Culture Collective’s pop-up shops are up and running, but sellers face challenges

For the first time in the city’s history, Madison opened pop-up shops on State Street aimed at providing businesses owned by people of color with premium retail space.

Culture Collective Pop-Up Shop vendors include: Ardoposh; better prints; DK Shop; El Legado; Productions of intuition; Madame Chu’s Delights; Walk-Isa Co; Nobbits United States; laughter of the oceans; OnlyOne Photography; and Restoration and Body Care Soap. The Pop Up Shops are located at 440 and 444 State Street.

Saran Ouk, Office of Business Resource Manager for Madison, was new to her job when this program was created. Ouk helped and partnered with Chambers to create this pop-up store program for underrepresented business owners in Madison.

“When I started my role, you know, my manager was like hey, there were pop-up conversations,” Ouk said. “I just kind of took it upon myself to move forward with whatever was discussed. And then, with the darkrooms and Latinos already in the conversation, I thought we should also bring in the Hmong chamber. They’re statewide and they’re a CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution) with lending power that could help small businesses. That’s kind of how it all started then with the three ethnic chambers and the city that came together to create this program of pop-up shops.”

This program is a collaboration between the City of Madison, JD McCormick Properties, Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, Dane County Latino Chamber of Commerce, Madison Black Chamber of Commerce, and Madison’s Central Business Improvement District.

“This is probably the first time I would say Madison has worked with three ethnic chambers to launch a program like this,” Ouk said. “It’s something I’m very proud of. That we were able to work with three color chambers because we wanted to make sure we provided those opportunities to those who have been historically marginalized. And working with chambers that work, you know, in the community, and they work with these companies. I think it was just fine instead of the government trying to figure out who the sellers are. It was a great partnership with the chambers.

The program was not an immediate success for all providers. Sarah Denise Peeler, owner of Ocean’s Laugh, runs a business that sells flower bath kits and jars. Peeler said she was grateful for the opportunity, but it was a bit difficult at first.

Sarah Denise Peeler, owner of Ocean’s Laugh. Photo by Angelica Euseary.

“What I will say is it’s a great experience because I’m ready to make it great,” Peeler said. “I understand that as a minority people can see something they really like in the window, but once they see me, oh they keep walking. As I show up every day here in this space, this opportunity is for me. I think it’s very important. It’s important to show up and be present in those moments. To show up in these spaces (which) otherwise we probably couldn’t even afford to be there. We must remain encouraged. You know, I’ve been sitting here for a few days and the sales are pretty low. But I’m not going to allow that to stop me from growing my business and building my brand.

Allison Aguilar Bultman is the Cultural Collectives Vendor Support Coordinator. Bultman is here to support sellers and cultivate community among them as they navigate this experience. She understands that State Street is a predominantly white space in Madison and is doing what she can to help sellers during this time.

“And that’s really part of my role as a support coordinator, to make sure they feel heard,” Bultman said. “And create an environment where they all feel able to support each other, because all of these vendors in these stores are also our people of color. They go through this together. They are the ones who really share this experience and who are there for each other. It’s uncomfortable. Even at the grand opening we had a large group of people and diverse people as well. That’s not always the case, if you were to walk down State Street Monday through Thursday. But again, it’s such an opportunity for these sellers to lean into the question and say, “Where do I want my business to be located and how can I still share my culture and my passion for what am I doing in these spaces that are mostly white??’”

Josey Chu, owner of Mrs Chu, runs a business that offers artisanal products specializing in Southeast Asian delicacies. Chu is not new to State Street. As a student at UW-Madison, Chu spent a lot of time on State Street with friends. She recognizes the changes in the environment since the pandemic and understands how it has affected State Street and local businesses.

Josey Chu, owner of Madame Chu. Photo by Angelica Euseary.

“So I have to say State Street from when I went to UW-Madison and now is a 90 degree difference, I wouldn’t say a 180,” Chu said. “Because State Street when I was going to UW Madison, it was a place where at 1 a.m., right after we went to comedy clubs, and as college students, we were hanging out on the patio and then walked down State Street looking for places to eat, browse shops and buy gifts. He doesn’t have that charm anymore because of what we’ve been through. The pandemic and the riots and the whole shutdown of State Street. So since then, it seems like it’s been really tough for State Street to recover.

Although Chu understands the reality of State Street, she appreciates this opportunity presented to be able to participate in the cultural collectives.

“I feel like Culture Collectives is an opportunity, it’s a place that really shows where the city would like to move forward, along State Street,” Chu said. “And it’s about bringing back the diversity of cultures and ethnicities, and showing support. More importantly, it’s about showing the city of Madison (and) the state of Wisconsin, that retail , brick and mortar, even though it’s tough and going through a rebound. But by supporting local small businesses in this retail program, it can actually help the economy bounce back. Because it’s an opportunity for small businesses to be unaware of the supply chain issues we constantly hear in the media.There are all these products waiting to be delivered to the door.If you get products through from a local supplier, you really don’t have the supply chain problem. That’s what I wanted to make the point that the city, the chambers, the state of Wisconsin, promoting local small businesses, can really bring the economy back. We can bounce back and not encounter this supply chain problem.

This program offered business owners the opportunity to put their products on State Street. It also allowed the Hmong Chamber of Commerce to collaborate with other chambers and the city of Madison. Maysee Herr, Executive Director of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the importance of collaborating on this project and the impacts it will have on communities of color in Madison.

“To see what it’s like to be on State Street, not many of them have had that experience,” Herr said. “So that’s a lesson for everyone involved. And also, they can see if they can see themselves on the state street along the line. If their products could sell there. Or if that is not what they want so it’s a good experience for everyone and I would also say as far as the Hmong House is concerned it gives us the opportunity to meet one of the small businesses from diverse backgrounds.

The Culture Collectives bring something new and exciting to State Street. It is exciting for business owners to engage in this opportunity and expand their customer base. This program is an opportunity to create a truly diverse State Street for all Madisonians.

“I really thank all the chambers for being able to work together,” Chu said. “The Hmong Chamber, the Latino Chamber, the Black Chamber and the City of Madison come together and can really work together to provide us with this opportunity. The Cultural Collectives are also an opportunity for me to meet other product manufacturers. In my space, I was able to meet the owner of Nobbits USA. I met the owner of Ocean’s Laugh. In addition, next door are all the other owners of beautiful shops. We are able to talk about business, successes, failures and what we look forward to.

As the holiday season approaches, head to Culture Collectives on State Street and support these small local businesses. To learn more, visit:

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