Last month our media team traveled to the small town of Raeford, North Carolina, to document a roundtable discussion on the topic of military spouse entrepreneurial ship and to film a mini-documentary with CEO circle member D’Shawn Russell. D’Shawn is a former teacher, military spouse, motorcycle rider, mother, entrepreneur, and owner of a fast-growing candle enterprise, Southern Elegance Candle Company. 

Within the past five years, D’Shawn’s business has scaled from her home garage to a warehouse-size operation employing female-owned and operated partners, supporting the southern small business economy, and expanding distribution to over three-hundred stores across America.

In recording this interview, we discuss the challenges and rewards of starting a business as a military spouse, the insights she gained working for nearly two decades as a school teacher, and the experience of ultimately shifting her life’s trajectory from educator to entrepreneur in her early forties.

So let us start by having you introduce yourself and telling us a little about you.  

D’Shawn Russell

My name is D’Shawn Russell, and I am the owner of Southern elegance candle company, and we make Southern-themed home fragrance products, mostly candles, room sprays, wet smells, but we will be introducing some new products soon. I am originally from Alabama, but I’ve lived in North Carolina for most of my childhood. I’ve traveled all over the world with my husband, who was in the military, so we’ve lived all over. So it is hard for me to say where I am from because I’ve lived so many places for so many years. It’s all about the same. I settled in Raeford, North Carolina. 

And your candles are southern themed, so I assume this geographic region has some influence on you. Could you speak on this a little? What was it like growing up for you?

I think I had a typical childhood because I was very blessed that I had my mom and dad. And then I had grandparents on both sides. And then I had great-grandparents also, and my great grandparents lived in the country, like literally in the country on a dirt road, with an outhouse. And we worked in the fields when I was a kid, so it was like the literal country, Southern lifestyle. We ate what we grew and what we killed. I mean, we had grocery stores, but back then, it wasn’t like it is now. So we had one Piggly wiggly. So a lot of our food was supplemented by what we grew in the fields and what we killed by hunting. So I’ve had deer, rabbit, bear and all fish to eat. So that’s how I spent my summers.

And then I lived in a city. So we lived in Greensboro, we lived in Durham. So I had a dual lifestyle where part of the year I was like in the city. And then part of the year I lived in the country. So my childhood was like a mix of the perfect Southern lifestyle. I had the best of both worlds. Whereas as a kid I could just literally run around barefoot, catching lightning bugs, eating watermelon, pick fruit off of trees that literally grew on our yards and it was just like carefree and wonderful and then went back home to like the big city and have that whole city experience. So that was pretty much my childhood up until I was 16.

It’s like, I wonder if kids can even get that right now. Is this still exist, do you think? Yeah. Oh, God, yeah. It definitely exists here in Rayford like this is, it’s only 5,000 people that live here. So this is the quintessential small-town America where I currently live. A lot of kids here amazingly never go anywhere. So they have that typical kind of very sheltered, very protected childhood and their generations of people that live here in this area. So a lot of kids still get it. And even in Roseboro, which is where I spent, my childhoods are pretty much the same. My uncle now lives on the land that my great grandmother, bought my great grandmother and my great grandfather; my grandmother lived there, some aunts and uncles lived there. Like that, the land has just been passed on through our generations.

So his kids literally grew up, my cousins grew up on the same street, the same dirt road that is still a dirt road with the same pecan trees, the same fruit trees that I ate off of as a kid. My cousins did the exact same thing, but now, you know, we’ve got toilets and use it outhouses and whatnot, and, but pretty much the same kind of lifestyle exists just with social media and the internet. So they’re exposed, they have more knowledge about the world, but they’re still insulated from the world all at the same time. I think they got the best of both worlds, actually.

And what was your upbringing like, like what were your parent’s occupations and what were some of your biggest influences growing up?

Both of my parents were educators. My dad is retired military, and after he retired, he became a teacher, and my mom was a teacher, so both of them were educators. They encouraged me to be an educator and marry a soldier. That was my mom’s advice to me be a teacher, Mer soldier. And that’s what I did for 20 odd years. I was a teacher and married to a soldier.

And, you know, before we fast forward to that time, what was it like to, to you now I want to get, go through a little more of the history. So, what was it like being married to a soldier? Being married to a soldier was the best thing that could have ever possibly happen to me. I grew up in a very, and I spent my summers in a very, very small town. I was very insulated. I spent my year, my school year, basically in Durham, which was at the time the inner city. So I had a very narrow view of the world. And so right after we got married, we got stationed in Germany. Like a year or two later, we got stationed in Germany, and it totally changed my life. I was a college graduate. I was a teacher. I was a professional. I was doing all of the things I was supposed to do. But to get over there and see things in real life that I had only seen in a textbook was life-changing. So while we were in Germany, I was just determined to travel everywhere. I don’t care if it was some little town, I’ve been to the small towns in France. I’ve been to the Czech Republic, I’ve been to Poland. Like I just traveled and did everything cause I was determined to grow as much as I possibly could. 

While I was there, I got another degree. I traveled so much, and I got an intercontinental express card. Traveling everywhere fundamentally changed who I was, exposed me to things that I would’ve never had an opportunity to experience. So it was the best thing that ever happened to me. And then we came back, and I was like, we’re absolutely not living anywhere other than somewhere in the South. So where can we get stationed that is a Southern state.

I have also found the transition between living in Europe and returning the States to be unique and challenging for many service members and especially for their families, who must then reintegrate into their new communities. So what happened after you returned to the US?

We couldn’t come back to Fort Bragg. So we ended up going to, Georgia and then, got a job teaching. Which was another phenomenal experience because I thought that my childhood, was sheltered. And, and then when I taught in Georgia, and I traveled through certain parts of Georgia, I just didn’t realize how really sheltered some people were and the level of poverty that some people lived in. So it gave me a greater appreciation that I had the experience with everything that my husband and I were building. Teaching in Georgia, really, I would say that living in Europe was high and it showed me the possibilities of the world. And then coming back and living in rural Georgia and seeing that level of poverty was the absolute low. And it made me realize the huge discrepancy between the haves and a half knots. And I’ve always kind of carried that with me in life. So, but being married to him took me to places and exposed me to the things that I would’ve never seen before. So fundamentally changed who I am and my view of the world.

At what point did you start to build on the idea that southern hospitality and southern culture would be your brand? Where did the idea of Southern Elegance originate? 

I came from like, even though I was living in Europe, I wanted to come home like every day I was just like, you know, it’s raining again here. Will the sun ever come out. Like, what’s this weather? I want some real Southern food. Can I get some sleep tape? Can I get some fried chicken? Like what’s going on here? So even though I was having this great experience, like deep down inside, I just wanted to come home. So that’s where it really kind of started. I just think that I’m a Southern girl at heart. I’m just a Southern girl. Like I loved the weather there. I loved the food there, and I loved the people. I love everything about the South, and I just wanted to go home. So regardless of where we went or traveled or took trips to, or even now, it’s like I always want to come back home to the South. I just loved it here. So I think it started though, living in Germany and just realizing that what we have here is unique and special and it’s underappreciated.

So I had a kid at 40, it was not expected. It almost killed me. And I started looking at life from a different lens. So you have a life-changing experience like that when you don’t know if you know if you’re going to survive. So I started looking at life a little differently, and I was looking at my job at his time, and I was like, uh, I think I kind of hate this. I did everything I was supposed to do. I got all of the degrees I was supposed to get. I played the game, and I still was not happy. I loved the kids. I love teaching, but I felt like I had something bigger in me. So I started learning how to make soaps, body butter, sugar scrubs, lotions, and I was doing a lot of things. And then one day I walked into work, and I said, I hate this place.

I hate these people. I don’t want to be on the internet, like ripping bullets and warrants off and kicking over desks and going viral for that. So I think I’m going just to quit nicely and we’ll make candles, and everybody loves the light. You get a teacher or work in education, and you’ve been an administrator, like your trained teachers, how to be better teachers, and you’re going to quit all of this after 22 years can make candles, and you know nothing about being in business. And I said, yes, that’s what I’m going to do. I feel I tell people, I heard the voice of God, and it said everything you need I will send to you. And I said I believe it. And I quit, and I’ve been on this journey, and it’s been working, and I feel like what I’m doing now is bigger than I could have ever done.

That is fascinating. And before we move into your business, what subjects were teaching?

I was a math teacher. I was a math teacher, and I taught other math teachers how to be better math teachers cause I was really good at what I did. I could teach those kids math; I can take them from low to high. I wrote my last job, I started with some kids in the sixth grade, and I saw some other kids, and I went to them. I said you know what? Next year you’re going to be in my class, you’re smart. And we’re saying to you, you’re not going to get on this other track. You’re going to be in my class. So I went to the principal. I had a list of names. I said I want you to put all these kids in my class. And I mean, my class was jam-packed because I just went and grabbed kids. Like I would see them walking down the hall and be like, you’re smart, you’re in my class.

