Before the pandemic, Shabria Jerome worked as a nursing assistant and took classes to become a nurse. In March of 2020, when schools shut down, she took a leave of absence to take care of her daughter, who was in kindergarten at the time. But soon schools went remote, and Jerome faced the same conundrum millions of working parents found themselves in. She had to quit her job.

“I didn’t have a choice but to leave my job because I had no child care for my daughter, which was really hard,” said Jerome, 29. “So, that was that!”

Once at home helping her daughter with schoolwork and searching for remote work, she found herself unable to stop thinking about incidents with white supervisors from her past jobs. She recalled times where she and other workers of color were shut out of opportunities that were given to newer white colleagues and experienced what she believes was “work trauma,” thinking back on the racism she’d been subjected to. Jerome knew what she would do if she was the boss, and how she would treat her workers. And a new question rose in her mind: “What am I leaving behind for my daughter?”

So she decided to start her own business and be her own boss. Her motivations echo those of other Black-owned startups, in particular among Black women — a stunning 17% of whom owned or were starting a business last year in the United States. Jerome had never met any entrepreneurs and knew nothing about building a business, but she wanted to craft a different future for herself and her daughter.

Watch Shabria Jerome’s story:

Jerome was born in Louisiana and grew up with “a family of cooks.” She vividly remembers watching her Uncle Joe “playing with spices” and everyone cooking Creole dishes. On a phone call, her sister Ashley Alvarado suggested “out of the blue” that Jerome turn that family tradition into a business creating seasoning blends. Within days, Jerome had filled a notebook with ideas.

“Literally I had a conversation with God and was just sitting there like, ‘I need something to do,’” Jerome said. “And that’s when she [my sister] gave me the idea. ... It was so casual, so nonchalant, like, you know. So I felt like she was pretty much the vessel I needed.”

"What am I leaving behind for my daughter?"

Jerome researched spices and the stories of major companies like Goya and McCormick to understand how they started. And as she mixed her own spices, she came up with the brand name “Continental Flavor” — for seasonings from every continent. She began to picture herself running a business.

A packaged glass jar of seasonings sits on a woven tarp, in front of brown bags that the jars are sold in, with a label that reads "Continental Flavor: Organic and all natural handcrafted gourmet spice blends" over the flavor "Sazon."
Jerome's first spice blend brought together Caribbean seasonings in “Sazon.”
Liz Neisloss GBH News

Jerome connected with Foundation Kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen space in Somerville where she learned about everything from budgeting to food safety to networking with other business owners.

”It’s interesting hearing everyone's story,” Jerome said, “and it makes me not feel as bad. ‘Oh, okay, I’m not that broke.’ Or, you know, it makes me feel better about what I’m doing.”

Family members gave her feedback on her product and, by the fall of 2021, she’d come up with a Caribbean spice mix she called “Sazon” and launched a website. And as someone who says she’s not a self-promoter, she stretched beyond her comfort zone to interact with customers. When she did her first pop-up market in Dorchester last November, she was amazed by her own success: she sold everything she’d brought, with just the sample jar left so customers could smell her seasonings.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it, this is it,’” she said. “And I don’t know, it just changed my whole outlook to it, and I knew that this was really my purpose.”

Jerome tapped into savings and relied on family to help cover the costs from permits to work space. She said she’d had no luck with applications for grants and that a local bank turned her down for a loan because she didn’t have a credit history. Her experience is common to many Black-owned businesses. A pre-pandemic report by the Federal Reserve Bank found Black business owners were more likely to use personal funds and more likely to borrow money from a spouse, family or friends than other racial groups. Black-owned businesses also face greater challenges accessing credit.

A metal bowl with different spices measured out, with jars off to the side.
Jerome mixes the spices herself at a Somerville Foundation Kitchen space.
Liz Neisloss GBH News

Jerome has a close circle of supporters cheering her on. But she said she has to find her own drive, because for now — from buying ingredients to mailing out products — she does everything herself.

“Honestly, you really have to root for yourself and you got to know like, ‘This is what I want.’ No one else is going to be there rooting for me. I’m going to do it myself because I had no choice but to do everything by myself,” Jerome said.

With her first market only months behind her, Jerome has no regrets about quitting nursing, and focuses on the impact her work will have on her daughter Xhyanna. The 8-year-old has already insisted her mother’s first business banner be hung at home with pride. And while Jerome isn’t ready to be called an inspiration, she already wants to teach her daughter not to “sleep on” her dreams.

“I want to show her that it’s okay to be ambitious,” Jerome said. “I want to show her Black women are incredible.”

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