Beating the Odds for Business Start

Young woman finds success after troubled youth

Beverly Corbell | 10/5/2021, 4:27 p.m.
Few people could overcome Shalimar Williams’ tough beginnings and open their own business, but with the help of some caring ...
Shalimar Williams is a first-time entrepreneur who will open Holy Beanz Coffee shop at Northeast 26th and Alberta in November. Embracing her Black roots, she plans to decorate the shop with memorabilia from Portland’s Black history and a hire a workforce that is also rooted in the community. Photo by Mark Washington
Few people could overcome Shalimar Williams’ tough beginnings and open their own business, but with the help of some caring individuals, the Soul District, and the city of Portland, she has beaten the odds and will open Holy Beanz Coffee Shop at Northeast 26th and Alberta at the end of November.

The odds started out against Williams when she was just a kid since both parents were addicts, she said, now recovered, but a close relative raised her. She still had troubles and was running with the wrong crowd as a teenager when she met Billy, a boyfriend who helped her turn her life around. Then tragedy struck and she went off the deep end.
“He was an amazing guy, he was 17 and really changed my life,” she said. “I stopped running around, got back in school, and we were going to go to college in Arizona.”

Then the worst happened. Billy was diagnosed with leukemia and died.

Williams didn’t deal well with the trauma, “completely went on a rampage” which led to more tragedy, and her world fell in completely by the time she was 23 years old.

“About 15 years ago I was in a horrible car accident, I was drinking and driving, and almost took a life,” she said.
As a result, she was sentenced to three years in prison but was released after two years. But during that time, she went to college and found solace in the prison chapel.

“My first week in there, I went to church, but it was literally just to get out of my cell,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about spirituality, or anything like that, ever.”

But she kept going back, and eventually ended up every night sitting on her bunk with a cup of coffee, reading her Bible.

“I did that for two years,” she said. “And I fell in love with who I was and fell in love with Jesus and spirituality. I like all religions in a way, like Buddhism, and I love to meditate.”

But readjusting to society was difficult after prison, and Williams struggled to find a job.

“They would pull my record up but they were not seeing a person, they were not seeing me,” she said. “I explained that I’m a real person, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’m very educated, and then it was just like, no, no, decline, denied.”

But she said she got a lot of nurturing help from an esteemed couple from Portland’s African American community, Pastor Herman Greene and his wife Nike, who provided clothes and a place to stay to get her started and helped her persevere.

She eventually found work, but after her son Jason was born 11 years ago, she doubled down and worked two full-time jobs to support him and provide a home.

For the past couple of years, Williams has primarily worked as a human resources specialist, but it was still hard to make ends meet, even with two jobs, because prices kept going up, and she made too much money for public assistance.

“Jason gets straight As and he’s a good kid,” she said. “But I reached a point where I said, ‘This cannot be my life. I’d watched a lot of protests and knew he was watching, and I knew I had to do something bigger.”
And thanks to a little push, she decided to do just that.

“So I was getting my hair done — and you know the hair ladies are our therapists — and I said, ‘I’m supposed to do something. I don’t know what it is, but I’m uncomfortable in my spirit,’ ” she said.
When her hairdresser asked what she wanted to do, Williams told her she “kind of had this idea” to open a coffee shop.

“And she said, ‘Do it!’ ” Williams said. “So I started writing a business plan, and the more I wrote, the bigger the vision became.”

Williams worked on her business plan for months, she said, but couldn’t find funding until someone gave her outline to the Soul District Business Association, and the doors opened.

“And they said, ‘Do you know what you’ve created? This is amazing!’” she said.

So Williams started working with Samuel Miller of the Soul District, who became both mentor and coach, fulfilling a quest to help create more Black-owned businesses.

Miller said Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development arm, uses TIF funds for grants and loans for Black-owned businesses so they can build a foundation, an infrastructure, because Black businesses have been gentrified because of all that has happened in the past.

TIF, or tax increment funding, is a public financing method used as a subsidy for redevelopment and other community improvement projects.

“What we do is we work with Prosper Portland to navigate their resources to find business opportunities for primarily Black businesses,” Miller said. “We are negotiating with them for grants, for loans, for space — all those things.”

When the future Holy Beanz Coffee Shop opens in its L-shaped and 1,300 square foot configuration at 2622 N.E. Alberta St. it will proclaim the mission statement a “Purpose in a Cup,” Williams said.

In addition to coffee, the shop will have merchandise, seating areas and music that gives a nod to the history of Portland’s Black community, with plans to make space available to feature large photos of historic Black Portland. The front entry way will be like an art gallery for contemporary Black artists.

Williams is not only moving up in the world economically, she’s looking to give back and said a percentage of her profits will go to a local nonprofit.

She’ll be hiring on a part-time employee and a full-time experienced barista, and is hoping to hire people who, like her, have survived experiences like prison or abuse or are recovery.

Looking ahead as an employer instead of an employee, she said, “I’ve worked so hard, and I’m saying I deserve this. And it’s helping people.”

--Beverly Corbell