When given the opportunity to describe herself, entrepreneur and activist Angel Gregorio uses one word: Free.
“I feel free now because I have finally realized what I’m supposed to do,” Gregorio tells ESSENCE.
Angel Gregorio is the owner of The Spice Suite, a specialty spice shop located in Northeast Washington, DC. The founder conceived of her shop in 2015, and it has since garnered quite the buzz, including a sizable social media following and an array of traditional media hits, too. Still, the business woman’s path to entrepreneurship was anything but linear.
“I thought that my journey was supposed to be in education and I was going to die an educator,” says Gregorio. The former DC charter school vice principal carries a deep love for young people, especially those whose lives were impacted by mass incarceration. This calling was, in part, driven by her own family’s interactions with the criminal justice system. Currently, two of Gregorio’s brothers are serving life sentences in prison—both of whom were incarcerated as teenagers.
“Having both of my brothers being taken and having both of my parents engaged with the criminal justice system as well, put me in a space to really realize that I have to be the matriarch of my family; whether I want to or not. I am responsible for making sure that we are okay—my existing family and the family that I’ve created through having children.”
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. A matriarch at 37-years-old, Gregorio feels both a sense of responsibility and of honor. This duty has forced Gregorio to be discerning in her decision making process—there isn’t much room for error and Angel Gregorio has no safety net. As the owner of The Spice Suite, Gregorio has reflected on her brothers’ engagement with the law and believes that mentorship could have altered their lives. This notion informed her business model.
At the very beginning of the Washington, DC-native’s “spice journey,” Gregorio tapped into the power of mentorship and community, creating “Spice Girls,” or other Black entrepreneurs who sold their unique products at The Spice Suite, while running the store for a day. “Before there were all the followers and all the interviews, there were still Spice Girls. And I was like, ‘Where I go, you go, I’m not letting you go. We are going together.’” The founder would also host master classes for the Spice Girls, teaching the Black women the fundamentals of business. With that, emerged an “each one, teach one” spirit, which the company refers to as the “Black + Forth” business model.
The entrepreneur went on to launch the first Black-owned strip mall (using shipping containers) also called Black + Forth, offering commercial space, with a rent that is well below market rate. The strip mall is home to four businesses (a hair salon, nail salon, wax studio and a braiding studio), in addition to The Spice Suite. Gregorio paid for the $1.1 million property (the lot plus its renovations, cumulatively came to approximately $2.3 million), which she financed through a grant from the government, and her own capital and revenue—no loans or credit cards were necessary.
In the strip mall, patrons will notice a large sign that says “Made in Washington, DC by a Black woman.” These words are also affixed (with a label) on items in The Spice Suite. For Gregorio, it’s important to affirm her Blackness, and that it be a part of the brand’s ethos. “My love for people is very Black. I’m very unapologetic about that.” The Howard University alumna continues, “I feel like we talk about being unapologetically Black, but in spaces of business, we are not really unapologetically Black. We do a lot of apologizing and hiding and shrinking. And I want to show that you can grow without shrinking. My product is in Bloomingdale’s, and they still have that same stamp on them.”
Gregorio, a proud Black woman, says that her life seems serendipitous, and we would agree. The stories behind The Spice Suite and Black + Forth are a perfect combination of optimism, alignment and action.
“One of my best friends calls me Midas. She’s like, everything you touch turns to gold.” Gregorio becomes reflective, “Everybody around me seems to see me in this very bright light. And it helps me when my own light is dim. It is the people around me that help me to see reflections of myself that I didn’t even know existed.”
This is symbiotic—friends and supporters see the “light” in Gregorio. The founder then sees something in her Spice Girls, the business owners who occupy Gregorio’s strip mall, Black + Forth, and DC’s Black community, writ large. The cycle continues.
As for advice for emerging business people, Angel Gregorio is willing to offer a few notes from her playbook. First she warns against dreaming out loud, around the wrong crowd. “Not because I think people are haters, but because I really believe that sometimes our fears get projected.” Finally, Gregorio emphasizes that entrepreneurs need a strong sense of self and an equally strong community, which surrounds them.
“Just be exactly who you are. Your tribe will find you. And once your tribe finds you and you feel aligned with them, take them with you everywhere you go.” Gregorio continues, “The fastest way to go far is by bringing a tribe of people along with me.”