Lifting up minority-owned brands, one brunch box at a time

July 14, 2021 | By Sophie Hares

Taylor Cook has always considered herself an activist and an entrepreneur. So when Black Lives Matter demonstrations swept across the world last year, she knew she had to find a way to help the cause.

“I really wanted to show up in the movement, and my decision was to protest with my spending power,” says Cook.

Cook, who works full-time as an associate director for diversity and inclusion at Critical Mass (and who was once a creative assistant to pop icon Madonna), turned to Instagram, where she started sharing brands founded by people from diverse backgrounds with her 1,300 followers. Her initial hope was just to bring attention and customers to these often overlooked companies.

But she quickly realized she had stumbled upon an idea that could sustain these entrepreneurs and sustain itself as a business. Tiny Bodega was born.

The online marketplace features healthy food options, including gluten- and dairy-free products, from minority-owned businesses. (Cook identifies herself as “one of those millennials with a weak-ass gut.”) Products are sold in curated boxes such as the dinner box, which includes Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam’s Yolele pilaf made from the West African grain fonio, Cuban black beans from A Dozen Cousins, and Shaquanda’s Hot Pepper Sauce, named after the drag queen alter ego of its founder. 

Cook’s work took on greater urgency during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but her efforts point to a deeper problem. People of color have long struggled to tap into the mainstream financing they need to get their small businesses up and running. Black women are usually the most affected, receiving just a tiny fraction of the venture capital dollars invested each year, and the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black business owners — 41% closed their doors during the first few months of the pandemic.

As part of a renewed push across the country to close the racial wealth gap and support minority entrepreneurs, Cook became one of seven small-business owners to be awarded a $10,000 Fearless Strivers Grant from Mastercard and Fearless Fund, the first venture capital fund by women of color for women of color.

“The Fearless Fund team and I are in complete awe of the work that Taylor and Tiny Bodega are doing to bring indie-owned food and beverage brands from people of color to the forefront,” says Arian Simone, general partner and co-founder of Fearless Fund. “We launched the Strivers Grant contest with a mission of giving women-of-color founders the tools and financing to build and strengthen their business and are excited to watch Tiny Bodega grow into a leading online marketplace.”

Cook also received Mastercard’s Digital Doors tool kit, which includes a digital diagnostic, one-on-one mentorship and resources from Jobble, Mastercard Trust Center, Microsoft Advertising, SimplyPayMe and Zoho, as well as Mastercard cybersecurity tools to help defend her business against cyber threats. She plans to use the tools and grant to expand Tiny Bodega into a full-fledged online marketplace with products from more than 60 vendors.

“I really wanted to show up in the movement, and my decision was to protest with my spending power.”
Taylor Cook

Cook fulfills Tiny Bodega orders from her Harlem apartment, which is lined with boxes of food and packaging. Her advice for women of color looking to start their own businesses? Tap into your networks and don’t be afraid to ask for support to develop your business. 

For example, to launch Tiny Bodega, she enlisted help from a string of creative allies — professional photographers and branding and packaging experts whose work she has been a fan of — who offered their services to Black entrepreneurs. She also persuaded “MasterChef” contestant Hetal Vasavada, TV host Leslie Antonoff and wife duo Sara Elise and Amber Drew of Apogeo Collective to create the recipe cards she includes in Tiny Bodega’s discovery boxes. 

And Cook says all the work she put into founding Tiny Bodega is starting to pay off for her company and the businesses she features. Strong demand meant her brunch and snack boxes often sell out within weeks.

“The goal is to be successful,” she says, “but I would be remiss if it wasn’t really to help push these smaller brands and uplift them as well with me.”

Sophie Hares, Contributor