A little black girl walks into a coffee shop and stops when she sees a black woman by the counter. With excitement and curiosity in her eyes, the little girl asks, “Do you own this?” Kelli Lemon, the owner of the Urban Hang Suite RVA social cafe, bends down as she looks at the little girl in her eyes and says, “Yes, what do you want to own?”
A powerful voice in the Richmond community. Lemon is exuding black excellence through her work and is bringing others on the journey with her. She’s a highly-respected community leader, radio personality, and host of the Podcast ‘Coffee with Strangers.’ Recently, she added another title to her name: business owner.
Lemon is one of the entrepreneurs that BLK RVA, a campaign started to promote patronage of black businesses in Richmond, highlights to celebrate black culture and change the narrative of what it means to be black in this city that was once the former capital of the Confederacy.
Hundreds of years after slavery, there was still a racial and class divide in Richmond that shattered the image of the city. It was time to create an opportunity for black enterprise and create a new story for Richmond. After saving money for an entire year, obtaining investors, and signing a contract to obtain six-months rent-free for her business space, Lemon was ready to bring her vision to life—an idea that could change the landscape for creatives and business owners in Richmond.
Opened in 2018, Urban Hang Suite has become a space for connections, coffee, and culture. “This space was created for conversations that would lead to creating a new culture. From a cup of coffee to an ear hustle to a general “how is your day going?” this space is creating a place for people to exhale,” says Lemon. “That’s what my motto was for the Urban Hang Suite. I wanted to allow us to engage and let our ideas shine and see ourselves in this space.”
Lemon adds, “We are organically owning things that we have always had our hands in but were afraid to step out of our comfort zones and be amongst RVA in Richmond. So many industries—film, art, food, craft beer, wine—are starting to feel our presence.”
“Black RVA provides the safety net to take that first step,” says Lemon as she discussed her first year in business at the Urban Hang Suite. She strongly believes that individuals seeking to start a business in the hospitality industry need to have a network of support to overcome the hurdles associated with sustaining a business. “If I didn’t have the support system I have right now, I wouldn’t be able to do it. We can’t just call granddaddy and say can we get a half-million dollars to make sure that our business can operate for the next three years. I am consistently on a daily grind.”
Any successful business owner knows that you need numbers that are supported by powerful data to attract individuals who believe in your vision. You also need to consider multiple streams of revenue to get you started and keep you going. “I had a full business plan that I wrote and then solicited for investors. Then I used a crowdfunding source to get me open and where I need to be.
Lemon shares the importance of having a team of smart individuals by your side such as an accountant, lawyer, and general manager who is knowledgeable in your area. “It’s also very important to have a mentor in the business—someone who is already doing what you want to do,” says Lemon as she gives credit to her mentors AJ Brewer and Kendra Feather for helping her to navigate the hospitality scene in Richmond. “AJ Brewer has the only other black-owned coffee shop in Richmond and Kendra Feather owns six of Richmond’s best-known restaurants.”
Owning a cafe isn’t easy but Lemon believes the conversations are integral to our progress. After surviving her first year in business, she’s ready to open the doors for more conversations in the future. For anyone wondering if they should take the next step in their entrepreneurial endeavors, Lemon offers these words of wisdom, “Your gut will tell you what moves to make. Trust yourself then seek advice from professionals. Find a mentor who can tell you the bad because it will ease the blow.”