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How Founder Shannon Maldonado Carved Out A Multi-Hyphenate Concept Store In South Philly

There's something special happening in South Philly, and it's called YOWIE.

Black Woman Owned

Black Woman Owned is a limited series highlighting black woman business owners who are change-makers and risk-takers in their respective realms. As founders, these women dare to be bold, have courage in being the change they wish to see in the world, and are unapologetic when it comes to their vision. These black women aren't waiting for a seat, they are owning the table.


Imagination, at its core, is the springboard of creativity. No matter the trade or discipline, the work of an artist is the physical manifestation of a once shapeless concept that, through time, is crafted into something real. Over the years, Shannon Maldonado, founder of the Philly-based concept store, YOWIE, has mastered this feat. And today, this small but mighty business owner displays how to "take your ideas off the page and explain why they should exist."

In order to understand what YOWIE is, you must note that this multi-hyphenate space is just as its motto implies: it's "a lot of things." The part-retail shop, part-design studio, and whole-adult playground was birthed out of what Shannon imagined her perfect workplace to be. What started out as a Pinterest mood board and side project, has since grown into something much greater with a community-centric purpose that ripples throughout its Philly home base.

Much like her brainchild, Shannon has never been the type to limit her creativity when it begs to expand. For more than a decade, Shannon worked within the corporate fashion sector for legacy brands like Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle, and Ralph Lauren. Each work experience imparted valuable lessons that she would then apply to her own business, sharing that it's "really important before you start your own thing: to see how others do it." But like any great student of their craft understands, there's just as much to learn from others' mistakes as there is from their wins.

That's why Shannon was determined "to do the opposite" of what she saw in these spaces once she got her wings to launch YOWIE in 2016.

Courtesy of Shannon Maldonado

Photo by: Caro Ramirez

Shannon's pivot from the corporate world was marked by a need for more, a call that would push her into something greater, "I had social anxiety, financial anxiety [in New York]. There was just so much bubbling under the surface that once I hit that wall, it became way easier to leave. I was ready for a change." She was looking to pursue something that would challenge her both professionally and personally, and YOWIE did just that.

In the five years since YOWIE's inception, the shop has experienced a great deal of local support, but nothing would match that influx of visibility that would come in 2020. Wedged between the onslaught of small business support brought on by COVID-19, along with the hypervisibility of Black-owned businesses that followed the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, Shannon's once intimate neighborhood corner store, began to grow in brand recognition.

"It made me feel more comfortable about speaking out on injustices. That's who I am. I want to be a good neighbor and a civically-minded human being, and that should be a part of our brand as well."

YOWIE is an extension of Shannon and the community that raised her. It's a noun, an adjective, and even a verb. Home-grown and community-centric. It speaks to her genius to never be boxed in by one product, space, or idea. But most of all, YOWIE is yours and belongs to the community of South Philadelphia.

YOWIE is the future.

What prompted the transition from your corporate job to taking the leap into entrepreneurship? Were there any challenges you had to face in this transition? 

One of the challenges was how for the entire time I'd been in corporate, I've been an anonymous designer. So unless I told you that these were jeans that I designed, you would have no idea who made them. To stand in front of a group of people [when I launched YOWIE] and say these are all of the things that I love, these are artists that I think you should believe in, that was very scary. I felt very naked because YOWIE is such a personal brand and such an extension of me.

In the beginning, you're really just trying to find your voice and your audience. I think there's this misconception that the world is just waiting for you to finish your website and then they're all just going to run and buy everything, but that's not true; it's actually very anticlimactic. But every step of the way, I would get a small affirmation, whether it was a purchase, press, or someone saying, "This is really special." I would hold on to those things. It's never lost on me when someone compliments the brand or I see someone wearing our tote on the street. I'm very proud that people resonate with the brand, it definitely helps me out on the harder days when I'm like, 'What the hell am I doing?!'

You left New York and headed home to Philly to start what is now YOWIE. Sometimes there can be resistance or even pride in returning home, how were you able to adjust to this move? 

For many reasons, I didn't want to do the brand in New York. It felt like it would just be one of many in New York, and it would be very financially challenging to do YOWIE there. I wanted it to be the opposite of what I was used to, I wanted YOWIE to be based on emotion, feelings, the love of design, and not worry about money. I felt like I should open it in a lower-cost city like Philly that I know, but it also is unfamiliar to me because I had been gone for so long.

I was looking for a challenge and space where I would make mistakes; a mistake in Philly is not the same cost as a mistake in New York, so it felt a lot more comfortable to me. After that much time [in New York], I didn't hate my job, but I wasn't learning anymore. I'm a life-long student, I love to learn, I like being uncomfortable. I wanted to do something that was going to challenge me professionally and personally and boy, did it!

"To stand in front of a group of people and say, these are all of the things that I love, these are artists that I think you should believe in, that was very scary. I felt very naked because YOWIE is such a personal brand and such an extension of me."

Courtesy of Shannon Maldonado

Photo by: Caro Ramirez

Have you seen the benefits of sticking to your gut in building YOWIE in your hometown of Philly?

