Until the age of 33, Shelby Harris never imagined life as anything more than an orchestral musician. Shelby began studying the violin at the age of two after being inspired by seeing her mother play the violin for the Rockford, Illinois, symphony. Shelby played around the world for over 25 years, gracing some of the world’s most prestigious venues including New York’s Carnegie Hall. Though Shelby’s role in music inspired thousands of children of color working with the all-African American and Latino Sphinx Chamber Orchestra she sometimes felt that something was missing.
It wasn’t until Shelby began hosting dinners at her home with her husband and children that her life’s purpose was revealed. Friends would rave about her delectable popcorn snacks telling her, “Shelby, you should really sell this stuff.” Shelby’s friends’ comments made her reminisce about the days she would help her dad make Jiffy Pop on the stovetop or when her mom would bring Cracker Jacks to every movie. Shelby even says popcorn was her “broke college student survival meal.” She’d literally eat popcorn as a meal some days—playing around with flavors and seasonings to make the meal complete.(Image: Facebook.com/AndPopcorn)
One day, it clicked at an acquaintance’s birthday party where Shelby’s popcorn was the featured treat. The acquaintance loved Shelby’s popcorn so much that she introduced Shelby to another party-goer as “the owner” of & Popcorn—the BEST popcorn she’s ever tasted.” The party-goer, in reality, was a buyer for the Midwest region of Whole Foods. Shelby was shocked by the buyer’s enthusiasm about her products that she rushed home with a newfound urgency to officially license & Popcorn. Today, the Chicago-based & Popcorn can be found in Whole Foods Markets throughout the Midwest with the mission of “providing delicious sustainably produced snacks, without the use of common allergens, additives, and preservatives.”
Shelby sat down with Black Enterprise to discuss how pressing pause on plucking the strings of life can lead you to your life’s purpose.
BE: How long have you been in the popcorn business?
Shelby: One-and-a-half years.
BE: Why did you start your business?
Shelby: Starting my business was actually part of a faith walk. My sister-friend Joii and I were discussing how God equips us regardless of experience or merit. I wanted to increase my faith, and so I promised the Lord that I’d do whatever He led me to do, trusting His word; “I can do all things through CHRIST who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13. Through a series of confirmations, I knew that He was leading me to start a popcorn business.
BE: Why the name “& Popcorn”?
Shelby: ‘& Popcorn’ represents the role popcorn has played in my life and in our culture. Popcorn goes with everything…movies, baseball games, sleepovers, family game night, college, dates, life.
BE: What makes & Popcorn different?
Shelby: Customers often ask about gluten-free, soy-free, peanut-free and non-GMO; when they realize they can safely enjoy our popcorn without those concerns, the icing on the cake is that it also tastes delicious. Plus the market is flooded with chemically altered, enhanced and preserved food. This is something that I am fundamentally against.
BE: How has your packaging benefited sales?
Shelby: Your presentation should represent everything about the brand and what’s inside. I wanted customers to see quality, simplicity, and the nostalgia of brown-bagged, hand-prepared food. Everything you read on the exterior supports the brand.(Image: Facebook.com/AndPopcorn)
BE: How do you balance being a wife, mother, and a one-woman business?
Shelby: I prioritize in a faith-based way. I am a wife first, and then mother and lastly, a business owner. I trust that God will help me be the wife he created for my husband, the mother he’s blessed me to be and accomplish just enough at all times to keep the business running. It’s also key that I have an amazing spouse who takes over our domestic responsibility willingly when I have to wear my many entrepreneurial hats.
BE: What challenges have you faced in production?
Shelby: The biggest production problem & Popcorn has had to face is that there is only one person doing it! I currently handle all of the production alone. The success of expanding into multiple Whole Foods locations over the last few months, and most recently Amazon Fresh, is a sign that production will need to increase rather quickly.
BE: What keeps you inspired to push through the uncertain business times?
Shelby: God’s promise; I go back to why I started this business. It’s not MY business; it’s a faith walk—ultimately my way to practice trusting Him.
BE: What are some creative ways to market your business on a budget?
- Go grassroots fashion: T-shirts, social media, local festivals, and just plain conversation exposes my brand to its most vocal and influential supporters.
- Go guerrilla marketing: A friend of my husband was a front office executive for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He did us a favor of bringing a case of my popcorn onto the private charter flight and passing out bags to all of the players. They loved it! I encourage business owners to not always be so tactical in their marketing but to go for the unexpected and you’ll have some of your greatest marketing successes (or stories to share at least).
BE: What are three tips to help business owners differentiate from larger brands?
- Be authentic. Let your product reflect your story and passion; the things unique to YOU!
- Be critical of your quality. Quality is harder to come by, but people still appreciate it; quality reflects your integrity.
- Maintain a personal connection with your customers. People love to support PEOPLE and find value in helping companies grow.
BE: Who inspires you in business?
Shelby: A business owner’s story really inspires me. Brands like Shea Moisture—where the packaging, the ingredients and the smell tell their story of naturalistas like me who needed natural products and hadn’t found them. Or the story of Jeni’s Ice Cream that found huge support in the marketplace starting with a loving husband and close friends. I felt like she was my business soul sister. I now find inspiration in every story I hear. I once thought starting a popcorn business was silly and monetarily impossible, but I did it anyway.
Shelby stays inspired by how God has surrounded her with the help and opportunities needed to be a success. Shelby believes that “walking in faith, every day of my business journey is His way of letting me know He’s at the helm.”
Click here to see what inspires Shelby Harris.
For more info on & Popcorn, click here.
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