It’s nearly impossible to browse the selection of candles being sold by The 125 Collection without smiling, laughing, or feeling inspired. Born in Harlem in 2016, founder Valerie Wray, created The 125 Collection with the mission to empower, inspire, and entertain. The perfect combination of relatable and luxurious, each candle sold by Valerie adds an element of personality, artistry, and warmth to the home. 

Above all, building community is at the heart of The 125 Collection mission. Named after Harlem’s legendary 125th Street (the neighborhood Valerie calls home), Wray donates a portion of sales to organizations in the Harlem community whose mission is to uplift, educate, and empower at-risk youth. 

This February we choose to honor and celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans. We are also supporting Black-Owned businesses that are uplifting the communities around them, making a change, and crafting products that help transform a house into a home. Today, we’re sharing Valerie Wray’s story, learning about how she built her brand from the ground up, her connection to the Harlem community, and any advice she would give to young entrepreneurs looking to enter a similar industry. Here’s what she had to say.

What or who inspired you to create the 125 Collection? 

I started the brand in my apartment in NYC and as we all know, NYC apartments are pretty small. Although my apartment was relatively small, I still wanted it to feel luxurious, I wanted it to smell amazing, and look stylish. I’m also an introvert so as much as I love the city, after a long day of working and socializing I would be completely drained. Once I got home, I would always light a candle choosing fragrances that elevated my mood. So I essentially married the idea of having a fine home fragrance in a stylish candle vessel that allowed me to express and uplift myself. That is how The 125 Collection was born. 

The 125 Collection name celebrates the legendary “125th Street” located in the heart of Harlem’s amazing community. What’s your relationship with Harlem? Why did you choose this neighborhood as the HQ for 125 Collection? 

Although I am originally from Kentucky, I have been in NYC for over 20 years and Harlem is Home. When I started the brand, the amount of support from neighborhood agencies, the community, and fellow Harlem entrepreneurs was unbelievable. I could not have built this business without them. Additionally, I love its beauty, its history, and the major contributions of African Americans that created what Harlem is today. The legendary 125th Street is energetic, it’s sexy, it’s fashion-forward and full of expression, and that’s what The 125 Collection is all about.

Partial proceeds of your sales are donated to organizations in Harlem, NY with the mission to uplift, educate and empower at-risk youth. What was the impetus to connect your business to social change? Why did you choose this specific cause? 

It was important to me to give back to my community and I wanted to specifically give back to children that are underserved. I was raised in the downtown area of Louisville, KY by a single mom with the help of our grandparents and extended family members. Although my sisters and I received so much love and support from our families, I saw many children growing up who didn’t.  If only they had people like those in my family to encourage them so they felt seen. If only they had someone to mentor them to show them another way. Donating to organizations that uplift and empower at-risk youth is one step closer to breaking generational cycles of high school dropout, teenage pregnancy, and young adult incarceration.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced since starting your business in 2016? 

The 125 Collection originally started out as a passion project that after 5 years started to become a recognizable brand. When that happened, I knew I had to increase supply which then required the need for more space, more human resources, and of course more money. Bootstrapping a business while trying to scale it, has been quite the challenge. Fortunately, being financially creative while balancing slow direct-to-consumer periods with wholesale account sales has really kept the business going. 

How has the pandemic affected your business? Have you needed to pivot business strategies as a result?

With many people staying inside and enjoying simple pleasures at home due to the pandemic, the demand for my candles tripled over the last 18 months. Pre-pandemic, I had to operate as a one-woman show.  I now operate with a full team, including brand and social media managers, a fulfillment coordinator, and an office manager. Before the pandemic, I relied on in-person pop-ups to spread the word about the brand, whereas now I strictly operate online through social media and collaborations with brands and influencers.  

Please share the biggest lesson you’ve learned since starting 125 Collection. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently? 

I can’t pinpoint a specific thing I would do differently but one thing I have learned is to always bet on myself. As with any business, there are so many ups and downs, and days I question everything. In those times, I look back and see how far I’ve come. I look back at how a few years ago I was dragging 50-pound boxes and a table in cabs to various pop-up events in NYC to get the brand seen, and now The 125 Collection is being featured in major magazines and on shelves of retail stores that I shop in. It’s surreal and so rewarding. 

We love the range of quotes available at 125 Collection. Which quote & scent is your personal favorite and which is your best seller? 

My favorite quote candle is “She Believed She Could So She Did” and my favorite fragrance is Metallic Rose because it’s an edgy and modern take on the classic rose fragrance.

We offer many quotes to connect with various personality types but a few top sellers are Kind Heart Fierce Mind Brave Spirit, Trust Your Dopeness, and Life is Tricky Baby Stay in Your Magic.  Many customers are repeat customers and they can’t get enough of the Lavender + Sage fragrance, and we keep that fragrance all year round. 

Can you share one piece of advice you would tell an aspiring Black entrepreneur thinking of entering the same business/industry? 

Whether they are looking to sell candles or any other product-based business, find a mentor that can help you. Seek guidance from someone that has already done it before so you don’t make some of the same mistakes they did. Go to seminars (even online ones) and network with other entrepreneurs and small business owners because there are so many resources available that can help you along your journey. Most importantly, stay the course, it may take time, but you will get there.You can learn more about The 125 Collection, and explore their beautiful candles on their website. We also encourage you to follow them on Instagram and Facebook for your daily dose of inspiration.