Cory Toatley didn’t plan to start a business. He was chasing a memory.
Surely there must be a candle with the elusive scent of an incense burned by his college roommate. But if there was, he couldn’t find it. And so, Toatley, a blend of creative old soul and self-reliant Texan, set out to make one.
That first candle-making class in 2012, and a second the following year, weren’t about making money. He was following his nose, hoping to create a candle that smelled like Nag Champa, an Indian fragrance used in temples and ashrams.
Flash forward three years: Over a series of Saturdays last fall, Toatley and several dozen other would-be entrepreneurs gathered at the University of Houston’s Melcher Hall for a crash course in business, learning about the financing, legal issues and accounting principles that could help him move Alchemy Candle Co. from a hobby to a business.
The popular program, known as SURE™, Stimulating Urban Renewal through Entrepreneurship, is part of the University’s Third Ward Initiative, intended to empower the community to build upon its own strengths.
Saleha Khumawala, Robert Grinaker Professor of Accounting at the C. T. Bauer College of Business, is founding director of the program, using graduate business students to teach financial literacy, help the participants create business plans and otherwise offer assistance.
The goal is not to fight change but to ensure the changing neighborhood remains welcoming to long-time residents.
People must meet three requirements to qualify: have a concrete business idea, evidence they are serious about it and a commitment to an underserved area. About one-third of the fall class, including Toatley, were referred by the Emancipation Economic Development Council, part of a coalition of nonprofit groups working to strengthen the historically African-American community as gentrification encroaches.
They ranged from a certified electrician trying to launch a general contracting business to a property owner interested in opening a youth hostel. Several have fledgling tutoring businesses, reflecting efforts to improve educational outcomes in the Third Ward.
Like Toatley, Landi Spearman was referred to the program by the Emancipation EDC. But while Toatley had few concrete plans and no corporate experience, Spearman had worked for years as a real estate broker and human resources manager, recruiting top executives, engineers and other professionals and helping families settle into new homes and new cities.
She was brimming with ambition and armed with her corporate experience—and her knowledge of the stress suffered by families during and after a disruptive move—she had founded Destination 4 Relocation, a turnkey concierge service offering everything from help buying furniture and overseeing home design to providing information about area schools.
Even with a business background, Spearman found strong support for first-time entrepreneurs through SURE™. The networking opportunities, both with other students and with the business leaders who serve as guest lecturers, proved especially valuable.
“The Bauer SURE™ program creates an environment for motivated entrepreneurs who look like me to network with business leaders and to foster relationships and support,” Spearman said.
Networking with another SURE™ entrepreneur even prompted a collaboration, and Destination 4 Relocation offered concierge services to local property owners to prepare and stage their homes for lease through Airbnb for the 2017 NFL championship game.
Through SURE™ and other pieces of the Third Ward Initiative, the goal is not to fight change but to ensure the changing neighborhood remains welcoming to long-time residents.
Instead of Starbucks and Chili’s, the vision calls for more independent businesses like Doshi House, a coffee house on the newly renamed Emancipation Avenue, and the Library Coffee and Wine House on Scott Street, where Heather Davis, an earlier graduate of Khumawala’s program, sells baked goods through her Sweet Luxuries Bakery.
“It’s not high-end businesses being brought in,” Khumawala said. “It’s the local community.”
Or, as Toatley calls it, the “shop local and shop small” movement, allowing people to patronize friends and neighbors rather than corporate interests moving in from outside.
He has always been an artist, making and selling jewelry as a child growing up in Giddings, where he absorbed his grandmother’s love of vintage furniture. Urged by his family to study something practical, he earned a degree in digital media design at Texas State Technical College in Waco.
He moved to Houston soon after, working in social service jobs for a decade, helping friends with interior design or choosing vintage clothing on the side. Candle-making added another component, as he scoured thrift stores and online sites for unusual containers and experimented to create new scents.
A mix of sandalwood and plumeria yielded the scent he remembered from that roommate’s Nag Champa incense. Leather, tobacco, cedar and vanilla became “Bachelor Pad,” which quickly turned into one of his best-selling products. Think masculine, without the stinky gym socks.
“I was just living in the moment,” he said. “I knew it was probably profitable, or I wouldn’t keep doing it.”
Enter SURE™, which puts business acumen on an equal footing with creativity and desire.
The candles, made in his apartment’s narrow kitchen, sell for between $20 and $100; the more expensive “vintage” line comes in antique cocktail glasses and other unique containers.
“With the Third Ward Initiative, we’re like a fisherman school, giving people the tools they need,” Khumawala said. “We’re teaching people to be financially independent.”
The Alchemy Candle Co. isn’t there yet—Toatley works at Doshi House, where he also sells his candles, in addition to selling through Instagram, Facebook and pop-up events. And if he’s not yet ready to commit full time, he now has the business knowledge to move ahead.
But not too quickly. Just as the coalition of groups focused on revitalizing the Third Ward wants to build on history, Toatley wants to build his business organically.
“I don’t want to do it too fast,” he said. “I want to enjoy it. Everybody doesn’t move at the same pace.”