An Inside Look: See How The Culture of Memphis Reigns Supreme For These Black Entrepreneurs
Photo Credit: Princeton James and Cynthia Daniels/Patrick Williams and Shawn Lee
Hip hop, social justice, soul music, soul food – the city of Memphis is a cultural mecca of the South with good reason. But, it wouldn’t be known for what it is today without the people who reside there.
We want to make it known that the entrepreneur ecosystem is prospering and entrepreneurs like Princeton James and Cynthia Daniels are two prime examples of why its influence reigns supreme. From having a bustling technology scene, to a market for artists and craftsmen, the city is a Black mecca for up-and-coming or established doers, makers and dreamers.
James is the founder of a production company, Princeton James Productions and Daniels is the founder of a full-service event planning company, Cynthia Daniels & Co. Both entrepreneurs spoke with AfroTech to provide an inside look on how Memphis’ unique soul, culture and influence has boosted the credibility of their business and assisted their entrepreneurial journey.
AfroTech: Tell me about your entrepreneurial experience.
James: My entrepreneurial experience has been a continuous journey of learning and liberation. I lead an independent production that was built from the ground. A huge percentage of our foundation is accredited to God and being a student to craft. That method has never changed and continues to be one of the essentials.
Daniels: In 2009, I moved from Atlanta to Memphis after spending a year after college looking for the perfect job with no success. I earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in business management in college and was thoroughly disappointed when finding employment in Atlanta became depressing. Two weeks after arriving in Memphis, I found a job in employee relations. It was a good job, one that would have enabled me to build a comfortable life in Memphis. But then I needed more. I moved through four more “good” jobs before I realized I wanted to be my own boss! Through volunteer work as the president of a non-profit agency, I came to know many of the Black business owners in Memphis and learned of their needs.
I began as a volunteer helping Black businesses grow their sales through marketing and social media. The businesses that appeared to need so much were those in the restaurant industry. Memphis is a big food town! Through a previous job with the city of Memphis, I learned that food is the one thing the city rallies around. My personal goal was to help my community grow economically and help the owners that I came to know experience some success. After a year of successfully helping these businesses to grow, I decided to make it official and founded Cynthia Daniels and Company.
Cynthia Daniels & Co. is a full-service event planning and design company that specializes in executing large-scale corporate and social events. Under that umbrella, I created 10 signature events including Memphis Black Restaurant Week, which has brought more than $1 million dollars into the minority-owned restaurant community since 2016. Memphis Black Restaurant Week has become an annual event and is one of my company’s signature events. In December 2018, Cynthia Daniels & Co. launched Black Christmas Expo, where 50 minority businesses participated, and patrons spent more than $115,000 during the two-day event. Last year, I contracted with the Memphis airport to decorate the airport for Christmas. This was the first time that the airport contracted with a Black-owned business.
As a full-service event planning company, although I handle private, corporate and charity events, one of my primary focuses is to help grow and develop small Black businesses. And my main area of development is identifying and creating opportunities for these businesses to sell their products.
AfroTech: Describe the culture, food, music and spaces in Memphis that make it unique.
James: Memphis literally has a soul that you feel when experiencing the food, music, and other parts of the culture. It’s like an authenticity that you can’t describe other than saying “that’s so Memphis”. These barbecue nachos are “so Memphis”, that remixed that song to sound “so Memphis”, and the list goes on and on. It’s the soul.
Daniels: Memphis is a city with a rich and eclectic history. It is the home of the Blues, birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll, and the barbecue pork capital of the world and more. But, there’s a certain soul when you come to the city of Memphis. When you move here, you realize barbecue is a yearlong thing. And the soul food culture is very big. You’re never more than five minutes away from the southern staples of fried chicken or barbecue, but there are also hidden gems on every corner and emerging restaurateurs popping up every day. Whether it’s unexpected fusions like crepes and ice cream or gourmet chocolates that cater the Grammys, it is all Memphis!
The National Civil Rights Museum is truly a life-changing experience where you can learn so much about African-American history from the 1600s and leading up until 1968. The boarding house displays examine the aftermath and legacy of the King assassination. The exhibits are interactive, educational and thought-provoking. It tells our story so generations from here on will know the freedoms they enjoy today came with a cost. The museum houses 25 exhibits, andvery time I leave the museum, it encourages me to do more in my community.
Memphis has the most incredible live music scene, so I would take visitors to The Pocket to hear some of my favorite musicians. The Pocket is a speakeasy with the most amazing cocktails and fun atmosphere. Beale Street is also a tourist attraction with live music every day of the week.
