Law firm program gives Black entrepreneurs a legal leg up

Jabron Taylor wanted to tempt local taste buds with something new. Inspired by the 2019 chicken war between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A, Taylor settled on a recipe based on the Nashville hot chicken sandwich, the signature dish of America’s country music capital but a rarity in Central Pennsylvania.

Since November 2019, he and several partners have launched Blazin J’s restaurant in downtown Lancaster, expanded to a second location at the Park City Center shopping mall and added a food truck.

“People that do great things are still people,” Taylor said. “They just took chances that other people weren’t willing to take, and that’s the way I look at it. As long as we all work hard together, we can accomplish anything we want to.”

A dollop of legal advice doesn’t hurt, either. Blazin J’s is taking part in a program started last year by Harrisburg law firm McNees Wallace & Nurick to provide a year of free legal counsel to five Black-owned businesses. The others are note-card company CheerNotes, marketing and design firm Na’Toria, moving company Movers For Me and youth boxing nonprofit Stick N Move Boxing.

The law firm’s goal was to tackle concerns over structural racism that erupted nationwide in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and to address the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on minorities, said Adeolu Bakare, an attorney in the energy and environmental group at McNees.

McNees Wallace & Nurick attorneys Adeolu Bakare, left, and Jeffrey “Esch” McCombie (photos/submitted).

The legal-advice program, called the Legal Equity Advancement Program, or LEAP, was conceived by Bakare and a colleague, Jeffrey “Esch” McCombie. It is modeled on a similar program offered by a Baltimore law firm, Rosenberg Martin Greenberg, and brought to their attention by McNees associate Rachel Hadrick.

It is challenging for any small, young business to find and afford reliable legal services. But it is especially challenging for minority-owned businesses, Bakare said. They often lack the family connections to professionals or the experience of entrepreneurship.

“It’s particularly problematic for Black early-stage business owners,” Bakare said.

McNees held an initial call for applications for the program in November and got 81 replies. Announced in March, the five winners are receiving $50,000 each in legal services, as well as access to educational and networking events. Some of the events are open to applicants that did not make the final cut.

“We’re really hoping to provide a broad base of business education for these businesses,” Bakare said, adding that the firm is interesting in continuing the program in one form or another. “We do want to keep this momentum moving forward.”

Here is a closer look at the five companies:

Blazin J’s

Jabron Taylor had the vision for a restaurant built around Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, which include fried chicken with a spicy coating and sauce.

But Heather Lewis, whose husband, Dustin, worked with Taylor at a Lancaster-area factory, was skeptical.

From left: Blazin J’s partners Dustin Lewis, Heather Lewis, Nicole Taylor and Jabron Taylor (photo/submitted).

“I doubted everything,” she said. Despite her misgivings, she and her husband became partners in the business, along with Taylor and his now-wife, Nicole.

Her doubts started to fade as she saw the Lancaster community respond during Covid-19 to help the fledgling restaurant stay afloat. Last June, she left her full-time job at a dental office to run the downtown location for Blazin J’s.

“I just thought, you know, it’s now or never,” Lewis said. Her husband continues to work full time, as does Nicole Taylor. They share oversight of the restaurant’s taxes, permitting and bookkeeping.

Heather Lewis remains a realist and was the one who filled out the application for the LEAP program. She is interested in learning more about possibly franchising Blazin J’s; the legal aspects of bottling and selling its sauces; and solidifying agreements among the partners.

“Anything could happen at any time to any one of us,” she said.

CheerNotes

In junior high school, Asha Banks could not find existing products with ingredients that got her the results she wanted as a young Black woman. So, she began making her own hair products.

A similar gap in another market inspired her to start a business as an adult. Launched in 2019, CheerNotes sells cards designed to appeal to those who can’t find culturally or personally relevant messages among the cards that currently fill store racks.

CheerNotes founder Asha Banks (photo/submitted).

Cards from CheerNotes are primarily sold online but they are starting to appear at retailers like Good Brothas Book Cafe in Harrisburg.

“That’s definitely exciting, a new avenue for us,” said Banks, who earned an MBA in May 2020 from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Her undergraduate degree is from Drexel University in chemical engineering, though she said teachers tried to dissuade her from the field.

“They actually told me I should do something else,” Banks said.

Her career in chemical engineering took her around the country but she returned to Harrisburg after earning her MBA.  “I’m looking forward to having our headquarters here and being able to create jobs here,” she said.

