From Drab to Fab

When Cynthia P. Ham was six months pregnant, she began decorating the nursery for her first child. She went to stores near her Greensboro, North Carolina, home in search of wallpaper borders and coordinating accessories that reflected her African American heritage. She returned home empty-handed.

In 1998, Ham, 37, who now lives in Charlotte, gave birth to a daughter, Jewel, and a business idea. Along with her husband, John F. Ham, 39, and college friend, Steven V. Jones, 37, of New York City, Ham co-founded Cultural Hangups Inc., a home decor company that offers multicultural wall borders and accessories. Ham, president and CEO, used $100,000 from the partners’ personal savings and cash gifts from family. The product line was launched in 2001.

While the partners knew there was a market for their products, it took some time to convince manufacturers. For two years before the product line was launched, the trio searched the marketplace for ethnically diverse products.

“We did a lot of research before we launched,” says John Ham, the company’s vice president of marketing. “We knew what was missing in the market. We started by selling the products online and at trade shows. We were comfortable enough to approach a major manufacturer, who told us there wasn’t a market for our product.”

In 2003, Ham relied on a friend to get him close to the people at Lowe’s Companies Inc., the home improvement retailer. His friend positioned Cultural Hangups in a display booth next to the Lowe’s booth. Ham struck up a conversation with the Lowe’s representative, and Cultural Hangups eventually landed a meeting with Lowe’s buyers.

“They said they loved the concept but the designs and manufacturing we were using needed to be improved,” says Ham.

A year later, with new artists and better designs, Cultural Hangups tightened up its product line and approached Lowe’s again. Since its debut in the fall of 2004, Cultural Hangups wall borders are available in over 300 Lowe’s stores nationwide and by special order in all Lowe’s.

Today, the Huntersville, North Carolina-based Cultural Hangups has three full-time and two part-time employees, and several contract artists. Last year, the firm posted $350,000 in revenues. Ham projects $400,000 to $450,000 this year, and upwards of $2 million in revenues in 2006.

“We were hearing from our customers; there was a need that was out there,” says Julie Yenichek, a spokeswoman for Lowe’s. “Cultural Hangups helped us address those customers’ needs.”

Yenichek says the Prima Ballerina border, featuring a long-legged black ballerina in a frilly tutu, is the most popular seller so far. Cultural Hangups also offers designs that reflect Latino, Native American, and Asian American heritage and cultures, and black fraternities and sororities. Last year it launched Cultural Accents, a line of coordinating bath accessories.

Among the company’s most highly anticipated releases is the Lana Moorer (also known as rapper MC Lyte) Home Accessories Collection. In July, Cultural Hangups reached a deal with Wal-Mart to carry the Lana Moorer Home Accessories Collection and some of its other items from the Cultural Accents