Determined to Support the Black Community, These Friends Brought 'Fresh Eyes' — and Innovation — to the Food Industry
Carmen Dianne and Kara Still co-founded Prosperity Market in 2020 to battle economic instability and food insecurity in their local communities.
"The world was in shambles," Prosperity Market co-founder Carmen Dianne says, recalling the pandemic and social unrest of 2020. "It was really hard to see everything that was happening, to know that 41% of Black-owned businesses were closing. The grocery store lines were so long, just getting food was even more difficult than it had been previously."
Dianne and her friend Kara Still didn't want to stand by amid the tumult — so they took action.
To address the economic instability and food insecurity facing the Black community, the Los Angeles-based duo co-founded Prosperity Market, a mobile farmers market featuring Black farmers, food producers, entrepreneurs, artists, florists and chefs.
At the time, neither Dianne nor Still had experience in the food industry. Dianne was a makeup artist; Still worked as a fashion designer. Yet coming into the food space "with fresh eyes" has been advantageous for the co-founders, who've been ready to question and challenge things from the start.
Entrepreneur sat down with Dianne and Still to learn how they built Prosperity Market while navigating an industry that was entirely new to them — and hear about the exciting initiative they have planned next.
Related: Sorel Liqueur's Founder Shares His Multi-Million-Dollar Comeback
Black business owners suffered the greatest earnings losses during the Covid-19 pandemic.
More than 800,000 Los Angeles County households (almost a quarter of the total), experienced food insecurity over the 12 months ending July 2022, up from 17% in 2021, according to a study released by Public Exchange.
And a report from the U.S. Small Business Administration found that Black business owners suffered the greatest earnings losses during the Covid-19 pandemic: They lost between 11% and 28% while white business owners saw decreases in the 2-15% range.
Dianne and Still came up with a two-pronged approach to tackle the problems of food insecurity and economic instability in the LA area. They'd take healthful and affordable food options directly into the communities that needed them — and partner with Black businesses and farmers to make it happen.
The co-founders' vision was clear from the start: They wanted to launch a mobile trailer, largely inspired by Dianne's days as a makeup artist on set, where snack trailers were common, to transport the products to local communities.
But as newcomers to the food space, they had to contend with unknowns along the way, and they soon realized that such an ambitious endeavor would require the kind of funding that would only come once they started to prove themselves. That's when they landed on the idea for the pop-up markets.
The co-founders consider the required pivot a "blessing in disguise," as it allowed them to familiarize themselves with the market, connect with vendors and build relationships with different communities.
Related: The 10 Best Books for Black Entrepreneurs, by Black Entrepreneurs
"Because we hadn't intended to start this, it wasn't like we had a business savings fund."
In the first six months after they came up with the idea for Prosperity Market, the co-founders had to learn how to do it all — from getting permits to finding funding.
"[Funding] took some figuring out," Still says, "because we hadn't intended to start this, it wasn't like we had a business savings fund. So really what it looked like once we were getting started was friends and family outreach."
The inaugural market opened in February 2021, and in the lead-up to launch, Dianne and Still prepared relentlessly, researching everything from farmers to food to economics.
Dianne and Still also crafted an aesthetic to help Prosperity Market stand apart from traditional farmers markets. "[Our creative backgrounds] informed our branding and the experience that we want to create, and the theme, continuity and way we show up," Still explains.
But one thing the co-founders hadn't banked on? Just how difficult it would be to find Black farmers.
"It was like, Okay, we need more Black-owned businesses," Dianne says. "We need essential Black-owned businesses — we'll find Black farmers. And then we had trouble doing that, and we had to learn about the history of Black farmers and why it was this way. So that added another layer to our work."
Related: 6 Ways to Offer Allyship to Black Entrepreneurs
"You can get your hot food and shop for your groceries and produce all at the same time."
Through it all, the co-founders' dedication, flexibility and creativity have helped Prosperity Market gain traction and find success.
As word about Prosperity Market spread, friends and family continued to support Dianne and Still's venture — and so did their other fans. In 2022, the co-founders launched a crowdfunding campaign on the platform Fund Black Founders with the help of a grant from the JLH Social Impact Fund.
It was a triumph and allowed them to raise enough money to fund the mobile trailer they'd dreamed up at the beginning of their journey.
"That was such a transformational experience for us," Dianne says. "It taught us a lot. It is not for the faint of heart, let me tell you, but we did it: We raised over $111,000 for our mobile trailer."
The long-awaited trailer will be 48 feet long with a farmers market that's set up to look like a produce aisle with shelves full of goods, and a kitchen in the back, which Prosperity Market will rent out to different chefs and food entrepreneurs.
"So it's a pop-up food truck all in one trailer," Dianne says. "You can get your hot food and shop for your groceries and produce all at the same time."
Related: Black Women Entrepreneurs, Not Banks, Helped Me Keep My Company Going During the Pandemic
"It takes something to be able to pull yourself up every day, no matter how things are going."
As the co-founders look to Prosperity Market's exciting future, they consider capacity one of the greatest hurdles they'll have to overcome.
"We have all the ideas in the world,'" Dianne says. "There's so much we want to do, but then [we] have to execute it, and we just need more operating capital."
"Because everything takes time," Still adds. "You write it down, plan it out, strategize and then [it takes] time to actually execute, and there's always things that come up, and with such a small team, we can only do so much at once."
The road to Prosperity Market has had its twists and turns, teaching the co-founders the value of practicing patience every day in all areas of their lives.
"You'll need patience with that vision, patience with all of the different types of people that you'll be working with and patience with yourself," Still explains, "because it is not an easy process. It takes something to be able to pull yourself up every day, no matter how things are going, because no one makes your schedule but you."
It also underscored the importance of having a solid support system along the way.
"We have great mentors and advisors and people we can go to when we get stumped with something," Dianne says. "We have a supportive community of people who want to see us win. And if it was not for that, I don't know that we would be continuing this."
Prosperity Market will hold its next market on Saturday, February 25, 2023, its second anniversary, at the California African American Museum. Its virtual market will be open the week before the pop-up to provide an opportunity to pre-order online and schedule a pick-up at the market or satellite location.