Looking on social media, Sade M. Jackson felt black girls were too often exposed to negative stereotypes about beauty standards.
So the 16-year-old East Baltimore teen sat down to design a T-shirt, drawing a girl’s face with four skin colors and two styles of hair. Under it, she wrote: “No matter what hairstyle or skin color, I’m still beautiful.”
The project combined her love of art with her desire to become an entrepreneur. She called her company “Crown Your Inspiration,” took the shirts to last month’s African American Festival in Druid Hill Park — and her top design sold out.
“People were so amazed. When I told them my age, they were like ‘Wow. For you to be doing what you’re doing is really amazing,’ ” Sade recalled. “One lady was telling me to keep on going because it doesn’t stop here.”
Sade — who attends Bard High School Early College in West Baltimore — was recently named one of nine winners of Baltimore’s first-ever Teen Business Challenge, a competition meant to inspire young people to create their own businesses.
For the competition, Mayor Catherine Pugh solicited donations from local businesses and partnered with the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship. Young people participated in a five-week Business Training Camp and learned to develop business plans and pitch their ideas to investors.
Each of the winners received seed money of up to $5,000 to grow their businesses.
In addition to Sade, other winners included Janiya M. Foreman of Innovative Touch; Vincent Green and Gregory R. Holmes of Vinny’s Vanilla & Ice Bike Creams; Samierra A. Jones of The Trenches to the Throne; Charles & Tracey Robinson of Empire Printing; Khalid H. Williams of Perfect Step; Courtney L. Dupye of Young n Ambitious (YnA) Clothing; and Lecha’ Guy of Cha’s Mendhi Artistry.
“It’s inspiring young people to think beyond what people may pigeonhole them to be,” said Pugh, who compared the competition to ABC’s “Shark Tank” show. Young people are “able to come up with a business idea, pitch it, get investors and now we get to see how successful they will become.”
Even as Baltimore’s economy has grown in recent years, the wealth gap between white-owned and black-owned businesses remains an issue city leaders are trying to address.
The average black-owned business in Baltimore is worth $40,000 and the average value for white-owned businesses is $800,000, according to the Washington-based Corporation for Enterprise Development.
Steve Legacy, director of the Baltimore-Washington Metro Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship, said the organization hopes the seed money and training helps the winners to take their business ideas to the next level.
“The sponsorship of these young people means the world to all of us,” Legacy said. “It’s about learning entrepreneurship, financial literacy. It’s about developing business plans and thinking about your future and what’s possible.”
Green, 21, and Holmes, 17, created Ice Bike Creams to sell ice cream by bike throughout the summer around large events like Orioles games.
Green said they have plans to expand throughout the state.
“Why not get into business?” he said. “I can take my expectations as far as I want to go.”
Sade said she has long wanted to become a business owner.
“From the time she could talk, she was always trying to sell candy, making her own little bracelets and jewelry,” said her mother, Tasha Brown. “She’s always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I’m very proud of the leadership skills she’s showing and the dedication to the gift she has.”
Sade has tried other business models in the past — such as “prep packs” in which parents could have all their back-to-school supplies delivered to their house in one box — but the inspirational T-shirt idea was the first to catch on. She said her father and mother encouraged her to use her artistic abilities.
Her designs include a shirt bearing the brand name “Crown Your Inspiration” and another featuring a man and a woman wearing crowns. The shirt says “Unity is Power.”
Sade sells the shirts from her house, but hopes to have a website up and running soon.
“The messages that my shirts send is all about empowerment,” Sade said. “You can do this. Know who you are. Know where you're going. Don’t let anybody bring you back down.”
Sade said she wants to address problems in Baltimore by inspiring young people to take a different path.
“I do it off problems in society,” she said of her shirts. “There’s a big hype on social media about you can’t do this, you can’t do that. I make a shirt that’s the opposite of that.”
Joyell Arvella, who mentors Sade, said she’s not surprised by her success.
“She’s very passionate about being an entrepreneur,” Arvella said. “She has a strong moral compass. She’s extremely bright. She’s very ambitious and courageous. I like that she already has confidence that many adults don’t have. Shes not afraid of taking a challenge. She knows what she likes and she goes for it.”
Sade’s twin, Taijanae Jackson, 16, said she’s impressed with her sister’s drive.
“She’s very confident in herself,” Taijanae said. “She might stumble sometimes, but she never falls. When she gets to the point where she’s ready to go, there’s no stopping her.”