Before the pandemic struck, Vanessa Braxton was handling business as the founder, CEO and president of Black Momma Brands, producing artisan vodkas, gourmet teas, hemp oils and other products for customers around the country and world.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage communities across America and beyond, Braxton is still taking care of business but her model has shifted. In response to the national shortage of hand sanitizer, the Black Momma Vodka brand is now actively producing about 1,000 orders per day of the clear gel, which uses a key ingredient that her Long Island, New York distillery already had on hand: alcohol.
“I started this [around 2 weeks] ago after learning that the government was asking distilleries nationwide to help make hand sanitizer. That was an epiphany,” Braxton told ESSENCE. “I said, ‘Let me call my lawyer and ask if I had the permit to do this.’ Since that time, the demand is not just high, it’s astronomical.”
Braxton, 50, is a wife and mother of three who launched Black Momma Vodka in 2013. Since that time, it’s grown into a $2 million dollar enterprise.
The entrepreneur is an engineer who holds a Construction Management/Engineering degree from Pratt Institute. Her curriculum vitae includes a Harvard executive program on negotiation and managing multi-million dollar construction and engineering contracts for New York state government before she retired from that arena.
That’s not all that distinguishes the Brooklyn-born businesswoman, a daughter of first-generation immigrants who hail from Guyana.
Braxton told ESSENCE she is the first African-American woman distiller and `Master Blender,’ to be an owner-operator and manufacturer of a nationally distributed vodka in the U.S. She also owns what is reportedly the country’s only Black-owned tea and beverage manufacturing facility.
Her manufacturing and distilling expertise is key as she and her employees (currently, a skeleton crew of about six) produce Black Momma Hand Sanitizer using an official “recipe” from the FDA. An 8 oz. bottle of the product sells on the company’s website for about $13.99.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other health experts have advised use of hand sanitizer as one tool in the effort to flatten the curve and spread of the coronavirus. As supplies have dwindled amid the pandemic, the Distilled Spirits Council notes online that “hundreds of distillers across the United States are producing hand sanitizer to help fight COVID-19.”
Braxton is grateful that her operations can keep people employed, while aiding public health and the community at large.
“If I didn’t own a distillery and manufacturing facility I would not have been able to pivot so quickly from producing vodka to making hand sanitizer,” she said. “We are evolving and reinventing our business to work with government agencies, hospitals and others to protect those on the frontlines fighting this pandemic.”
Pre-health crisis, Braxton was focused on her latest venture, Black Momma Tea & Café (BMTC), a forthcoming 4,600 square-foot café that will be headquartered in Wheatley Heights, New York. Black Momma Tea & Café will sell teas, organic flavored agave, vegan and organic food and more. Braxton said the site will also serve as a training facility for future franchises (she envisions hundreds) nationwide.
Braxton raised $2.1 million via Wefunder, an equity crowd-funding site. She intends on taking Black Momma Tea & Café (BMTC) to the New York Stock Exchange.
Braxton credits the Obama Administration’s Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act), and champions government programs that can offer tax credits and resources. “I’m negotiating right now to buy a property for $1 dollar,” she says, noting future plans to build additional manufacturing facilities.
Her ultimate goal: creating wealth for her family and others. She believes in education, hard work and proudly notes that her husband and two adult sons are fellow engineers. Daughter Alissa Braxton (a high school student) is the graphic designer behind the Black Momma Tea and Black Momma Hand Sanitizer signature labels.
Braxton’s advice to entrepreneurs, especially women and African Americans, is thus: “Buy a building or warehouse. Own your equipment. Hire in the `hood. Invest and reinvest. Most of all, own your own stuff.”