Through the McNees program, she hopes to work on intellectual property protections for CheerNotes cards and refining its agreements for printing and distributing other card brands that share her company’s mission. She also expects to get help with employment law as she adds employees.

Movers For Me

Marc Domingos is building a moving company in Mechanicsburg that aims to provide stable employment and leadership opportunities for others.

The company has about four full-time employees but bulks up to 12 to 15 during the summer.

“The goal is to offer these guys something more than a gig,” said Domingos, whose parents, Alvaro and Tita, settled in Central Pennsylvania in the late 1970s after emigrating from Angola during a civil war in the country.

Movers For Me founder Marc Domingos (photo/submitted).

Domingos started his company, Movers For Me, in 2017 after years of doing moving work on the side. His day jobs at the time were for major logistics operations, including UPS and the Defense Logistics Agency, which has a hub in New Cumberland.

“I just put two and two together and decided, why not,” Domingos said.

Movers For Me handles a mix of commercial and residential moves, as well as the occasional junk removal. But Domingos also is cultivating a workplace culture where people care about their jobs and each other. He pays employees with cars, for example, to pick up employees who don’t.

“When you care about what you’re doing, it’s going to show in the work, and we’ve really built this tight-knit group,” he said.

His younger brother, Alex, pitches in as a supervisor on an as-needed basis, while his older brother Luimbe, a software engineer, helps with the website and intellectual property issues.

From the McNees program, Domingos is hoping for advice on how to structure his company to sustain growth and on creating an employee handbook, among other things.

The company started off emulating industry standards set by the largest moving companies, Domingos said. “What we can do with McNees is tailor it to what we want to do. We want to make it a more personal experience.”

Na’Toria MARKETING & DESIGN SOLUTIONS

Victoria McCallum and Natasha Dexter generally let people figure out on their own how they came up with the name of their Harrisburg-based company, Na’Toria Marketing & Design Solutions.

The company’s name, of course, is a mash-up of their first names. The venture itself is a mash-up of their distinct talents. Both are designers. But Dexter is the company’s lead designer, while McCallum focuses on business development and recruiting contractors to help meet the demand for services.

Na’Toria Marketing and Design founders, from left, Natasha Dexter and Victoria McCallum (photo submitted).

The company specializes in graphic and web design, social media content and small-business marketing strategies, particularly for minority-owned businesses. They tend to rely on word-of-mouth marketing and can be hard to find online, McCallum said.

“We just figured we wanted to be able to help them become more aesthetically competitive, because first impressions can be everything,” she said. More than two-thirds of the firm’s clients, or 71%, are minority-owned.

The two women met while in active-duty marketing roles for the Pennsylvania National Guard. They started Na’Toria in 2017 after McCallum had left the Guard to work for a private company. They are both originally from the Philadelphia area.

McCallum began working on Na’Toria full-time in 2019. But the Guard called her back into service last year for missions related to Covid-19.

Her contract ends in September and she is contemplating whether to make the jump back to full-time work at Na’Toria — with a goal of having the business booming when Dexter retires from the Guard in about five years.

“I’m very confident that if I did give it 100%, give it my all, that we would be able to get where we want to be by the time she retires,” McCallum said.

In the meantime, Dexter and McCallum plan to work with McNees on several areas, including a shift to hiring employees rather than contractors and a review of their partnership agreement.

Stick N Move boxing

Antwoine Dorm just needed a place to run a boxing program for at-risk children.

He had been bringing them to the gym where he himself worked out. But their numbers grew and he soon had to find a new place. It happened again at the next place and someone told him he should start a nonprofit.

That was more than 10 years ago. Today, Dorm is the director of Stick N Move Boxing, a nonprofit that aims to give children in York city a place to go after school.

“I know what boxing has done for me,” said Dorm, who has a day job working with children with special needs.

Stick N Move has more than 1,500 children registered for its service and a home at 120 E. Market St., said Lisa Edmonds, a volunteer coach who also is the nonprofit’s unpaid secretary/treasurer.

Dorm focuses entirely on helping the children. Edmonds was the one who discovered and applied for the McNees program. She said she wanted to make sure the nonprofit had a solid foundation in its bylaws and articles of incorporation.

“It’s very simple because we’re a small organization,” Edmonds said. “But just to have their professional input would be great.”

— by Joel Berg, editor of biznewsPA

Click here to subscribe to our daily email newsletter.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: