora stories clamouring to get in. I would say that after the highly visible African American diaspora narratives, the closest ones I can relate to over on this side of the pond are black British narratives. Up to a point thought because I’m not from London or Brixton at the end of the day and the good people there have their own stories to tell. They have their own storytellers weaving tales of marginalisation and gentrification; invisibility and black millennial identity with complete and utter nuance. It’s been really informative to steep myself in some Cecile Emeke, Michelle Tiwo, Shola Amoo and Warsan Shire. Or in the photography of the Afropean, out to prove that Europe is more than just a single voice and colour. Or in the music of Dizzy Rascal who, in my opinion is a bit asleep on certain concepts but whatevs, his experience is his alone and I can still vibe with his infectious energy in small doses.
So all this research into more diverse, global diaspora stories was great and all but what was up with this aversion to being in Finland? What was up with not wanting to speak Finnish as I convinced myself that I am not really even that good at it. Why bother? And it’s true, my Finnish language has stalled of late since I’m Sesam’s appointed god mother of English, but guess whaaat? It’s all in the attitude and man, I’ll be damned if I didn’t put my blood, sweat and grit into attempting a crack at the well-encrypted code of that language in my early Finland years. I cajoled native speakers of Finnish to speak with me and some did, most patiently and graciously, and some didn’t, most understandably. I struggled and kicked and screamed and worked hard and gained enough self-confidence to open my mouth from time to time. My Finnish is not fluent and not grammatically correct. Not even close. I don’t practice it actively enough since I work and write in English. What’s more, I’m not physically in Finland consistently enough to really sink my teeth in linguistically and get my hands dirty. I know, I know, where there’s a will there’s a way, but you know what, my Finnish is good enough for my simple purposes. I can rattle off a few pleasantries at the playground with other mums and grandmothers. I can follow the plot of a children’s TV show with relative success. I can get along in most basic transactions of commerce. It’s like, completely basic and totally good enough. It’s enough. I can gain an entry point on some level. The tyranny of perfection comes to an end now. I stop apologising for, underestimating and diminishing my linguistic accomplishments. I will take my basic ass, good-enough, scrappy, tatty Finnish by the hand as I hold it in the highest esteem. It represents my best foot forward attempts, hopes and wishes for myself here in this land. I’m going to keep code-switching as a legitimate form of verbal communication, a veritable patois and I’ll no longer feel guilty or defeated at needing to use English. My sucky Finnish, I’m proud of you and I love you!
Besides, I’m doing my son a grand favour for life, this gift of bilingualism, and while it comes at a personal cost, a sacrifice, golly, well, I consider this yet another initiation by fire into the embodiment of motherhood. The woman is hibernating and in her place stands a mother. Mothers are the one group where, for better or worse, sacrifice is considered paramount. I find this assumption to be problematic, leaving many women and mothers at risk for wearing a martyr hat that they didn’t particularly want or ask for. However, my truth on this is that sacrifice is inherent in most experiences of motherhood. Some sacrifices are more urgent and unrelenting than others, it’s true, but the element of sacrifice, I feel, is there, be it through the biological processes of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, to the more psychological assumptions of sacrifice down to the day-to-day division of time and tasks. This is not to ask for sympathy or invoke any sort of feeling one way or another. It is what it is. That’s all. What’s more, Nordic and Scandinavian dads are, culturally-speaking, some of the most involved and proactive when it comes to rearing children. What I’m referring to here is the struggle and pull of conflicting choices that many mothers feel themselves needing to make: to work or to stay at home or to try juggling with both? To feel guilty about putting your career first over your family or to suffer career-wise when you decide to put your family first? I feel it’s taken for granted as a shared worldview, this assumption that in order to be a good mum, women will and should sacrifice more of themselves for their children and families oftentimes at the expense of other areas of their lives. Cross-cultural and linguistic limitations aside, I do feel that, more often than not, fatherhood and career is encouraged and facilitated in a way that motherhood and career isn’t. This often means putting a particular sort of nurturing feminine energy on a pedestal while shunning and even vilifying other types of the feminine mystic that don’t fit within the patriarchal ideal of femininity. And this stunted, distorted sense of masculinity and femininity serves only to bind and constrain our inherent humanity.
But now back to being a black girl abroad. I wrote this blog piece in an effort to create my own narrative of blackness and non-Finnishness here in Helsinki itself. Surely, as I watch these groups of children coming and going about their day (specifically referring to that one child of color amongst a group of white Finns) I cannot help but think that it must feel some kind of way, even with native-speaker Finnish and all? Surely I’m not making up some sense of black pride and expression of consciousness raising when I see a trendy and hip guy with an pick in his afro at the metro stop? I’ve stopped smiling at random black folk in public spaces. Actually, that’s not true. I don’t think I can ever stop smiling at black folk, especially in such a homogeneous environment like Finland. However, I’m more cautious now and will suss out the situation before jubilantly striking up contact because I did that once and gave out the wrong message: this black dude’s girlfriend thought I was making a pass at her guy. I was like, “Na girl, not even. It’s a culture thing. Look it up.” But old dude wasn’t hip to the game either and so I took this as a learning lesson: when in Finland, do as the Finns do, at least most of the time and don’t smile at strangers. It makes me feel a little colder but I suppose this is just par for the course in a reserved society that values its private space. I guess black Finns have their unique code of conduct and culture and identity amongst themselves that is both informed by and distinct from the mighty cultural and musical behemoth of black America. On the one hand, I don’t miss the annoying cat-calling, sexual harassment on the streets and weird comments like, “Smile girl, you should smile more.” I do, however, miss those genuine moments of connection and community that you can so freely and spontaneously witness and participate in, in the US. I miss the impromptu dance circle at a New York subway station, when busy New Yorkers appreciated the street musicians enough to set up a circle and take turns laughing and dancing in the middle before disbanding and continuing on their commute, happier and lighter from the joy of the shared moment. I miss that. I miss that solidarity and shared sense of, “I see you. We’re in this together; living and experiencing this black life in this white lens together.”
And yet, within the questions often lie the answers, or a partial one at that. Next week, I’ll be writing about how I transformed the beauty found in melancholy into something uplifting and creative. I hope you’ll join me to find out how!