And they were like, we don’t want to be in your class cause we gotta do work. And I was like, I don’t care. You’re in my class. So that was in the seventh grade. And then the eighth grade I taught algebra. And once you get into algebra in eighth grade, it puts you on a different track. And I did it again. I walked around, and I saw different kids. I said this, I went to the principal, I said, here’s the list of kids, put them in algebra class and they and those kids come back. Now they’ve graduated. A lot of them graduated early because of me putting them in, you know, picking them in the sixth grade saying you, you, you and you. Or in the seventh grade or the eighth grade, and making sure that they were on the right track.

A lot of them came back to me and was like, it’s because of you that I graduated early or I got into college or I went to early college or whatever, because I was really good at what I was doing, but I’m really good at what I’m doing now. It’s just intrinsic. I think if you’re driven to be the best, and you want to be number one, that it doesn’t matter what industry you are in. And so that’s just how I operate. I’m determined to be number one, and I’m determined to have world domination with Southern elegance, and I’m so serious.

Okay. Sorry. I hit the wrong button. Can you say that last phrase one more time? I’m determined to…

Oh, I’m determined to have world domination with Southern elegance. I’m determined to have world domination with Southern Elegance, whichever way you want to use cause we will take over the world.

Your experience as a teacher sounds incredible and it’s crazy that you already had a job that must have been very rewarding on some levels. But you still said no to that path and determined that you wanted something more.

Well, I always want to tell this part of the story. The only reason I was able to quit my job is that I had a husband who was retired from the military and got another job [after retirement], and all of our bills got paid. I never want to gloss over that part of the story because it’s integral to what I was able to do. So I want to be clear about what the military has it done for me. My dad served; he was honorably discharged with a 100% disability, is sent me to college. I married a soldier. I traveled the world. When it was time to start this company, I was able to do it because my husband’s served and retired, and we had enough money to pay the bills. I didn’t have to worry about if, if I don’t make enough money this month to get paid for me, I never had to worry about the bills getting paid because of the sacrifices that he made. So it’s because of the military that I’m even able to sit here at this moment.

And so it was just “I will make candles and that is that”. Talk me through the process there. So what was it like, though? 

I don’t recommend that to anybody. No. Do not quit your job without a plan. Do not do it. So I quit my job without a plan. I just figured if I learned calculus, I could learn the business. That was my plan. It was a horrible plan. I had no idea how anything works. So I had to learn a lot quickly, and I had to work a lot of hours. I work 12 to 14 hour days for the first two years I’m going to work every weekend at any craft show, fair festival, church, school, bizarre. I didn’t care. I was there selling my candles, trying to learn what people wanted, and try to figure out who my customer was, what type of sense people like. So I did that for about two years, and it almost killed me.

Like literally, I was at the cardiologist like what’s going on? And he was like, oh, stress is going to kill you. You need to chill. So then I had to stop going places and still to sell and learn e-commerce, which is a whole different beast. So I tell people all the time as if you are in a product-based business, you need to have a very good balance of eCommerce, and in-person sells it wholesale. Like it has to be a balance that you do. And if you don’t have a good foundation for that, get a coach, get somebody to help you navigate it because it is an incredible amount to learn. And I just get it trial by fire. And luckily, like I’m not trying to brag on myself, but I was smart enough to do it, and I had the time to do it, and I had the luxury of not having a full-time job so that if I needed to take a class, and you know, it was an online class, and they released the whole class, I would just sit one day and go through the whole class and learn everything because I had the time to do that.

So I had a lot of luxury, the luxury of time to do it because I had someone paying the bills. So, but it’s a lot to learn if you don’t know what you’re doing. And there are a lot of mistakes. I’ve made some very, very, very expensive mistakes just because I didn’t have good guidance, and I didn’t have a strong knowledge base. But it’s just all a part of the learning curve. Yeah. And so what got you from, you know, basically going out and uh, trying to build a Mark builds kind of a customer base to where you’re at now where it seems like you have a very large customer base? I think that once I figured out who my people were and I only started talking to my people, like I only talked to a very specific group of people. 

Once I narrowed that down, people started finding me because your message becomes clear, your vision becomes clear when people see your product or your service, they know that you, for them, they know that whatever it is that you’re doing is for them. And I got in front of the camera more, and there was a time where I would not do any interviews. I didn’t have my face on anything. But when I started telling them my story and talking about how I grew up and my experiences, I think the authenticity of the story and the product, like people could get a better skill for what we were about. And because it crosses gender, it crosses race, and it crosses socioeconomic status. It’s just a feel-good story literally about growing up with your grandma on a dirt road and running around barefoot with lightning bugs. Like that’s what the whole company is built off of, and that just resonated with people, and then that’s when it started stabilizing and growing.

I want to talk a little bit about the military spouse community in this area. How connected are you to those things?  Does it help? Does it distract? How does that community relate to your business now?

