When George Floyd was murdered last year, the horrific act and resulting unrest moved all of us to learn more and talk more about racism, and then think and act differently. Like many of you, at Bellmont Partners, we devoted more resources and attention to our diversity, inclusion and equity efforts. One thing we can do as storytellers is uplift and amplify the meaningful work entrepreneurs from other walks of life are doing in our community. For example, thanks to friend and colleague Katie Walter, we were introduced to the Minority Business Growth Alliance (MBGA), a nonprofit founded last year to help minority entrepreneurs thrive by providing consulting support and connections to business resources. Through the MBGA, Katie was working with Teto Wilson, a North Minneapolis father of four and founder and CEO of Wilson’s Image Barbers and Stylists, Image Renewal Organics all-natural skin and hair care line and Image 73 apparel line. With a passion for renewing his community and empowering Black achievement, Teto founded Wilson’s Image College Scholarship, a scholarship and mentoring program that helps North Minneapolis African American scholars pay for college expenses.
Katie introduced us to Teto, and we’ve be working together ever since, helping Teto sharpen and share his story. We recently chatted with Teto, to talk about what he’s been up to and share the inspiring work of one of the most dynamic, generous and dedicated serial entrepreneurs and community supporters we’ve ever met.
You’ve founded multiple businesses in North Minneapolis. Can you tell us a little about them?
I started Wilson’s Image Barbers and Stylists in August 2007. Other than giving out great haircare services, I didn’t know exactly what it was that I wanted to do to impact the community, but I knew I wanted to do something and I knew that North Minneapolis was the place that I wanted to be, because some of the greatest needs are right here.
In 2017, I started Image 73, my apparel line, to create something that people can feel good about, something that people can feel inspired to wear or inspired by. That’s the reason why I created the logo, Up Your Image. If you have negative thoughts or images about yourself, Up Your Image is really focused on starting inwardly and changing how you think about yourself, how you see yourself and how you feel about yourself. It’s a holistic approach to changing how you see yourself, because it starts inwardly, but then it goes outward. I also started the Black Love Rocks line which is about community, about African American people feeling good about themselves. Due to all the things that have happened to our community in this country, it’s just about embracing Black love, and so that’s where that logo comes from.
And as far as the Image Renewal Organics skin care line, I started it in September 2019 and it’s just a natural extension of the barbershop. We’re into hair care, so skin care and hair care products just naturally fit right along with it.
What first inspired you to create these organizations and what keeps you going?
This might surprise a lot of people – I love to cut hair, but that’s not my passion. My real passion is community, and owning the barbershop and being there on a daily basis allows me to be in community and connected to community members. It just feels natural to me that everything I do has become such a part of who I am. Getting up, coming to the barbershop, opening up for community to be involved, that’s just who I am by nature, and the entrepreneur aspect of it, it’s just who I am. My mind is constantly racing on different things that I want to do. Just that constant creative thinking and the desire to do more.
Your barbershop also serves as a community hub. Can you tell us about some of the events you’ve hosted in the past year and why they’ve been important for the community?
Before the pandemic, we hosted conversations on important topics including education, police and community relations with local leaders like the Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, Minneapolis’ chief of police and the Hennepin County sheriff. Also, we’ve had several business-to-business info and resource sharing events that create opportunities for community members. Back in early March of this year, I along with six other community members got together in the shop, and hosted a conversation about COVID, the vaccines and the impact on our Black community. We hosted it on Facebook Live because people were not comfortable being back together indoors again at that point.
We had another COVID vaccine conversation about a month ago sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Health and recorded by SureCAN Productions. It was a conversation with me (I’m vaccinated), a local doctor named Dr. Zeke McKinney, and my daughter, who hadn’t taken the vaccine, and she wasn’t completely closed off to it, but she wasn’t completely open to it either. We had an opportunity to voice our different concerns, concerns we’ve heard from people coming in the barbershop, including why some Black people were reluctant to take the vaccine. Dr. McKinney answered our questions and took time to understand the community’s concerns.
