Startup Life: BlackEXPO founders share what it’s really like.

It’s easy to look at a business from the outside and romanticize ‘what a nice life’ the founders must have. Speak to a founder though about starting up and you’ll find the road to building a sustainable business while rewarding, certainly isn’t as glamorous as most people assume.

Approaching their one-year anniversary this Saturday, the team behind BlackEXPO shares with us what it’s like starting up and how they’ve expanded from a one-time Beijing local event to hosting BlackEXPO in other cities in China, to adding a lifestyle brand behind the whole thing.

Meet the founders: Olivia Nadine and James Sserwadda

Q: So let’s get right into this. You had a vision and you made it a reality. What helped you take BlackEXPO from an idea to a real thing?

A: Being passionate, being naive, and having the guts to follow through. Passion is what helped us to find solutions to the different challenges that popped up. It also guided our vision. While we were not sure how it would look in the end, we knew we wanted to make something for the community, and we knew it had to be done correctly.

Being naive was also a major part of making the vision a reality. We didn’t have the luxury of knowing ahead of time how much hard work it would take, how overwhelming some aspects would be, or the amount of sweat equity we would have to pay. We just knew it was a good idea and that it needed to happen.

Having the guts to follow through helped us to find creative solutions and try things outside of our comfort zones. Even if that meant late nights and conflict.

Q: Before the launch of BlackEXPO did you have any moments of self-doubt? If so, how did you move past the feeling?

A: We weren’t sure people were going to respond to BlackEXPO until we gave people a space to respond. The way the BlackEXPO Wechat group grew and came alive was magic. It was the kind of magic that quelled thoughts of doubt. So giving people a space to learn more and talk and share, connect, and build off each other helped us know that our work was being seen, understood, and already making an impact. Admittedly, on the day of the first event, Olivia was still surprised at the number of people that showed up. Having a huge Wechat group doesn’t mean that everyone will show up, so when they did it was a sweet relief.

Q: The first BlackEXPO was a major success. What stood out to you when the event was done? What were you proudest of?

A: The fact that people stayed from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm. From our experience vending at other markets in Beijing, people normally come, buy, and leave within 30 minutes to an hour. Sometimes people will browse and just leave. So, to have people stay for the whole event or change their plans because they were so caught up in the vibe and the atmosphere and entertainers and vendors and just everything, just showed us that we were doing something different and that our different was working.

Also, the fact that vendors launched businesses and sold out was an amazing outcome. The whole purpose of BlackEXPO was to spotlight, support, and promote businesses in the community. To have them be so supported that they sell out on the first day (and are still in business) was the best possible outcome.

Q: Since the first BlackEXPO you’ve expanded to Shanghai and backed the business with the B.E. Brand. At what point did you realize BlackEXPO could be more than a one-off event?

A: Great questions. The moment it hit 12:00 pm on March 31, 2018 and we had customers and when it was 6:00 pm and we still had people who didn’t want to leave, and vendors who were effusive in their thanks for the platform. Plus, it helped that people were already asking when the next would be. But we think we always knew that if it worked it couldn’t be a one off if we really wanted to support the community and make an impact.

Q: From the outside it looks like everything BE related is running smoothly but as an entrepreneur we know things don’t always go according to plan. Can you give us an example of a time when something didn’t go according to plan? How did you meet the challenge? What did the experience teach you?

A: As co-founders there are certainly times where you will disagree and sometimes it is a fierce disagreement. One person may have one view and perspective that seems to be vastly different than the other. When working across cultures, backgrounds, and on top of that other life pressures, seemingly small issues can take a toll. But one thing that has helped us is meeting face to face, listening to understand (not to reply), and being open to being wrong and to learn. And maybe even saying sorry. Approaching each other with humility and humanity can make the toughest disagreements the strongest building points.


Q: You have a lot on your plate with a full-time job and full-time school work and a quickly expanding business, any tips for staying focused and on top of things?

A: Know what you are doing and why you are doing it. This will keep you motivated and powered. Then you will need to know where you want to go. Being able to be clear on where you want to go, you will be able to think through and plan out what you need to do to get from where you are to where you want to be. Once you know that, it is a matter of dedication to the plan.

It is also sacrifice and cutting away the things that do not serve your goal. It is impossible to keep a bubbling social life, full-time work or study schedule, rest, and hustle. So, something will have to get left behind or folded in.

Taking risks and investing too. Making a dream into a reality is doing something that you want to do but does not yet exist. There is no foolproof map to follow. So, you must take uncharted courses and push forward. You must put in time and money and energy not always knowing what you will get back in return. Sometimes you get the break of a life time, the one you could only hope for, other times you get debt. But the more you take risks and leaps of faith, and make investments and do the work, the more chances you have for positive returns and the clearer you can see the road ahead.

Q: So, what are B•e’s Priorities for 2019?

A: We have many priorities for 2019. Here are a few:

  1. To grow the team. For much of the short lifespan of BlackEXPO and B•e it has been a two-person team. But for the things we have planned for this year and beyond, we are looking for passionate and creative people who get what we do and why we do it and want to help push it forward.
  2. To help more businesses to launch and develop. One of the ideas that came out of BlackEXPO is to have business development services for small businesses. Helping other businesses to move from ideas to launching, to mastering the markets is something that we are very passionate about. We are currently nurturing four businesses and helping them to reach new heights. We look forward to helping other aspiring business owners in the future as well as growing our own business development business B•e
  3. Expanding to the South! We are looking to launch BlackEXPO Shenzhen in the later part of the year! Always looking for interested team members and partners to bring the magic of BlackEXPO to Shenzhen.
  4. Growing into a lifestyle brand. We are super excited to launch our first line of merchandise. It will lay the ground work for an online BlackEXPO where vendors can sell digitally on our site.
  5. More events. We will be collaborating with Kente and Silk for a special edition of BlackEXPO that will take place during Africa Week with a night market theme. We are also planning a summer fest and later in the year a special black tie event to bring AfroChic glamour to Beijing.

Q: Any final words of motivation or resources to share with other small businesses in their first year?

A: Just start. From wherever you are, if all you have is an idea, start speaking about your idea to others. you can grow an idea alone, but they grow faster and stronger when done in collaboration.

Our official motto is Create|Connect|Uplift. Our unofficial motto is “Just ask, the worst they can say is no”. If getting a no is the worst outcome, you are doing well, so try it out.

Join a mastermind group, get out there and attend workshops, network and meet people in the industries that you want to be in.

Know why you are doing what you are doing and hold on to it but be flexible in how you get it done. Each failure is a lesson, keep learning after each lesson.

Find your tribe, the people who support, motivate, and inspire you, and love you for who you are and be picky about who they are.


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