Shanel Williams-Jackson, owner of Carolina Girl Confections, is as unapologetically bold in life as she is in every recipe.
There are very specific moments when I’m frankly reminded of why I love doing what I do. Our Entrepreneur Spotlight of Shanel Williams-Jackson was one of those moments. Within the initial twenty seconds of my conversation with Shanel Williams-Jackson of Carolina Girl Confections, I knew this was going to be fun!
Williams-Jackson opened our conversation with one question. “J.R. you know me. I have a potty mouth…soooo…is that gonna be a problem?”
After releasing a hearty laugh, I let her know it was actually encouraged.
Two things happened with that. 1) Shanel was relieved that she could be herself, and 2) I opened myself up for the absolute most engaging, entertaining interview I’ve ever conducted.
I will not further delay your access to the highly motivated Williams-Jackson, other than to let you know we here at Defy Life are honored to have her as the first female to be featured on our Entrepreneur Spotlight. Enjoy!
Tell us about Carolina Girl Confections.
I was basically just baking cakes for fun and for family. I love baking and I love cake. It went from maybe a cake a week to about five cakes a week. My husband, Benjamin, asked if I could bake a cake for something at his job. And two days later some chick called me and asked how much I would charge her for a red velvet cake. I was shocked as shit, but my pride would not allow me to tell this lady that I really didn’t know what the hell I was talking about as far as pricing goes. So, matter-of-factly, I told her $25. And she jumped all over it! I baked the cake and that order turned into dozens of orders from the V.A. Hospital. This cake thing started taking over my life and I started thinking about what it would take to do it as a business. But, I wanted it to be legitimate. I didn’t want to be one of the “Oh, your sister’s cousin’s friend makes cakes” people. Coincidentally, the Cottage Food Bill had just been passed in June of 2012. It took me over a week to even get the application for a business license, because nobody knew what the cottage bill really was at that time. Finally, somebody just told me “Look, if you just bring us this, we’ll get you your license if you pay the fee.” It was a laundry list of items, paperwork, zoning information, so much. But, I got it. And ever since, I make sure it’s done every year. Because, I’m scared if I lose it, I’ll have to go through this same thing again. So, Carolina Girl is my baby. I love it, I have to feed it in order for it to grow and it gets on my damn nerves just like all other babies!
Which of your items are the most fun and most challenging?
Well, let’s get the most challenging out the way first. You know the movie ‘Frozen‘ right? The snowman, Olaf, from the movie. I had to make a 3-dimensional Olaf cake for this lady and she wanted it to stand up. Her daughter was turning 4 and was really particular about her Olaf cake. She wanted real twigs for arms and everything! The head kept falling off. And this was very early on in my business and I knew I needed more training on that. And I even said to her that this isn’t really my thing, I like to do southern heirloom cakes. She said, “No, I trust you”. It was a headache. But the cake came out beautiful! And she said it tasted amazing. But anything that is custom, because it’s so much work and so much goes into it. And you don’t really make a lot of money on them until you get to the thousand dollar mark, when you consider the supplies and man hours.
The fun stuff for me is anything southern heirloom. My Caramel Apple Mason Jars are fun. I’m looking for that eye roll! You know when you taste something so good and your eyes roll back. So when I see the eye roll, I know I’m doing it right! My Soda City Cookie, named for Columbia, AKA. I do the Soda City Market sometimes and we’re usually sold out of those within an hour. I wrote the recipe for it and did a trial run on them because it was new. And people loved them! They’d ask what kind of cookie it was and my dumb ass was like “It’s a cranberry, white chocolate, walnut…”. I realized I needed a name for them. So, I named them for the Soda City Farmer’s Market.
Why do you do what you do?
To pay my damn bills! Hahaha! But seriously, that’s a huge part of it. We’re parents so, we’ve got to make money. Really, I know it’s cliche’, but I really do love what I do. I not only have been afforded the opportunity to have my own business, but I was afforded the luxury to stay home and build a business. That’s not always where I was in life. You know, I was a single parent for a long time before I met my husband. I know how it is to work for somebody else. I know what it’s like to not even have work. My husband and I talked about it and decided that it was worth it to try it. Now, everyday is not great. There are times when he’s like, “If you’d just work.” and I’m like, “Where’s the love?!!!? Hahaha! But I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world. I really just love it. And I feel as if I’m showing Morgan and Ben, my kids, that you can love what you do. You don’t have to be in the rat race and constantly complain about it. Because that’s what I used to do. I’d come home, we’d sit down to eat and I’d just complain the entire time. By the time I was done complaining, dinner was over. My business gives me clarity.
What was your “Ah-ha” moment…when you knew this is what you wanted to do?
Really, it was separated into parts. There was an “ah-ha” moment early, but I completely ignored it. Then there was one, and I was like I see you over here. I had to acknowledge it. Unfortunately, it was when my daddy died. He got sick and I left my job to become his caregiver, full time. I was still baking cakes the entire time. When he died, I had to decide if I was going to go back to work for somebody else? I knew I didn’t have have the time or energy to do this, work, parent, be a wife? And the cake orders were rolling in. I figured, maybe not. It would be kind of cool to just try it. But things were just being placed before me and it opened my eyes. I didn’t have to quit my job, but I decided to do that to take care of my dad. So, then the real questions started. What do we name it? How do I make this work with just one oven?
I’m so glad I didn’t ignore those signs. I never thought to myself “What can go wrong?”. I thought to myself ‘What can go right? I could be the bomb!” The Food Network has called me three times. I’m just a country girl from Newberry. What are you doing calling me? The first time they called, I was in complete shock. I really thought it was someone playing a joke. When I realized it was real, I froze up in the middle of my living room with my mouth hanging open. My husband thought somebody died. I couldn’t believe it. It’s moments like that that remind me that it’s worth it.
