The Harlem Candle Company CEO shares how she found inspiration from figures who defined the New York borough—including Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and Duke Ellington.

By Nashia Baker
November 30, 2020
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harlem candle company founder and ceo teri johnson holding signature candle
Credit: Courtesy of the Harlem Candle Company

Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.

Teri Johnson may be a Texan but she is fluent in the history of Harlem, New York City—a borough home to artists, poets, and performers who embodied the richness of the Harlem Renaissance. Even though 100 years have passed since the booming era of African American culture in this neighborhood began, the owner and founder of the Harlem Candle Company is on a mission to make sure the legends and their legacies will never be forgotten. "I have always seen this as a global brand because Harlem is revered around the world," she says. "I [want] to do my part in helping to carry on the legacy through almost a new renaissance, [while] still celebrating what made Harlem so unique."

Using her luxury home fragrance brand, Johnson infuses scents associated with greats of time. With the likes of James Baldwin—hinting at his love for his St. Paul de Vence garden with fresh notes of apple and cloves in the "Baldwin" Candle ($60, harlemcandlecompany.com)—and Harlem's night life with auras of bourbon and palo santo in the "Speakeasy" Luxury Candle ($45, harlemcandlecompany.com)—the brand epitomizes an artistic age that has defined and transcended history. Ahead, Johnson details how she got her business started and continues to put sentimental value behind each of her products.

Discovering a Passion

Johnson made her premier batch of homemade candles in 2013, however, she didn't intentionally see this as a business. "I made about 50 candles to give to friends and family for Christmas," she says. "I decided to make candles because I love getting [them] as gifts." To complete her gifting for the holiday season, she enlisted the help of a chemist she knew created fragrance oils for candle companies—and it changed everything. "He whipped up about six different fragrances and gave them to me, and I went to town and started making these candles," she adds. "I got so into the process of making them, and I got really excited about creating a story for each one." Each of her candles—poured in different colors and packaged in labels—were branded as "La Maison de Bougie de Teri" (Teri's House of Candles) to make her creations even more official and personal. The reception from her inner circle sharing how much they loved them and would be willing to buy the candles prompted her to take the newfound venture to the next level.

As a resident of Harlem since the mid-2000s, she started selling her candles at local pop-up shops in the area and spreading the word about her new business on Instagram. In the process of growing her brand, she soon realized the Harlem Candle Company moniker was available to trademark. "Because I was able to get the name Harlem, I realized there is a lot of weight to that name," Johnson explains. "I think about Harlem as being the epicenter of African American culture—there's so much history, art, and literature." So, in 2014, the Harlem Candle Company brand was officially born.

Reimagining the Harlem Renaissance

Now, with a full team of perfumers and chemists helping to create the perfect scents to go along with her vegan soy candles produced locally in America, all that's left to do is some studying on her own to really get to know the Harlem icons. "For instance, Langston was a big smoker," the entrepreneur says. "So, I wanted to put some really beautiful tobacco notes in the "Langston" Candle ($45, harlemcandlecompany.com). He also did a lot of his work really late at night, so I wanted this candle to kind of be that after-dark sort of incense." She adds that other influences, like the late poet and playwright's fondness for incense burning in churches when he lived in Mexico, helped piece together the notes and the story for the candle. "It's a combination of research: what did this person like, what motivated them, what was in their surroundings," Johnson says. "Let's honor them by trying to create the fragrance that most represents the things that they love."

harlem candle company josephine candle in red vessel
harlem candle company night club map candle surrounded by black and white images
harlem candle company langston candle in blue vessel
Left: Credit: Courtesy of the Harlem Candle Company
Center: Credit: Courtesy of the Harlem Candle Company
Right: Credit: Courtesy of the Harlem Candle Company

Finding inspiration for each candle is also a balance between art and interpretation, she says. "With the "Josephine" Candle ($45, harlemcandlecompany.com), I wanted something that was elegant, that was sophisticated, but was very sexy," says Johnson. Josephine Baker was an adored entertainer who would receive roses from fans after her shows to take home, so Johnson knew that Moroccan rose had to be the signature scent. "I also wanted it to be a very oriental scent—[with] vanilla, tonka bean, jasmine," she adds. "I imagine she was drinking jasmine tea, imported from Asia, so we have notes of jasmine in there."

Even her family serves as inspiration to her brand today. Once she officially got her business going, she discovered that her grandfather—who was honored posthumously for his work in desegregation in Florida—met Duke Ellington and had photos with him in the state archive. "That was really special because at that time, I had already had a candle inspired by Duke Ellington ($45, harlemcandlecompany.com)," Johnson says. "I was like, oh yeah, I'm doing what I should be doing right now."

Her Greater Mission

Though Johnson's business is ever-growing (even with fine fragrance on the horizon), she recognizes that her entrepreneurial mission is simply to inspire other business owners to pursue their passions. "[If] you have dreams and visions that are so vivid, I think it's important to execute them," she says. "Don't be afraid. There are plenty of things I've tried, this is not the first business, but this is the one that I love most and that I think [has] made a difference in a lot of people's lives."

As other entrepreneurs start their own paths, she notes authenticity as her best advice in getting a company up and running. "I created the brand that I wanted to buy. So, when I go into Bloomingdale's and I go into Barneys, that's what I wanted—I wanted to buy the Harlem Candle Company products," she says. "There are a lot of Teris out there who want to see a little bit of them reflected in what's on the shelf." Her business, she says, is deeply personal. "Scent is powerful, scents are tied to memory," she says. "If we can really awaken the spirit, remind people, and relax people through the fragrances and through the little flicker of light that's glowing from our jewel-toned vessels—then that makes me happy."

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