I will try not to get emotional. So my first store was a military spouse. I remember I was there anything that I had just started a business. Like it was not easy. It wasn’t even really a business. It was just really just some candles. And I went to Ashley, and she had just opened her store, and I said, hey, will you carry my candles? And she was like, I need product. So she was like, sure. So she carried the candles, and they were selling, and I was like, okay, this is my first account. 

She was a military spouse, and it was just, I loved her. I was just like, thank you. So through Ashley, I was like, okay, this thing kind of might work. Ashley knew, Cameron and Lisa from R. Riveter, and they had just been on shark tank, and they need a product. So she was like, Hey, go check them out and see if their carrier candles. So I went, and I did a little presentation like, you know, here’s my little widget where you carry them. And they were like, yeah, we need product, bring them. And they’re still impressed. So the first two real accounts that I got that gave me validation, both came from other military spouses, and they have just supported military spouses, military members, veterans have some supportive of the company. Like from day one, I would not be where I am today without that type of support from military organizations, military spouses, and just the military in general. So absolutely 100%. Ashley gave me the confidence to acknowledge that I’m a businesswoman. Then our R. Riveter gave me with Cameron and Lisa, and they gave me the confidence to know that I can produce a product that sells, and I can charge a lot for it, and people will still buy it. And it’s a real thing, and it’s high end. And I’m not just doing some Rudy poop little in my kitchen candle thing. I can really build a company. That’s what I learned from Lisa and Cameron. Like I can build a real company with a real product charge premium prices, create a premium product, and I can do this. And I’ve been doing it, but they provided that foundation for me. They did.

So right now we are in Raeford, a small town that sits outside of Fort Bragg. The largest military installation in the world. So in a way, you’re kind of far from everything, but you are still surrounded by the military community. Does this location in any way affect how you distribute Nationally? 

So let me answer the first part of your question. How does that affect me? Generally speaking, it doesn’t affect me because anybody that creates a company now is creating a national brand. So, there are some services targeted specifically for military spouses, but quite frankly, they are just not enough to build a national brand yet. So they are one of the three groups of people that we target to talk to because I know my story resonates with a lot of military spouses just because, for a lot of reasons,  partly because I represent what happens on the other side. So some people start their companies while they are military spouses. I did that, but I wasn’t able to grow it and see that growth until I was, until he was retired.

So it kind of gives you something, a look at on the other side, like what, what is my life going to look like when all of this is over, and we settled down. It can look like whatever you want it to look like, all the way up to building a national brand. So I kind of represent that part of it. So I tell my story always to keep military spouses motivated. But generally speaking, we’re a national brand. When a store is all over the US, we have candles that have been sold and well over 500 stores throughout the US. You always have to have a big vision for whatever it is that you’re doing. I think it’s just 2020. You’ve got a whole internet, there’s no reason not to.

So let us get into your affiliation with Bunker Labs now? How did you first hear about the community?

So I got an email that said there’s this pitch competition and I was like, oh, $10,000. Okay, I got nothing going on that day. Let me apply, you know, never thinking that I would get selected to pitch. So then they were like, okay, we’re only choosing five people. I’m like, well, I’m some candle chicken Raeford I know that that’s not going to happen. And then I got picked as one of the five to pitch and then I was up against these people with like these dynamic products. So I was just like, well, you want to get up here and tell a little story about being barefoot and my grandma and see where it goes. And then I won $10,000 and I don’t think anybody was more shocked than I was. And after that, I got invited to speak, in Seattle. They flew me out to Seattle, and I spoke there.

And, I know I keep saying everything changed my life, but I talked to some people that like were going to sell their company for $1 billion. I remember I was talking to this guy, and he was like, yo, sell my company for $1 billion. And we were chit-chatting, and I was like, he must’ve misspoken. And he was like, yeah, my cut is going to be like 300 million. And I was like, no, he did not miss-speak. He said $1 billion. So I was in this room with these people, with my little candle company, like in the middle of nowhere, in Raeford and with these really dynamic people, with these really phenomenal companies that we’re talking big, big money. And I realized I was thinking too small at that moment. And so it changed how I viewed myself and how I viewed the company. So then I became a part of their CEO circle.

So I drive once a week to Raleigh to make sure that I hold on to that big thinking big company, you know, think big, and you can do it kind of mentality, that I got from them. So I continue to work with them cause I am eternally grateful for the $10,000. I’m eternally grateful for being able to go to Seattle because talking to those people made me realize, yeah, you can really do this. Like this is a real thing, and I’m continuing to be a part of the program every month. And getting that support has been invaluable.

