The HBCU Culture Shop is a clothing brand that highlights historically black colleges and universities as well as black history. “HBCUs’s they are a part of black history yesterday and today,” Riley, the creative director and founder of the company, told WFLA.
She established the shop in 2017, though she has dreamt of it since she was 8 years old. She said, “I wanted to be an advertising executive when I was little. It was odd because people would be like, not a firefighter or a police officer? My dad would take me to Times Square and I was like, I want to make those. I was just so fascinated by all of the ads.”
She shared that her love for HBCUs began when she was quite young because her parents, mainly her dad, who was a civil rights activist, attended an HBCU and educated her on the importance of the institutions. Following in his footsteps, she also went to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, where she graduated with a degree in graphic design.
There she began her career in corporate America, only hindered by her mother’s diagnosis of stage 3 cancer. According to her, graphic design kept her happy. One day in 2016, her friends asked her to make them some t-shirts for their FAMU homecoming, which she agreed to. It was an instant hit. She received much positive feedback from her friends.
Through that, she birthed the HBCU Culture Shop, though it wasn’t a very smooth road. Financial obstacles blocked her path, even when they self-invested $10,000 in the business.
Riley also said she encountered racial challenges. “I remember when we would do pitch events and I would be pitching the culture shop and people would say that’s niche or it’s not viable and I would say you don’t understand the depth of support HBCUs have,” she expressed.
Soon though, her hard work began to show as celebrities like Jidenna and Diddy started donning her brand. The HBCU Culture Shop also got seven grants during the COVID-19 pandemic from brands like Beygood, Paypal, and American Express. Eventually, they even collaborated with institutions like the Atlanta Hawks and the U.S. Open.
“American Express actually selected us for the top 100 female-founded brands,” Riley said. “The U.S. Open wanted to do this HBCU live event where they wanted to highlight the contributions of some of their greatest black players and HBCU players, so I did the branding for that and a pop-up clothing line, and I’ve been with the U.S. Open the past two year.”
Now, they have a partnership with Target. Riley recounted that she and her team were selling at an HBCU event in Birmingham whose founder is associated with the U.S. Open. She shared that her goods caught the attention of a Target buyer who showed interest. There, they proposed that she start an HBCU line at Target.
Target finally said they wanted to move forward after talking to about five Target buyers in May 2022. Today, the HBCU Culture Shop sells in more than 20 Target stores across the country.
“I’m enjoying the impact of what it is we are actually doing. What I really hope is people are able to resonate with HBCUs or even feel inspired to look more into HBCUs. This is really for the culture. This is really a labor of love” Riley remarked.