Name: Jasmine Swimmer
Business: Soft And Butter
Tanya: Your company – Soft And Butter is a retail product company. And so, first question, it’s a loaded one, what was your path to entrepreneurship?
Jasmine: Entrepreneurship was very unconventional. I think my first taste of entrepreneurship was in high school. And I just needed extra money to attend a Sunday formal. My mom couldn’t afford it at the time. So I decided to make ties to sell to guys that were graduating going to prom. I was able to make way, way past what I expected to make and it came to be. That was kind of my first experience with entrepreneurship of just like, Oh, I could make something solid.
Fast forward to now, my journey of starting not only one, but two businesses that are successful and doing really great was really due to downtime in the early days of the pandemic. Having my son and realizing like, I couldn’t work my regular desk job, and I had to stay at home. And that’s kind of what brought all those years of like, hey, you know, I’ve done this before. Let me try it again.
Tanya: You were super smart about solving a problem which a business is supposed to do. It’s like, here’s a pain point, you’re going to need these things, I can make it easy for you to just buy something that you’re already going to buy. I love that. You said that you have now two businesses, what’s your other business?
Jasmine: It’s more of a passion project. Always really important to get back to the community, growing up in like Washington Central, a lot of areas where it’s low-income housing, and a lot of people don’t have access to opportunities. It really focuses on introducing Black and Indigenous youth to digital art creation, that whole digital world, and how they can actually transfer their skills virtually.
And even if they want to acquire jobs, we help them gain those skills to actually go to those types of high-paying jobs, where the world is going anyway. That’s my other business, which is mixing both my art and passion and doing animation and design and working with the community.
Tanya: How long has that business been in operation?
Jasmine: Yeah, it’s fairly new, just over six months in, but it is growing really fast. We’ve just come to a partnership with the City of Toronto, and artists all over the city now.
Tanya: It seems like you’ve been doing bold business moves for a really long time. Can you pinpoint what you would consider to be your boldest business move to date?
Jasmine: I decided to become a full-time entrepreneur during a pandemic. At the time, most childcare centres were full, and every single place was maxed out their wait list for two years. I was scared because I’ve seen others try and give up. It wasn’t what they expected. During one of the most uncertain times, I decided to take a leap and I can say today that it has paid off.
Tanya: You’ve had entrepreneurial experience in the past, and you had the drive and ambition. But what else did you have in place when you took that leap? In terms of, did you already have your business idea and your plan?
Jasmine: Oh, no, no, no. One thing about me, I’m a voracious researcher, I love researching things. I like reading old articles and looking at documentaries.
While I was going through my postpartum, I took about six months to research the top market. Using different resources from the library to find the trends, what’s going on in Canada, what’s going on in the US, what are the buying habits online vs in-store etc. It took me a good 5-6 months to perfect my product.
When I first launched, the business was kind of shaky, the name was super long, and people couldn’t spell it. The product – people were unsure how to use it. So I went back to the drawing board and rebranded. We made the product with natural and simple ingredients anyone can identify. People could look at the brand and figure out what we were about.
Tanya: You’ve said a lot that we could probably unpack for another, like two hours if we had it in terms of the market research. I think that’s a step that many aspiring entrepreneurs skip out on or don’t spend enough time on, because it isn’t sexy. It’s not, coming up with a name or a logo or building a website, it’s before all of that you need to know what the problem is,
I love that you spent such a long period of time on it before you launched, and then you weren’t so stuck in what you launched with you. What was the biggest financial turning point for your company when you kind of went from okay, I’m, I’m an entrepreneur to, I’m self-employed?
Jasmine: I would say when I got my first corporate contract. In a sea of many other businesses, how do I stand out? So I pitched my skincare business to a corporate person that does a lot of gifting. I said, “Hey, I see that like, every year, you guys, great community work, and get baskets for employees and things. I would love to show you my products”. I think the order was over 250 units. And I was flabbergasted. This is corporate gifting. And it kind of changed the whole direction of my business where they became the majority of our businesses, wholesale e-commerce.
