Melanin Market connects black businesses with consumers

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

BALDWIN HILLS — Kris Hibler-Smith and Jay Funtila, are two young Black men who have always had the desire to connect the Black community in a way that made it mutually beneficial for everyone.

One day while sitting in his sister’s house talking about Black people and bemoaning the gentrification happening in Inglewood, Hibler-Smith, a Maryland native, got an idea.

“All of a sudden it popped in my head to do a market, a Black-owned market with Black vendors,” he said. “It had to stand out from other markets, though. The focus had to be on young Black people and connecting them with established vendors so they could learn all they can about being in business and have an opportunity to learn proper business practices.”

Friends since 2013, Hibler-Smith, 26, called Funtila, 29, to run the idea past him.

“I thought it was a great idea,” said Funtila, a case manager for the Department of Children and Family Services, who works on the placement of sexually exploited girls. “We decided to tie in assisting businesses already in the neighborhood. We wanted to show the new vendors what it means to be an entrepreneur and then pair them with other business people in the community.”

The result was Melanin Market LA (MMLA), a collective that brings together Black-owned businesses and vendors to showcase their products to the community. Launched in January 2019, the market focuses on advertising and event production for Black-owned businesses and vendors in Los Angeles. Melanin Market LA aims to connect its partners to opportunities that enable them to showcase their products and services to the community.

It’s a way to satisfy the needs of both Black consumers and entrepreneurs. The Melanin Market also has a youth mentoring component where inner-city children who are interested in business can learn firsthand from the vendors at the market through real experience. The program aims to help new entrepreneurs not only start a business but learn about good business practices.

“We started Melanin Market LA because we knew of so many incredible Black-owned businesses, but saw there were so many in our community that didn’t have the opportunity to patronize them,” Hibler-Smith said.

“We hope that this event will show the power of Black entrepreneurship and inspire our community’s youth to live their dreams while at the same time connecting Black-owned businesses to resources and exposure in the community,” Funtila said.

According to a May report from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, more than 40% of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. took a financial hit and were forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The co-founders of Melanin Market LA, who partner with the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza for its outdoor community market, are hopeful the existence of their bi-weekly event is a move in the right direction.

“We’ve learned it’s all about connections,” Funtila said.

“For over a decade, Capri has made it a priority to support and help foster the small minority-owned businesses that we have the privilege of calling our tenants,” said Rachel Freeman, president and CEO of Capri Retail Services. “Partnering with Kris and Jay to bring the Melanin Market to Baldwin Hills Crenshaw is an absolute joy for us, and we knew our community would love it.

“Black-owned businesses have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, so we are thrilled to open our space to these incredible entrepreneurs and provide a home base to share their passion and their products with our community.”

“The success of this market is our dream come true, and we can’t imagine a better location than Baldwin Hills Crenshaw,” said Hibler-Smith, a project coordinator for Dynamic Concepts in Washington, D.C.

“We founded Melanin Market LA to create a space for the South L.A. community to access goods and services from local Black-owned businesses, and we’re grateful to Baldwin Hills Crenshaw for providing the perfect place to host this event,” said Funtila.

Both Hibler-Smith and Funtila wanted the name of their enterprise to represent and reflect the community.

“Part of the reason we came up with the name Melanin Market is that I wanted young Black people to be proud of the word melanin and to be proud they have melanin,” Hibler-Smith said.

“We recognize that there are other ethnicities that have melanin,” said Funtila. “The kind of issue we have within the community is that a lot of them don’t want to be identified as Black. In order to be a part of the Melanin Market, they have to identify with being Black.”

Neither Hibler-Smith nor Funtila receive any monetary gain from their enterprise. Any excess goes back into the community in the form of school drives.

Hibler-Smith and Funtila, neither of whom currently have their own business, said they buy materials for young vendors and donate the goods to them.

“We sponsor youth to be part of our market,” Funtila said. “We pay for them. We provide tents, tables, and marketing. We even connect vendors to resources. It’s not about what we are doing for ourselves. It’s what we are doing to connect the community.”

“Seeing the community come together is what we get out of it,” Hibler-Smith said. “It’s important to have that encouragement from vendor to vendor, patron to patron and patron to vendor. That’s what warms my heart the most. For a lot of vendors, this is their first market ever. Interaction is important.”

“For me there is a two-fold answer,” Funtila said. “I love working with adults on the business side of things. We’re not getting to see our people in our community anymore. It’s satisfying to see so many people together and having a good time together. We are building relationships. It warms my heart as well to know we’re making an impact. What we’re doing can have an everlasting effect. People can be inspired and get ideas. We are planting a seed that will grow into something that will be so much bigger. It’s a passion project.”

Twice a month on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Melanin Market LA is held on the outdoor promenade of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, in front of the Cinemark Theater. The remaining dates for the year include Oct. 31, Nov. 14, Nov. 28, Dec. 12, and Dec. 19.

Other locations include Vox Collegiate Charter School and the Century Community Charter School. Depending on the Melanin Market venue, vending space ranges from $45-$140.

The Melanin Market has become a popular event. Many of the items sold by vendors are one-of-a-kind.

For young Black vendors hawking their wares, there are restrictions on what can be sold at the Melanin Market.

“We are a family-friendly market,” Funtila said. “Vendors can’t sell drug paraphernalia, alcohol, or adult-rated items. We pick and choose the CBD products that can be sold.”

Hibler-Smith and Funtila plan to expand the Melanin Market to the East Coast.

For more information about the market, visit www.melaninmarketla.com, and follow them on Instagram and Facebook.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.