Nicole Brown often refers to herself as an accidental entrepreneur. It’s a catchy phrase if not wildly inaccurate.
She didn’t set out expecting to generate millions of dollars in revenue—nearly $7.5 million in 2020—making her online shop Izzy & Liv one of the fastest-growing private companies in the country, according to Inc. Her initial goal was simply to inspire and empower women of color through graphic T-shirts, home décor and other accessories.
Her business launched in 2015 with $1,000 in Facebook ads and a respectable first-year revenue of $55,000. Soon, Brown was able to leave her job as a digital marketing manager and focus entirely on expanding her e-commerce brand, which now has eight full-time employees and a dozen freelancers.
“It’s not like I invented anything new in terms of products,” Brown says. “There were just limited options geared toward Black women. There was a need for it. My intention from the beginning was to build a community where everyone feels they belong, that they are seen and they are heard. And community meets commerce slowly materialized.”
“That gives me the purpose to keep going. This is so much bigger to me than a job. It’s like we’ve built this world.”
But Izzy & Liv is not Brown’s first attempt at creating such a community. In 2003, she launched a website for women of color called Mahogany Butterfly, or MaBu for short. Despite having three young children, a marriage and a full-time job, Brown ran the site for nearly six years until technical problems and time constraints made it all but impossible. Over the next few years, hardly a day passed when she didn’t regret shutting MaBu down, Brown says.
Then her fourth child, Olivia, was born four months premature in 2013. She weighed just one pound, five ounces and spent four months in the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital 45 minutes from Brown’s home in Monmouth, N.J. Multiple surgeries and long therapy sessions finally allowed the family to take the baby home.
“They told us it wasn’t typical for a child to survive what she did,” Brown says. “I wasn’t sleeping much. Between the drive, taking care of our other three kids and the unbearable stress, I just needed an outlet or I was going to implode. I started thinking about my old site. Sadly, not much had changed in terms of what was out there for Black women.”
Soon, Brown launched Izzy & Liv, named for her daughters Isabel and Olivia, who is now a healthy 7-year-old. Although she didn’t realize or appreciate it at the time, her background allowed her the unique opportunity to run the company herself for several years, to the point of surpassing $2 million in revenue before adding any support staff.
In 2017, the company began specializing in subscription boxes. Its first, Brown Sugar Box, was a monthly bundle including T-shirts, cosmetics, handbags, electronics, leggings, hair accessories and more. There were more than 1,000 subscribers in two weeks and more than 10,000 after a year.
Today the company is producing 60,000-plus units of product a month, but Brown isn’t slowing down at all.
“I haven’t mastered appreciating what I have,” she says. “I tend to just go, go, go.”
“We want to expand. We want to build up equity. We want this little world of ours to grow. When women of color go online and want options geared toward Black culture, we want to be the first place they think of.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photos courtesy of Nicole Brown