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Connections are the secret to young entrepreneur’s success

The Homepage, published by Hazelwood Initiative

Plans to open Hazelwood Café at Second and Tipton in early March

By Juliet Martinez

If Dasawn Gray is going places, he’s bringing his community with him.

Before he told me about the businesses he has started or the events he has organized, he talked about the groups he has volunteered for: POORLAW, the Carnegie Library of Hazelwood, Arts Excursions Unlimited and others.

“I like to work in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling to give back.”

Dasawn Gray selling Ginny’s Gifts candles last summer.Photo courtesy of Dasawn Gray

The 21-year-old entrepreneur from Hazelwood is getting ready to open Hazelwood Café at Second and Tipton avenues in early March. He is new to the coffee industry, but he has always had a knack for business. In middle school he sold enough hoagies for his class trip that he was able to help pay for another child to go. In high school, he started a candle company, and then launched his commercial and residential cleaning business.

Naturally, he wants to make the café more than just a place to get a caffeine fix.

He envisions it as a place where teens can learn job skills, where people can meet and socialize, study, telecommute or just relax. He wants to host bingo nights and karaoke. And he wants it to be a place that celebrates Africa’s role in the origins of coffee.

“I want to learn more about African culture and the Ethiopian side of coffee,” he said before giving me a brief history of coffee’s origins. He told me the legend of the Ethiopian goatherd who noticed his goats being too energetic to sleep after eating coffee berries.

An African-themed design mockup Dasawn Gray created for the Hazelwood Café exterior.Image courtesy of Dasawn Gray

He has been learning all this through Commonplace Coffee. With the proceeds of a recent GoFundMe campaign, Mr. Gray entered a training course that includes credit for coffee purchases once the café opens. He has also raised money for this new business through candy sales and donations from different people in the community.

Still, he is seeking financing for the café. It is his first time opening a business that needs it. He has self-financed his other businesses.

“This is something different for me, like putting together a puzzle,” he laughed. “Like a 2000-piece puzzle.”

Fortunately, he can always draw on his connections. He may be entrepreneurial, but he’s no individualist. Whether he is running his platform for local Black artisans, Ginny's Gifts, or putting on an event to mark his late grandmother, Virginia “Ginny” Gray’s birthday, he is pulling people in. Those elaborate annual events honoring his late grandmother have sponsors, prizes, giveaways. He acts like this is no big deal.

Dasawn Gray and his great aunt Julia "Aunt Ladybug" Robinson, at last summer's event in honor of his late grandmother’s birthday.Photo courtesy of Dasawn Gray

“It’s just by making different connections throughout the years,” he shrugged. These connections continue to play a big role in his coffeeshop plans.

One connection he sought out last fall was a mentor from the nonprofit organization Score, which pairs business mentors with entrepreneurs. Thomas Richter, a Score volunteer business mentor, helped Mr. Gray with his financial projections.

Mr. Richter said he counseled Mr. Gray to analyze the market and try to understand why the previous tenant had to close.

“Score helped him to evaluate the future financial performance,” Mr. Richter said, explaining that he helped Mr. Gray develop his income statement, balance sheet and cash flow. “He went on his own to find some funds. The majority of the work was done by him.”

Throughout the process, he’s relied on one of his closest connections, Joey Hepner. They have been friends and neighbors on Renova Avenue for much of Mr. Gray’s life.

“Joey showed me how to do things for the neighborhood,” Mr. Gray told me when I asked how he got into volunteering.

Mr. Hepner is right by Mr. Gray’s side as he works toward opening the coffeeshop. We spoke about it in January.

Mr. Hepner praised Mr. Gray as “one of the motivated people doing the right stuff.” He went with Mr. Gray to talk to the director of real estate at Hazelwood Initiative about renting the place. He helped with the business plan and the details of opening a coffeeshop.

He said Mr. Gray already has the refrigerator bought and paid for, as well as the panini press. The menu is coming together.

“Hopefully we’ll be doing panini breakfast sandwiches, salads, soups, hoagies, doughnuts, desserts,” he said. “People in the neighborhood want doughnuts.”

Mr. Hepner is optimistic about Hazelwood Café being a success. Why? Connections with the people in the neighborhood. “He’s well-known,” Mr. Hepner said. “They’ll come in and support him.”

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The Homepage is a print newspaper delivered monthly to households in Greater Hazelwood, Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, New Homestead, Lincoln Place and The Run. Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., a community-based nonprofit, publishes The Homepage through a grant from the City of Pittsburgh and advertising revenue from local businesses and organizations. The mission of Hazelwood Initiative, as a community-based development corporation, is to build a stronger Hazelwood through inclusive community development. Sonya Tilghman, Executive Director of Hazelwood Initiative, Inc. (she/her) Juliet Martinez, Managing Editor of The Homepage (they/them) Sarah Kanar, Layout and Design of The Homepage(she/her)

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