I think the biggest thing with your gut is that it's like a muscle you have to work at and grow over time and get comfortable listening to. In the beginning, when you start a business, a lot of the people who you love and care about will come out of the woodwork to give you advice. They want to tell you, "One time my friend started a business and this is what they did wrong." All of a sudden, everyone's an expert in small business. So you're going to hear a lot of noise, and I was, in the first six months or so, susceptible to that noise. I've always been someone who trusts my gut and instincts, so I was like, "Wait, I can't get sucked into this now, this is not who I am."

Over time, I built up this group of friends who I call my "frientors sounding board" and those are the people who I take the things that I'm truly unsure about with YOWIE to. But it's not an open forum for every random person to come in and tell me what I should do with the brand.

That door closed a very long time ago because I think at the end of the day, people can look at your brand from the outside and dissect it and think they know what's what, but only you know your goals and intentions and you have to feel comfortable with that. I don't think that's something that comes overnight, but once I locked into what I wanted YOWIE to be, there's no person who can steer me from that direction.

YOWIE experienced a great deal of growth through the hypervisibility of last summer’s events with COVID and the BLM movement. How has life and business changed since then? 

That whole time was interesting. It was affirming because I had been working on YOWIE for so long and had very humble goals for it. I wasn't chasing rapid growth, just slow and steady strategy, so I was like, "Wow, this is exciting that we're finally getting all this attention!" But then, it's wrapped in: we're getting all this attention because someone has died. Or because finally, people are deciding that they should support Black businesses after an obscene amount of time of us being here. It was really complicated. I didn't know what else to do but galvanize that attention into raising funds and sharing resources because it just didn't feel right to just take it all for ourselves.

I have a younger brother who's had run-ins with the police, and it struck a nerve with me to see how many times we heard these stories and something broke in me. For a long time as a Black founder, I was unsure if I could weave some of the experience that I've had about race into our brand and narrative. I wasn't sure how that would be received. But after that time in June [2020], I didn't care anymore. This is something that's important to me and if this alienates some of our customers, then they weren't our people anyway.

It was very empowering in that way, but it was also very strange. In the aftermath, I feared that it would all be taken away, I thought this is all just fleeting, a moment, and it would fizzle out. I'm very proud to say that hasn't been the case for us. We've grown exponentially, but there was definitely this fear of they're only here for a moment.

"Once I locked into what I wanted YOWIE to be, there's no person who can steer me from that direction."

Courtesy of Shannon Maldonado

Photo by: Caro Ramirez

How have you been able to align yourself with opportunities that speak to you and your brand and not fall into the “once in a lifetime opportunities” myth?

It's been a lot of trial and error on my end. In June, we got a lot more inquiries about collaborations than we ever had in the five years that we've been in business. Some were so obviously copy-and-pasted, no recognition of who we are, it was just like they called an all-hands meeting and said, "Find a Black person! Find a Black business!" I was once such a people-pleaser, but that was the first time in my life where I started saying "no" to things. Professionally and politely.

Now, my first thing is: I need to feel something. When I get an email, it's like the same process as when I order products: I want to feel excited. I wanted to feel an immediate visceral reaction. For me now, nothing is an immediate "yes" anymore. I have to ask questions.

You have to do your due diligence now because so many people are trying to tokenize us and to look like they're not crazy or doing terrible things and I will not be that person. Money is not the only success of YOWIE, what we've built, the community we have is better than that.

In what ways have you learned to be gentle with yourself in the process of entrepreneurship?


That's something that's still a work-in-progress for me. One of the biggest things I've done in the last two years is not comparing myself and what I'm doing with YOWIE to what other entrepreneurs are doing with their brands. I think that was a big unlock for me because you can lose so much time feeling insecure or jealous about what someone else is doing that you could use creating or trying new things.

When you're starting out, it's hard to not do that, but once I got in the mindset of "I know where I want YOWIE to go," it cleared a lot of space for me to be creative again. I think a lot of that is because I'm a lot older than the people I interact with. I know who I am, I'm sure of myself, I'm not trying to find myself anymore as a person. Coming into my late 30s, I know where I want to be, and what kind of leader I want to become and what kind of brand that I want to create.

"I know who I am, I'm sure of myself, I'm not trying to find myself anymore as a person. Coming into my late 30s, I know where I want to be, and what kind of leader I want to become and what kind of brand that I want to create."

Courtesy of Shannon Maldonado

Photo by: Caro Ramirez

What does a “safe space” mean to you?

Safe space, in our regard, means a place where you can not only be yourself but a place where you feel a sense of ownership. There's something about feeling like something is yours or that it's a part of your community that makes it feel safe. One of the things that I love and gets me choked up is when people talk about YOWIE and how proud they are that it's in Philly and that it's their space. That makes me feel really proud that they feel like they own part of the space.

Having this pride and ownership over a space. Not in a way that's exclusive, but in a way that you really love it, and you want to bring all your friends into it and you can't wait to tell everyone about it.

To learn more about YOWIE and Shannon Maldonado's community-centric endeavors, follow her here.

Featured image courtesy by Caro Ramirez

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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