Moving forward, we’re working with the Minnesota Department of Health to host a series of events called Shots at the Shop, where people can come into the barbershop to get vaccinated.
What should people know about North Minneapolis?
I’ve been in North Minneapolis now since 2007 with my shop and living in North Minneapolis since 2012. It’s an interesting place to live. There are pockets of joy mixed in with the challenges of living in the inner city. I don’t like to really highlight the challenges, because it’s all over the news. I think people need to know that even with the challenges, there’s a lot of good that happens here. I live here, my shop is here, and I give scholarships out to people right here in North Minneapolis.
There are a lot of organizations here in North Minneapolis, for example, churches, other barbershops and salons, nonprofits, small businesses and community concerned people and justice advocates that do a lot of community work. They don’t get the spotlight like the negative does. If people spend time here, they would realize all the good that happens here.
You are one of the busiest entrepreneurs and philanthropists we know. You also started the Wilson’s Image College Scholarship – tell us more about why you started it and how is it going?
I started it out of a need. Watching my daughter go through the process of trying to find and apply for scholarships, I thought about other families in North Minneapolis that deal with some of the same things or may not even know about some of the other scholarships. The Wilson’s Image College Scholarship may not pay for your entire school, but it can come in handy to help get people to the next level. I’m a North Minneapolis African American resident and business owner, and it makes them feel good to know that they received the scholarship from my organization and then that can also help them think about paying things forward once they’re in a position to do so. We’ve given out nine scholarships at $10,000 total, with one student a repeat from her first year to her second year. The goal this year is to give out eight $1,000 scholarships. We’re planning a ceremony at the barbershop where there’s a full panel of judges and community members that can come in and celebrate the students getting the awards in late July or early August.
You were recently recognized by Twin Cities Business as a Notable BIPOC Executive. (Congrats!!) What does this mean to you?
I’m very appreciative and it feels good to be awarded for the work that I want to do anyway. It’s an opportunity for people outside of this community to see that there are good things happening inside of the community for people that live in the community, not somebody that’s coming in to be a savior and leaves once he’s done his good deeds. It’s an opportunity to shine the light on some of the good work that’s happening here – it spreads the message further, so other people hear about the scholarship and hopefully will feel inspired to donate to it.
Tell us about your broader work with MBGA and how that’s been of value to you?
In business sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know. There are things that I just don’t know how to do in terms of scaling up and trying to get my products in more places beyond the barbershop, or to have an online and in store presence from a major retailer. MBGA helps me to understand things that I had no clue about before. Now after almost a year of connecting with so many different people and talking to experts from this field or that field, it has given me an opportunity to know where I need to go and the things that I need to do. The MBGA has helped shine a light on how to do business more effectively and more efficiently. It also expands your circle and gives you a bigger team, and a lot more perspectives. I really think to be an effective business owner, you have to have a broad network that come from all sorts of different backgrounds that you can learn from each other, and the MBGA has given me the opportunity to connect with so many different people. I think it’s a phenomenal organization and we’re looking to do more with them, so it’s pretty exciting. Just imagine, we wouldn’t be having this conversation had it not been for MBGA coming together. It has been totally amazing working with them, starting off with MBGA founder Mary Rapaport and then stretching out to all of you.
How can our readers support the work you’re doing in the community?
There’s always an opportunity to donate to the scholarship program, and spread the word about it. Eventually I want to open up the scholarship beyond North Minneapolis to help further the impact to reach more students.
Last but certainly not least, What’s Brewing for you?
I absolutely love kombucha. And I have two favorite beers — Stella Artois and Dos Equis.
Thank you, Teto, for being such a positive community leader, supporter and friend, and for sharing your perspective and wisdom with us – it’s been an honor and privilege partnering with you and learning from you as you continue to expand your businesses and nonprofit and make our world a better place. Stay tuned for more Q&As with business and marketing leaders as we reflect more on the role of communications and PR.