“Our customers are largely local people – of all backgrounds – and visitors to Brixton. People who buy from us want something that’s a bit different, is ethically-produced and reflects their world – or the world they want to live in”. ….. Lenders don’t see us as competent business people in the same way they view white people and regard us as a bigger risk, even though we’re (black women) one of the fastest growing groups of start-up” Anita Thorpe
A landmark business, Diverse was founded in 1999 by Anita Thorpe, starting life as a silver jewellery stall in Brixton’s famous street market. Today, it is an established and popular lifestyle store specialising in work by local artists and designers, as well as unique, handcrafted products from artisans across the globe. Diverse also partners with a number of enterprise agencies and colleges to train and nurture new creative talent. Alt caught up with Anita as she prepared to re-open her shop as the lockdown eased which meant losing “3 months of turnover.
Q: What inspired the idea for Diverse gift shop?
The ‘shop’ was initially a silver jewellery stall in Brixton market that I opened to keep myself occupied as a newly arrived Londoner and indulge my love of jewellery.
Q: Did you always set out to have your own business, what were you doing before?
Not at all! Like a lot of people, I’d toyed with the idea, but I was too busy climbing the career ladder (I was a training manager).
The business was actually an attempt to give myself a reason to stay in London as, initially, I wasn’t too impressed by London life. I love it now though!
Q: What is the business model – what would you say your USP is?
I retail design-led gifts, via a physical shop and online. Our USP is the inclusive nature of what we sell.
I always used to wonder why I couldn’t go into a modern giftshop and see myself represented alongside the contemporary products on offer; so, I created what I would have liked to see. So, you can come into our shop an see a mug with Jay Z on it alongside a mug with David Bowie on it. Or a graduation card that features a Black graduate, alongside a card with a white graduate.
The other thing we’re known for is our support for emerging artists and makers. Many of our products are handmade or designed by creatives who are new to the market.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges when starting?
Unlike a lot of start-ups, money wasn’t the issue when I set up shop 20 years ago. I had a good business plan; I had savings; the economy was healthy, and the banks were lending. My biggest challenge was my lack of retail knowledge. Running a physical shop is different to running a small casual stall. It meant I made a few quite expensive mistakes when I started out.
Q: What have been the best things about being in business?
The freedom and self-determination in being your own boss. The creativity involved in staying in business, which is both terrifying and exciting. The satisfaction of knowing people appreciate what you do and knowing you’re inspiring others to fulfil their enterprise dreams.
Q: What kind of products do you sell?
We sell cards, gifts, jewellery, books, prints, traditional toys and natural hair and skincare. At least 50% of our products are supplied by Black-owned businesses.
Q: Why do you think black women find difficult to finance their businesses?
I think good old racism is probably the main reason. Lenders don’t see us as competent business people in the same way they view white people and regard us as a bigger risk, even though we’re one of the fastest growing groups of start-ups.
I started at a time when the bank I chose was actively seeking to increase its minority customer base but had it not been for that initiative, I would probably have had to bootstrap my business entirely from my own resources; and had that been the case, it probably would not be the business it is today.
Q: How has Covid affected your business: what would you say is the biggest casualty to your business?
Well, we were closed for 12 weeks like other non-essential shops, so we lost 3 months of turnover. Government grants have been a great help in ensuring we’ve been able to keep paying our staff and our bills. Lockdown has, however, boosted our online business, which had just been ticking along before then.
Q: How do you welcome BLACK POUND DAY?
Black Pound Day was phenomenal for us, as it was for many other Black businesses. We were well supported both online and in-store by people of all backgrounds. What I loved most of all is that our community came out in droves and played their part.
I hope that these monthly Black Pound Day events will become internalised and that buying Black first will become second nature for our people.
Q: Now that you are back open what has changed?
Regarding our bricks-and-mortar store, footfall is down slightly but spend is up, so we’re slowly making up for lost trade
We’ve reduced our hours slightly till we’re clearer about the pattern of trade, and we’ve implemented social distancing and other safety measures, which means shopping with us takes longer but customers have been amazingly patient and helpful to each other.
We’re also doing more to engage our online followers and website customers to maintain our increased online business.
Q: What are your best-selling items and who are your customers?
Cards -without a doubt. We probably stock one of the largest ranges of Black cards in the UK – but our non-Black cards do equally well because we try to stock unusual cards.
Books are a close second. People have re-discovered their love of the printed word and, of course, books by Black authors are particularly popular at the moment.
Our customers are largely local people – of all backgrounds – and visitors to Brixton. People who buy from us want something that’s a bit different, is ethically-produced and reflects their world – or the world they want to live in.
Q: Where do you see the business in 10 years’ time?
Hopefully. we’ll still be in Brixton, perhaps in larger premises, and our website is one of the go-to gift destinations online.
I’d also like us to be doing something to develop the next wave of Black entrepreneurs, as I believe we have a responsibility to pass on our skills and knowledge to the next generation.
Q: A tip for anyone starting out?
Test-trade before you start taking out loans or seriously investing your savings in your business. It’s amazing how many people don’t do this and then end up broke. In my view, you’re not in business till you’re regularly selling to strangers (not just friends and family!) so make sure you’ve got something people are actually willing to part with money for before you start taking on debt.
Diverse is on the lookout for new products to add to their store, so if you make or sell ‘inspired creative products’ they would like to hear from you. Send an email with links or product pictures and prices to info @ diversegifts. ( co.uk ) . To shop online: https://diverse-gifts.myshopify.com/
To shop in store:
390 Coldharbour Lane
London SW9 8LF
Monday to Saturday 10am – 6pm Sunday 12pm – 5pm
Do you have a business that you would like to feature in our new Business section: we are focusing on SME’s but do get in touch if you want to share anything business related email: editor @ alt – africa (dot) com
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