Danielle Deavens was frustrated. It was the holiday season of 2016, and, having made a pact with herself to buy gifts for family and friends exclusively from Black-owned businesses, she found herself at an impasse. Though she knew there had to be a deep well of companies selling a variety of products somewhere in the marketplace, she was having a difficult time pinning them down, despite her best efforts. Surely, there had to be a better way, she thought, as she lamented the situation to her partner, Doug Spencer.
“It was just a really clunky and disjointed experience,” Deavens recalls. “My co-founder, Doug, and I thought, why don’t we learn more about why this is such a disjointed experience and then work on fixing that? Because there’s so many great Black-owned businesses out there.”
Now, a little over six years later, that frustration has turned into Bold Xchange, a corporate gifting platform that works with companies of all sizes to curate employee gift and incentive boxes from Black-owned businesses. By serving as an intermediary between corporate partners and their ever-growing network of Black-owned companies, Deavens and Spencer help business leaders incentivize their employees in meaningful ways while amplifying the reach of entrepreneurs of color who might not otherwise have access to such a large audience.
Deavens and Spencer’s path to Bold Xchange began much earlier than that holiday gifting challenge – roughly a handful of years back to when they were incoming freshmen at North Carolina’s Elon University. There, they became partners in life well before they had any inkling they’d be partners in business, each focused on their own different career pursuits; Deavens studied journalism while Spencer focused on business coursework in preparation for law school.
Following graduation, the pair started a blog centered around other Black individuals who were pursuing their dreams, while Deavens and Spencer pursued their own careers. Deavens had landed a job with the Food Network and Spencer was focused on law school, both assuming that the blog would be little more than a passion project. However, as entrepreneurs began reaching out to them asking to be featured on the blog, they began to see that they were onto something that might be bigger than a hobby.
“Neither of us started out as being full-time with the business, but when your nights and weekends start to get eaten up by this idea that’s growing its own life, you have to make a decision,” Spencer says. “Am I going to put this down? Are we going to put it down? Or are we going to really lean all the way into it? And once we made that decision, you shift how you live your life and what you decide to do together. There’s no one foot in and one foot out. You have to be both feet in.”
Deavens and Spencer leaned into the idea of turning their blog into a platform for amplifying Black-owned brands, which then morphed into a consumer-focused company that would connect individuals to businesses after Deavens had her holiday gift-giving revelation. However, their focus quickly shifted when they noticed seven orders all come in from the same Spotify email address. The pair realized that the person making the multiple purchases was likely buying something for their entire team, which gave them the idea that there might be a way for them to make an even bigger impact. As they pivoted their attention to the possibilities in the corporate gifting space, Home Depot reached out for them to curate a Black History Month Box for their employees in 2021. For Deavens and Spencer, it was the sign they needed.
“It was really the first major project that not only signaled to us that there was a major opportunity, but it was also a signal to potential customers,” Deavens says. “They started flocking to us as we were talking to them about their needs. Once we showed that we could do a really custom and intentional project that was unique from head to toe, people wanted to get on board and do that type of thing for their team as well.”
Since that Home Depot partnership in 2021, Bold Xchange has gone on to work with such major corporate players as Centene Corporation, CarMax, State Farm and Capital One, as well as smaller firms like Steady MD, Venture for America and St. Louis’ own Arch Grants, all of whom share the common goal of wanting to find creative and innovative ways to celebrate their employees. Deavens and Spencer are adamant that they might not have been able to scale so successfully – and would likely not have relocated Bold Xchange’s headquarters from North Carolina to St. Louis – were it not for Arch Grants, which awarded them startup funding and membership in their 2020 class.
“As we learned more and more about St. Louis and were planning to apply for Arch Grants, we were just excited about what was happening here, the diversity of the startup ecosystem here, but also the opportunity for us to move to a place that was affordable for us and affordable for our business to actually have a boots-on-the-ground presence,” Deavens says. “We knew we needed to move the business out of our home, and this was just such a great opportunity for us to take the next step in a lot of ways.”
Since receiving the Arch Grant, relocating to St. Louis and establishing partnerships with major corporations, Deavens and Spencer have been thrilled with how much the move has positioned them to better amplify Black-owned brands. As the pair notes when talking about Bold Xchange’s mission, nine in ten Black-owned companies do not have a single employee because their businesses have not been able to generate enough income to sustain their founders or support staff. This, coupled with woeful lack in venture capital funding for underrepresented founders, demonstrates the challenges facing Black entrepreneurs – something Deavens and Spencer hope they can address by connecting these businesses to a larger audience.
“We definitely feel like, as this platform, our mission is to make an economic impact for Black-owned businesses,” Spencer says. “And we know that corporations have the means, but also the missions, to support organizations, specifically with diversity and inclusion. And so we’re trying to be the conduit between these larger organizations and the small Black-owned businesses, because we know that if we can help them grow their business through revenue, then they can employ that person that they never were able to employ or even employ themselves, which is often a challenge.”
Both Deavens and Spencer feel that St. Louis has been instrumental in helping them achieve this mission, and they have been struck not only by the support they’ve received from their Arch Grants cohort, but by the larger collaborative spirit they’ve found in everyone they encounter.
“The thing that is most exciting to me about living in St. Louis is that everyone you meet here seems to be interested in working together to create this even brighter future for the city,” Deavens says. “And that’s not something I experienced in New York. It wasn’t really something I experienced in Charlotte, though when I got there, I thought that might be what was happening as this up-and-coming city. But in St. Louis, more than any other place I’ve learned about even, there’s this real need and excitement about all the things that are happening, not just the projects that are now starting, but also the foundation that had already been built for that.”
Already, Deavens and Spencer have seen the impact their relationships have had on Black-owned businesses’ bottom lines. It’s not uncommon for them to hear from one of their brands that a single Bold Xchange order has gotten them through the month, or even the year, and they’ve been thrilled when they learn that the exposure from their platform has led to new customers for these businesses that might have floundered without the bump their service provides. It’s an effect they see snowballing; as more brands come onto their platform, more want to come on, eager to be a part of something they see as not simply filling a void in the corporate gifting space but one that can have real impact on equity in entrepreneurship.
“I think our biggest hope is that Black-owned businesses can be self-sustaining,” Spencer says. “We know that more than nine in ten of Black-owned companies are not able to employ their founders or their teams because they haven’t generated the revenue that they’re looking to make. Our goal is to change those stats. If it’s nine out of ten now, and if Bold Xchange becomes what we believe it can be, maybe that becomes much lower.
“I know that’s ambitious, but that’s the whole point of wanting to be a founder, of wanting to make a difference. And so, every day, we think that we can be that huge difference maker if we live out our mission.”
Join the Story
- Learn more on Bold Xchange’s website.
- Check out Black-owned businesses in St. Louis on ForTheCultureSTL.
- Read the STLMade stories of other Black founders and entrepreneurs: