When you walk into Sherri McMullen’s Oakland, California, boutique, there’s a warmth that makes it feel like home. You’re greeted by small things that make the environment feel like an inclusive shopping experience: McMullen has shades of brown mannequins throughout the store and photos of her family from Oklahoma above the accessories wall. Her goal? Relatability. “I think just even going into a specialty store, especially a luxury specialty store, many times Black women don’t necessarily see themselves or it doesn’t feel like an inviting environment. I never wanted McMullen to feel like that,” McMullen said.
Her namesake store also provides a home to designers, especially young Black designers like Christopher John Rogers and Aisling Camps, who often struggle getting into retail spaces. Championing talented designers of color isn’t new to McMullen, though — she spent 15 years in fashion as a buyer for Neiman Marcus and Pottery Barn Kids before pivoting to opening her boutique in 2007. This fall, she celebrates 15 years of her namesake store. When it comes to curating her store, there’s a gut reaction she has when she sees something that she knows her customers will love, and 15 years later, it hasn’t steered her wrong.
Here, McMullen chats about how the industry has changed, challenges she’s faced, and what makes her shopping experience so sacred and special.
Congratulations on 15 years; that’s a huge feat. How’d you build your community?
Living in California now for two decades, I wanted to create something within Oakland because I felt like it was just such a great energetic city. The spirit of the city drew me in. I love that Oakland people actually support so many small businesses and entrepreneurs. We built our business based on community — we were working with the Oakland School for the Arts to have interns from the school that helped work at the business, and many of them have gone off to design school or they’re starting their lines now. It’s really exciting that we’ve been able to work with them at such a young age and then help them foster their career and their purpose in the industry.
That’s so purposeful. Oakland is also really rooted in Black culture, too.
Absolutely. We opened our distribution center this summer in West Oakland. In the ’40s and ’50s, there was such a big community of Black-owned businesses within West Oakland and then things shifted over the last few decades. We’re seeing now that there are more Black businesses going back to West Oakland, and for us to be able to provide jobs there and really get more involved in that part of the city is really important for us because there is so much history there. The Black Panther party was founded in West Oakland, we have such a strong connection with Mrs. Fredrika Newton. They used fashion as a part of their messaging and a part of armor, it was a part of a larger social message, so all of that matters to us.
What do you think is shifting West Oakland back to being a place where Black businesses are moving again?
Community. Just looking at the block where our store is, there are a handful of Black female-owned businesses. It’s actually the biggest concentration of Black female businesses within Oakland, and I think once you see one or two, it really encourages others to come.
Black female-led businesses are something I think we need to see more of, especially in fashion. Why do you think there’s such a lack of them?
I think it’s an issue in so many industries. There is just a lack of female leaders, and I think really it’s going to take other women making sure that we’re supporting and hiring other women and making sure that we’re lifting the next generation so that they can become leaders. They just need to see more of us in positions of making decisions and in positions of power.
What was your biggest barrier to starting your business as a Black woman?
Access to capital and getting large funding is probably one of the biggest barriers for Black entrepreneurs generally, especially in fashion. I opened right before a recession in 2007; people were like, Not only are you opening a luxury business, but one in Oakland? I had to prove myself as being qualified to do this because I’m an industry expert. I was still not able to get funding, so I had to go to friends and family. I had to use savings and really just figure it out along the way because that’s been one of the biggest challenges. Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs and yet we’re still getting less than 1 percent funding; it’s shameful. I’ve been talking about this for five years and those numbers haven’t shifted. We have to make changes because we know that Black women will change communities. My plan years down the road is to create a fund for us.
I love that, and it’s needed. Every time I chat with an emerging designer, especially a Black one, the first challenge they mention is capital and resources.
I invest in them in a real way. Not just saying, I have one of these designers, but I’m actually writing checks and buying the product and I’m not sending it back at the end of the season. We’re talking about ways that we can get ahead together, and that’s what these partnerships are about. How can we move through this industry that has not been that supportive of us and get through this together? For me, that’s what it’s about. I have such strong and close relationships with all the brands that we work with, especially our Black designers, because we know what the challenges are unlike some of the other brands that are white brands and have all the access.