Well, I think that wraps up all the questions I had going into this. Is there anything else that you can think of that we haven’t touched on? Like the challenges you are facing now as you scale your business. 

That’s pretty much the whole story. Unless you want to talk about the challenges of growing a company in a small town, let’s go into it a little bit. Just a little bit.

Okay. So, you know, there are a lot of challenges that people have when growing a company. And I tell people, if I can do it in Redford, you can do it anywhere because we are a town of about 5,000 people. There’s absolutely nothing here. There’s no industry. There’s no support. And I was very lucky that just one building in the whole County opened up when it did because the company was growing so quickly that I needed space. So I tell people, reach out, use all your resources. The internet is invaluable because if I can do it here and make it work here you can do it too. A lot of my people are remote, so my photographers, my bookkeeper, my digital marketing specialists, those people are remote. I’ll eventually have a VA that I worked with, a virtual assistant. Use your resources because you can literally build a company in the middle of nowhere. And I know because I’ve done it.

Earlier before this interview, you spoke about the importance of having a coach or a mentor. And it motivated me to find one for myself. What should I be looking for when looking for this type of person?

So these are the types of coaches that you’re going to need. Okay. So the first coach that I had was a business coach. She taught me how to do stuff, how to wholesale, how to price products, how to do the job. Okay. The second coach that I got helped me with e-commerce. So she was like when I made the shift, I was like, okay, I don’t know e-commerce, I got to get a coach. Just did your e-commerce. So I’ve got e-commerce coach, and a coach I’m working with now is a psychological coach because of the companies at a point now where you know, we do $20,000 to $30,000 a month in sales. I’m trying to take it to about $50,000 to $60,000 a month in sales, which puts me at about a million dollars a year. So when you start talking those numbers, like it’s only a very, very, very small group of people that even have a business that does that.

And then as a black woman, that number is like less than 1% of black women do that. So I have issues around scarcity, feeling like an imposter, you know what I’m saying? Like I really suffer from the imposter syndrome because I was a teacher for so long. And then I wonder, like, am I doing this, right? Am I really a business person? That’s why I’m so shocked half the time when people call and be like, hey, we want to talk to you. I’m usually like for what? And they’re like, because of what you’re doing, cause I don’t, you know, it’s hard to look at it from the outside and see that what you’re doing is spectacular when you’re in it—trying to make it work and trying to grow it and not looking at your own metrics. So I had to hire a coach that helped me say, you are a businesswoman, you are successful.

You employ people like you are. How many black women can you name that have their own manufacturing space? Like how many can you name? And you know, I know a few. And then they go, well how many do you know that work with candles? Like literally, how many black women do you know? Like with the candles all over the US and they control the whole process from top to bottom. So like she has to go through that with me to say, you know, what you’re doing is phenomenal, and you need to embrace it and work through the mental blocks that you have that are going to keep the company from growing. So yeah, but just you need coaches to help you do the thing that you’re doing, but at some level, you’re going to have to make a mental shift to, you might not, depending on what your goals are, but like I want to be a multimillion-dollar company.

And what are the plans moving forward for Southern Elegance? What are you looking forward to?

I got a 10-year plan to sell the company for $100 million. So, and I got that. I went through Goldman Sachs, they have a mentoring program, so it’s called 10,000 business, 10,000 small business. I got it, and that whole process made me go, okay, I see I’m doing everything right. It’s a legitimate company. And I have got to embrace that. So when I came out of that program, I was like, I need a coach to help me. So we meet twice a month to help me with that process. I still have my e-commerce coach, but wholesaling, and you know, product development stuff I already got now, so I don’t use that coach as much. If I have, you know, one particular issue, I will call her, but I was a teacher. I could teach you how to solve any kind of math problem manufacturing.

I have to figure it out. How the hell do I order from China? I don’t know. I can’t; you can’t just call your friend and be like, hey, I got some boxes. I need, you know, 10,000 boxes or I’m trying to get in Target. You know? I tell people that they look at me like I’m crazy. I’m like, but it’s going to be, my plan is to be in Target next year. I’m starting to talk to them this year. I want to be on QVC. I want to be in Cracker Barrel, so I got all of these plans. Who do you call when you say, hey, I’m want to get in Cracker Barrel?

Yeah, exactly. People looking at me that way, you can’t just go to Cracker Barrel. I know it’s a corporate office. That’s the challenge that you have to go through. Do you know somebody that knows somebody that can get me an interview or can you get me a meeting with the buyer, the regional buyer at Cracker Barrel? Luckily I know somebody that can. I know somebody like that at Target, I know somebody for QVC like I know people, but the fact that I even know people that know the contact is phenomenal, and I don’t take the time to acknowledge that.