AfroTech: How does the city benefit entrepreneurs specifically?
James: There is an originality in Memphis that is literally found nowhere else. And Memphis has the highest tolerance of familiarity with talent that I’ve ever seen before. So if you can successfully entertain crowds here, you can do it anywhere.
Daniels: Memphis is a river town and has a deep history of people from many cultures coming to visit or coming to stay! As Memphis has grown in popularity, more and more people have made Memphis home, while bringing their distinct cultures and tastes to it. Memphis has graduated to be a foodie paradise, bringing opportunities for entrepreneurs to become innovative and creative amongst this array of cultures. Memphis’ economic development is thriving. Downtown is experiencing a building boom, with entrepreneurs flocking to the city’s innovation districts. It is a top 10 city for technology jobs and the cost of living is among the lowest in the country. And, of course, our food and music scene is one of the best in the world. Memphis boasts an array of organizations, opportunities, and initiatives conceived to make way for the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
AfroTech: Why is it important to have businesses that celebrate the Black experience?
James: I think it’s important to have businesses celebrate the Black experience because it’s a huge part of our culture here. Our experiences are the pulse. It kept the city alive for some many years and continues to do so today.
Daniels: Black-owned businesses celebrate the richness of African-American culture. Black-owned clothing stores, hair care and makeup products, and children’s toys are just a few examples. Black-owned businesses bring access to services that can specifically address the community’s needs. Certain kinds of business ventures uplift the Black community and foster a strong sense of pride in the people that live there. When we celebrate Black-owned businesses, we celebrate our unique character that consumes unique products that other businesses fail to provide. When you celebrate Black businesses by spending money with Black businesses, the money remains within the community. Supporting or celebrating Black businesses supports families, employees and other business owners as well as attracts community investors who can provide banking services, loans and promote financial literacy that builds economic strength.
AfroTech: How has Memphis’ culture influenced your business?
James: I’m originally from Mississippi, but I live in Memphis. Mississippi raised the person in me, but Memphis developed the artist in me. Whenever I’m creating, I pull from what I’ve experienced from the people, food, events, conversations and experiences. There are so many ideas that have come from just being in the atmosphere and just being present.
Daniels: Many young Black professionals live in Memphis, or are moving to Memphis, and they have needs. What I discovered is that Memphis does not offer upscale events for Black young professionals. Out of this void, I began to create entertainment events for young professional adults which led to the creation of events that recognize the talent and skills of the Black young professional. You’ve got tech companies, artists, boutique online businesses, newer brick and mortars and many Black professionals owning and/or operating these businesses.
In addition to creating cool events for young professionals in Memphis, I’ve also found a need to create events to market and uplift local Black-owned businesses. Examples of some of the events I have created are:
- Forty Under Forty Urban Elite Professionals
- Soulful Food Truck Festival
- Elixir, an upscale social event for Black professionals
- Black Christmas Expo
- Juneteenth Shop Black Virtual Experience, which created a digital marketplace for Black businesses and brought in $1 million for the 100 participating businesses.
AfroTech: Tell us one thing about Memphis that makes it special to you.
James: The bridge makes it special. Memphis connects three states. One city is connected to three states. If you’ve experienced the people here you will learn that you are usually one degree of separation from anyone. That’s one of the many things that makes it special.
Daniels: Memphis is a city of doers, dreamers, and believers. Here, you can create, invent, and experiment. The opportunity for change and for me to be an agent of change makes Memphis special.
AfroTech: Is there anything else you would like to add?
James: I think Memphis is on the verge to becoming one of the leaders in our world’s creative economy.
Daniels: Relationship-building is so important to the success of entrepreneurs. My success as an entrepreneur in Memphis is built on relationships. I began to develop from the moment I arrived in the city. Another important thing is to always let people who support you know that you appreciate them. When you can, acknowledge their support publicly. I make it a point at all of my events to speak to people and let them know personally that they are invaluable to my success. Social media is the biggest reason I’m able to stay connected to additional followers, and I get to interact with them almost on a daily basis. From time to time, I’ll inbox a few people just to say thank you for supporting my brand. It’s the little things that keep you connected.
Memphis has a history of being a city of love and soul and as a growing hotspot for Black-owned businesses, it is quickly becoming a top destination for Black entrepreneurs who are looking for the best place to grow and thrive. Learn more about what makes the Southern city so special here.
This piece has been brought to you in partnership with Epicenter.