Professionally, what are your goals?
First off, I sat my family down. I played music and asked them to visualize. That’s the kind of nutjob I am here! I described the place to them during all of this. This the is most wicked fucking place! With exposed brick, comfy seating, great atmosphere. With really cool staff and awesome comfort food. You know how you go somewhere and order macaroni and cheese and it sucks ass? Not that macaroni and cheese! The kind of macaroni and cheese you get at revival and think you would gladly trade your sister for another serving. That! But, that place has been engraved in my brain for so long and it it quickly becoming a reality. It will be a mainstay for everyone.
I want my kids to have a legacy in every way. Maybe they don’t want to bake cakes or cook. But, I do want them to have options. Maybe, one day they’ll wake up and realize that this is cake life!
What/who inspires you?
The who would be easier. Obviously my kids. My husband…he definitely inspires me. But, those are the obvious ones. I get inspired by the kids in my kids’ school. I’m president of the booster club and these kids look at me like I’m the bomb. But, they don’t know how real the struggle can be. My nephew, B.J., he inspires me. If I’m at the market and I see a customer being rude to a cashier and the cashier is still like “Have a great day!” with a smile on their face. That inspires me as well.
I get inspired by my dogs when the are trying to steal a damn sock! I have little 6 lb chihuahuas and they will fight with everything in them to steal that sock. Of course, you’ll be missing that sock for 3 weeks, but it’s cool. I inspire myself too. I think about me at 19, my mama died, and I thought I was gonna die right along with her. I was completely lost. I went through a whole lot of shit. Some self-inflicted, some inflicted by others. But, I came thought that. I push myself, keep learning new things and don’t settle for bullshit. And, when I see it, I have to look back at the old me and remind myself to keep pushing. I’m inspired daily.
How do you balance being a wife, mother and an entrepreneur?
Ha! When I saw this question I was like “What balance?!”. Obviously, I guess I am kind of doing some kind of balancing act. But, I tried the traditional shit. Alerts, a calendar, the whole nine. I actually went out and bought color-coded markers and assigned a color to everyone in the family…”Morgan, your color is pink. Ben, you’re green. Husband Ben was blue. And I am orange.” You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t the shit! The calendar was full! My kids do everything. Track, football, volleyball, chorus…everything! Benjamin’s work schedule, my baking. It lasted a week! I couldn’t handle it. Just seeing it everyday made me mad. I felt like I was forgetting more shit than when I was just doing it on the fly. I had to just realize my life is just crazy, soak it up and make it work. Then, when all else fails, I just yell at everyone in the house and tell them I can’t do it all by myself. So, when I’m done checking chorus shit, checking Honor Roll shit, completed wifely duties, I get in my car and go bake. Sometimes I have to tell myself that I can rest when I’m dead. Because the grind doesn’t have closing hours. At least not for me.
What’s the most powerful part of being black female business owner?
I would say, for me, just the responsibility. I have to be responsible to myself, my family, the people in my community. The kids at Lower Richland, when they come to me and say they are interested in culinary arts, I’m responsible for guiding them. Because they see what you’re doing and it’s big for them to feel brave enough to verbalize it. I have to be responsible to keep my business in good standing. Taxes and paperwork and everything. If I don’t it won’t be legitimate and I’ll be just another side hustle. I also have to be responsible for my attitude. Because, we’ll pop off in a second! But, I can’t. I have to be more responsible about that now. People will give you a bad review and have never tasted a bite of your cake. So, for everything that I say, it’s attached to my business, even if it has nothing to do with business. With the people I have an impact on , yeah, I feel that responsibility is very powerful. Being a black female, we are the cornerstones of our families a lot of times. There’s no looking around waiting on mama or grandma to fix it. I have to be responsible for that.
What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
I would say, first, is to listen to your instincts. As humans, our instincts will tell us everything. It will tell us to “turn left!” and we will completely ignore it. So, I’ve learned to listen to my gut instinct. That has served me so well in business. Especially when there was something I’d put entirely too much thought into, I just have to listen to my instincts.
Besides that, don’t be afraid to try new things. Also, don’t stay in business just for the sake of being in business. I was told that and it has rang true over and over. Thankfully, it has not come into play within my own business. I’ve seen it time and time again. Passion is one thing, but you can never forget that you are in business to make money. If you are willing to pay taxes and go through license renewal fees, get inspections, you need to remember why you’re there. If you are not making money, you need to re-evaluate.
Speaking of money. Always get something up front! I used just take an order and collect the payment once everything was done. I got burned a few times and it didn’t take me long to learn. Now, it’s 50% up front, homie! And 100% up front if the order is less than $100. Definitely, collecting something up front is a must.
What’s the scariest part of being an entrepreneur?
Failure, without a shadow of a doubt. You know, when you’re an entrepreneur, you have no one else to blame but yourself. You can have other people working for you and they can screw your business royally. When they news comes out, it’s not going to list that employee. It’s going to say your business failed. When I worked for someone else, I knew when i was getting paid, when to take a break, when to go to lunch. Now, I’m responsible for all of that. Failure frightens me more than clowns and spiders!
How do you Defy Life?
Well, what we already know is that life is gonna happen. Whether you like it or not, life is like “Fuck you! This is going down!”. So, some days it’s just gonna kick you in the gut. I defy life by living. I live my life, life doesn’t live me. I’m so thankful for my husband. He enjoys life and he so spontaneous. God forbid, if he were to lose his job, he’d be like, “Look, they told me not to come back. So, I got a couple of days off. We can go to the beach for a couple of days. Not a whole week because I don’t have a job!” Hahaha! But, defying life to me is just living. Whatever comes at me, I look at the possibilities with my end-game in mind. I’ve already overcome so much. So, yeah, I defy life with the way I live it!
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