• Ashleigh Thomas is the founder and CEO of 4TCEmpire, an online superstore for Black-owned goods.
  • With newfound interest from customers coming to her site in light of recent protests for George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas is ensuring her business stands the test of time and continues to fulfill its mission of helping give a platform to Black-owned businesses.
  • She's invested heavily in a great customer experience, relying on tools to gather customer feedback and create a seamless online user interface.
  • She also touts fast shipping with in-house production, as well as creates close partnerships with businesses producing high quality items.

Founder and CEO Ashleigh Thomas has one straightforward goal for her company 4TCEmpire — unite Black businesses through her online superstore for Black-owned goods. But her company's mission has taken on added urgency in light of the growing civil unrest in the US after the killing of George Floyd.

"Now it has morphed into a cause to unite Black businesses and help propel the Black agenda," Thomas explained.

She shared that Black-owned small businesses are often left out of the funding pool, especially at the startup phase, as demonstrated by the recent Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.

"It can be as simple as miseducation on how to build business credit, lack of access to banks in Black communities, lack of equity, or simply not enough qualifiers to meet the requirements of available loans as a startup," Thomas explained. "In the case of PPP loans that were available for small businesses, somehow the allocated funds ended up in the hands of those same large powerhouse entities that make up the majority of the nation's wealth."

Adding to the challenges, Thomas pointed out that the largest entities in America are majority white-owned businesses and corporations that not only circulate the wealth amongst themselves but operate as a single collective voice, thus propelling tax policy, infrastructure, and medical and human rights, which often correlate to monetary protections and additional benefits.

"This concept leaves out the blighted Black community simply because we have no representation nor a voice," Thomas said.

Thomas hopes to address these inequities by creating a conglomerate of Black-owned small businesses that unite as a collective to promote equal representation on political matters, increase the circulation of the Black dollar, and provide exposure to Black-owned businesses.

"4TCEmpire is among those businesses that have been quietly vying for equality, respect, and a seat at the proverbial table to make decisions that uplift our communities," Thomas said.

Since the site's launch in February 2020, 4TCEmpire was seeing light traffic, with 300 to 500 visitors a month. But once the protests started, Thomas shared that more social network users began tagging Black-owned businesses to spread the word. The accelerated awareness for buying Black translated into a traffic surge to 4,000 visitors within one month.

"4TCEmpire was no stranger," she said. "The majority of the tags came from those outside of my own network." The superstore also logged over 54,000 Instagram impressions in May.

Closing the gap between consumers and Black-owned businesses

Thomas explained that while Black-owned products are commonly produced, consumers are often deterred by the hassle of having to order from multiple websites and the difficulty of determining a Black-owned brand and finding quality Black-owned products. To help quell this headache — which she experienced first hand prior to launching her company — Thomas opted to shop at big-box stores and purchase Black-owned products there.

But over time, she grew weary of what she described as a "time-consuming task," particularly as she identified additional problems with the model.

"The products are scattered between big-box stores and small businesses, which may or may not carry certain brands or product lines, which means you have to go to multiple sources to purchase," Thomas noted.

Thomas recognized that a new solution was needed to bridge the gap between the consumer and Black-owned businesses and utilized $15,000 in personal savings to fund her startup.

Creating a superior customer experience with fast shipping, constant feedback touchpoints, and a simple website

While 4TCEmpire is a new player to the competitive landscape of online superstores — dominated heavily by Amazon — Thomas aims to provide a customer experience that differentiates her brand.

"We believe that all customers have a voice," Thomas explained. "We want to hear all feedback in all situations."

To that end, the CEO invests heavily in tools that not only facilitate a healthy dialogue with her customers but also create a self-sustaining ecosystem that streamlines multiple tasks. These tools, including Shopify, Klaviyo, Kit, Mailchimp, Stamped.io, and SMSBump Marketing & Automation, provide opportunities for customer feedback via personalized post-purchase follow-up emails, product reviews, and text message.

Thomas then leverages the customer insights she receives to ensure that 4TCEmpire hits the foundation of a good customer experience — ease of navigation, fair policies, timely deliverables, and quick resolve.

Recently, due to COVID-19 the manufacturer of Kazmalaje Paddle Combs paused production, which Thomas said caused a one-month delay.

"A customer who purchased at the beginning of COVID-19 reached out via text looking for her order, as it had been a full month with no communication. [This] let me know that there was a lapse in communication concerning a back-ordered product," she explained.

Thomas immediately responded to the customer as well as thanked her for her feedback. She next created a notification in Klaviyo for all customers on a backordered list to receive periodic email updates concerning their pre-ordered product.

"So many things are machine generated in the present day, [and] that often alienates the customer due to lack of human interaction," Thomas added. "Handwritten personalized notes, hand-stamped branded shipping goods, and even direct communication via text or phone or email is not left out of the equation."

She also hopes to gain a competitive edge with fast direct shipping, sending out all orders within 24 to 48 hours and having them arrive within three to four days of being ordered. This tight shipping window is possible because items are shipped directly to customers from 4TCEmpire's warehouse.

"No product is housed nor shipped by a third party," Thomas said. "This ensures that all packages arrive on time and eliminates the need of understanding individual sellers' policies, confusing pricing, or even misrepresented goods."

Finally, Thomas promises her customers a seamless experience through the website.

"Messaging is very strategic and concise," she said. "Categories are well defined. And the handy search bar makes it quick to get to what you are looking for [and] speedy checkout times." She added that there are several payment options for customers' convenience, including Paypal, Apple Pay, and Google Pay.

Growing in partnerships every day

As 4TCEmpire gathers increased publicity for what it stands for, it's also acquiring new partnerships. While currently a modest player in the online space — it hosts 24 small businesses on its platform — that number is rapidly expanding.

"We are onboarding new businesses by the week," Thomas said, pointing out that her end goal is to ultimately house thousands of Black-owned companies that manufacture and produce high-quality, well-presented products.

"We vow to bring the best quality products that actually perform as stated," Thomas said. "Quality also entails the best ingredients to products that last. We have personal relationships with our vendors to have a true understanding of their strategy they inject into their products."

She added, "I am the biggest customer of products on 4TCEmpire."

Kazmalaje (pronounced "cosmology") is one of 4TCEmpire's original partners, which was started by three sisters who developed a patented brush, comb, and pick trio that's doing so well that it's been featured in British Vogue and QVC. Other partners include Garner's Garden, which offers a line of products ranging from natural face cleansers and deodorant to bug spray and gym equipment sanitizer, Hot Head, which offers a product that replaces the need to sit under a dryer for optimum deep hair conditioning, and True, which creates a plant-based laundry detergent and fabric softener.

The founder also recently welcomed new businesses like Avonwood Apparel to the site within the past week.

"Majenye is revolutionizing the soaps and lotions industry by infusing gems and crystals into their vegan skincare products," Thomas said. "Avonwood Apparel is helping 4TCEmpire to expand into clothing by designing Black Lives Matter t-shirts that tout anti-racism."

Thomas noted that while Black consumers have the buying power of roughly $1.2 trillion, the Black community also has one of the highest poverty rates. Boycotting big-box stores in favor of Black small businesses, she said — which is further promoted through the June 19 #MyBlackReceipt initiative coming up — "will aid the Black community to redistribute the wealth amongst ourselves. This is our next step to build."