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

This article is in partnership with Xfinity.

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