Tanya: I love that you thought outside the box too. A lot of folks would be too intimidated to pitch to a corporation or don’t understand where they might fit into a corporation, but they have that money to spend. So why not with you? It didn’t cost you any money to pitch them. So the worst that they could say is no. You know, and the best that they could say is yes. So that’s amazing. Good job. What is your business’s current biggest challenge?
Jasmine: I would say the biggest challenge right now, specifically being in Toronto, Canada, is manufacturing. Toronto used to be a metropolis, with manufacturing, factories, and plants. Now it’s turning into a big city like New York where a lot of the worker society is being pushed out further outside the city. That’s kind of challenging for a business like mine that wants to keep jobs in the city and manufacturing, or a lot of buildings aren’t conducive for manufacturing.
Tanya: I hadn’t thought of that. What do you wish people would know about being a Black entrepreneur?
Jasmine: What I would want people to know about being a Black entrepreneur, there are a lot of layers. I didn’t grow up with access to mentors and entrepreneurial role models. I had to volunteer my way into the necessary rooms, through organizations like Startup Canada, just to gain knowledge and the economic landscape. I don’t think a lot of people understand that – sometimes Black entrepreneurs are literally starting from ground zero. We don’t have investors, business alliances, or people to loan us money and help us grow. It’s a lot of bootstrapping until we can get to a level where we can pitch to investors or angel investors.
Having to be self-taught, having to grow and basically put your own money and grow your business until it has value for someone else to put money into it. There are also emotional and mental barriers. The mindset of people around you who may not understand what you’re doing, so they can be discouraging. Pushing getting a job vs the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. It’s also getting past what we’ve been taught to Black women. That we can do this, can build companies that grow, scale, and last.
What separates them from being multi-million dollar businesses is investment and support from other communities. Many of us are just like I did, just trying to learn knowledge anywhere we can.
Tanya: I would drop a mic right there if I had a mic in my hand to drop because that was a two-minute masterclass.
When people question why the federal government and banks have created, Black-specific programs, it’s because our starting point is not the same, our challenges, and obstacles are not the same. Some of them are, there is some crossover – everyone is trying to figure out how to grow and scale their businesses, but who do you have around you?
We’ve heard before that your network is your net worth, but I’m like, if your network is nonexistent, then that means your net worth is nonexistent. When you have people around you who can get you in a room with a person who signs the checks, that is capital; it’s social capital that turns into financial capital.
Do you have one thing that you recommend to a new entrepreneur, whether it’s an app, a book, a person to follow, or a group to sign up for?
Jasmine: The number one thing: surround yourself with community. Find like-minded people that are either where you want to be, or they’re on the trajectory of being where you want to be, it makes a huge difference when you’re around those people. For e-commerce specifically, there’s a group in partnership with Shopify called Shopify Build Black. It’s conversations with Black entrepreneurs all over the world, giving you tips, sharing grants, and asking and giving help from manufacturing to marketing.
Tanya: That sounds amazing. Is there anything else that you would want the people to know about you or your business? What do you have coming up next?
Jasmine: We’re coming off a partnership with another bank and did pop-ups for the holiday at Sherway Gardens. Next up, we’re going international! Soft And Butter will be at Afrochella this year, which is one of the biggest African festivals on the continent, and we’re going to be able to pitch our business piece to international distributors. Right now, we’re in the growth stage and really expanding across borders.
Tanya: Well, congratulations on your success thus far and your future successes.
Where to find Jasmine
Bold & Black is a monthly interview series conducted by entrepreneur and Canada’s Top 25 Women of Influence Honouree Tanya Hayles. Tanya is the founder of Black Moms Connection, an online global village of almost 30,000 and a national non-profit providing programs and financial tools through grant programs generously supported by BMO. The statements and opinions expressed by guests & interviewees are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bank of Montreal or its affiliates.