Lighting the Fire Within
By Kim Borges
I can be a backbone to a foundation
A shoulder for tears from a tiring hustled dream
Sunshine to any hard day that comes our way
But I CANNOT build alone
I cannot build EMPIRES on my own…
– “Where I Left You” –Tell’em The Poet
Shantell Jennings, also known as Tell’em The Poet, has big plans.
“I’m just a Baltimore girl trying to change the world,” she said.
For Jennings, that resembles promoting self-care, peace and love through her poetry, spoken word art and as the owner of Smell’em Candle Company based in Dallas, Texas.
Jennings’ own focus on self-care evolved from her grueling schedule working in the hospitality industry managing 400-plus properties. The woman who now owns a candle company had been burning her own candle at both ends for years.
“I was on the road 100 percent of the time,” Jennings recalled. “Writing and art is an outlet for me. I realized I hadn’t written a piece in three or four years.”
Then, it came: time to breathe, create and reassess with the significant downturn in travelers in March of 2020.
“This project is definitely a pandemic baby,” said Jennings of the timeline in launching her company. “I initially thought, ‘I’m just going to enjoy these three weeks of down time. As a very ambitious person, I realized I needed to figure out something. I had to find something not knowing what the something was.”
A conversation with a friend offered a flicker of inspiration: candles.
But, as reflected in her poem, Jennings knew she couldn’t build a small business alone. She needed support.
Jennings discovered that support thanks to a second friend who referred her to PeopleFund, a community development financial institution (CDFI) that supports Texas small businesses.
In 2021, PeopleFund deployed over $46 million in loans and grants to nearly 1,900 small businesses and nonprofits, helping create or retain 8,200-plus jobs.
The CDFI also provided 23,000-plus hours of technical assistance to more than 6,000 entrepreneurs.
The Regions Foundation, a nonprofit primarily funded by Regions Bank, has supported PeopleFund for years, most recently funding the nonprofit’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Small Business Accelerator.
“Access to resources is a key hurdle that minority entrepreneurs have faced in growing their businesses, and we wanted to help tear down those barriers and support greater access,” said Marta Self, executive director of the Regions Foundation. “PeopleFund’s BIPOC Accelerator opens doors to financial, educational and technical resources for thousands of entrepreneurs of color, empowering them in scaling their companies to the next level. We’re beyond excited to support that mission.”
In addition to financial support, Jennings was also seeking educational tools.
“My first candles were actually atrocious,” said Jennings. “I decided that if I’m going to do this, it has to be right. I watched YouTube videos, went into some real research and joined the National Candle Association. I always want to grow and move forward and learn new things.”
That burning desire to learn motivated Jennings to gather every nugget of knowledge she could as she built her business plan throughout the eight-week BIPOC Accelerator program.
“This program allowed me to get my hands around it, to gain a grasp of where to start,” Jennings said. “We discussed what goes into developing a business plan, the different types of plans to present, and how to pitch your plan to an investor versus to the public.”
For Chloe Quakenbush, a small business specialist with PeopleFund, observing Jennings blend her creative and business sides throughout the course was inspiring.
“Working with Shantell, I appreciated how her journey as a poet drew her to creating aromatic candles – it’s a lovely coexistence,” said Quakenbush. “I’m excited to watch Shantell thrive as Smell’em Candle Co. continues to grow.”
Helping to advance that growth? A PeopleFund loan Jennings received after successfully completing the Accelerator program. She’s using the funds to purchase raw materials as she increases her inventory. Demand for Smell’em’s products, which now also features wax melts, body butters, incense and hand sanitizer, has soared from her initial days of selling to family and friends.
“I was only able to keep up with doing one to two events when I was on my own,” Jennings explained. “I wasn’t able to move as fast as I wanted to; I kept selling out at events.”
Those events included everything from farmers markets to festivals. She’s also become a repeat vendor at an event bringing together 50-plus Black entrepreneurs.
“Diversity is a word that doesn’t just apply to people or a group of people; it also applies to what a business can offer,” said Jennings. “To me, it’s very important that culture and community are merged together. I don’t think I’ve ever been so passionate about supporting so many other small businesses.”
What’s next? Hiring her first full-time employee by the end of the summer. And after that? Launching a storefront space that features candle-making and wax-dipping stations offering customers an interactive fragrance experience. That won’t happen until 2026, but Jennings is in no hurry.
“We’ve established a great following and footing in Dallas,” Jennings said. “I hope, wish, pray and know there will be a flood of opportunity. I want to be ready for that. I want to set myself up for success.”
Jennings is grateful for the insights and funding she’s received from PeopleFund through the BIPOC Small Business Accelerator.
“What I appreciated from the beginning of this experience is that I knew you had to put in the work to receive the reward,” she said. “Without PeopleFund, I’d probably still be working paycheck-to-paycheck; it would be candle-to-candle. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to seek other opportunities or the time to research opportunities to make myself bigger.”
But she’s been able to do all that – and more.
The empire is coming together. Because she’s not alone.