How Founder Shannon Maldonado Carved Out A Multi-Hyphenate Concept Store In South Philly
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.
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 were 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 , 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, 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, 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
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Aley Arion is a writer and digital storyteller from the South, currently living in sunny Los Angeles. Her site, yagirlaley.com, serves as a digital diary to document personal essays, cultural commentary, and her insights into the Black Millennial experience. Follow her at @yagirlaley on all platforms!
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Janelle Monáe's Reveals The Real Reason Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Tuxedos
Singer and actress Janelle Monáe exemplifies how change can be a powerful catalyst for growth and transformation.
Monáe, who rose to fame in 2010 following the release of her debut album, The ArchAndroid, captivated fans' hearts with her powerful vocals, catchy tunes, and style. Around that time period, when various female artists were known to wear provocative ensembles on stage, the "Tightrope" songstress set herself apart by wearing her signature black and white suits and continued to do so for almost a decade.
In the later years of her career, after the release of her studio albums The Electric Lady in 2013 and 2018's Dirty Computer, many began to notice the shift in Monáe's artistry and fashion, which some widely praised.
Although the now 37-year-old rarely addressed the reason behind the transformation over the years, that would all change when Monáe sat down with radio personality Angie Martinez on her IRL podcast earlier this month.
During the interview, Monáe --who was promoting her latest album, "The Age of Pleasure"-- opened up about her mental health struggles, how she would cope, and why she chose to live in freedom.
Janelle On Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Suits All the Time
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
In the May discussion, the "I Like That" vocalist revealed she suffers from anxiety, which she claimed would occur around "winter to spring."
Monáe added that when she has her bouts with anxiety, she tends to turn to food as a coping mechanism. Further in the interview, the "Lipstick Lover" singer disclosed that her emotional eating habits caused a weight fluctuation and that she could no longer fit into the suits she once wore earlier in her career.
Monáe explained that even though she tried to diet and exercise to return to her smaller figure, she ultimately stopped and made peace with herself with the help of therapy because she acknowledged that she isn't the same person she was nearly a decade ago and shouldn't try to be even if it was a highly "celebrated" version.
"I'm petite, but it can get thick... When I couldn't fit them suits anymore, and I was like, 'Oh my God, what is going on?' I would be dieting, running, or exercising, trying to fit into [it]. I'm just like, 'No. No, we're here. This is where we are.' We [are] not about to be utilizing life trying to be an old version of ourselves. No matter how celebrated that version of me was. I'm here. I'm here," she said.
Janelle On Freedom
As the topic shifted to freedom and what that meant to Monáe, the "Primetime" vocalist shared that in this new era of her life, she enjoys it because she can boldly express herself however she wants and honor who she is as a person right now.
Monáe also revealed that she had found ways to become a better artist and the best version of herself because of her freedom.
"What is the new version of freedom? What does that feel like? That's usually when I feel the most free is when artistically, I can honor exactly who I am right now," she stated. "I feel most free as a human when I can honor exactly who I am right now."
Monáe's fourth studio album, The Age of Pleasure, is set to be released on June 9.
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