0 comments on “Spotlight: Mamaleelu Cold Brew”

Spotlight: Mamaleelu Cold Brew

By Kayla Sosa

A coffee drink made with Mamaleelu roast coffee.

Starting a business was not something Maliesha Pullano always intended to do, but was something that kind of fell into place at the right time. In 2014, Pullano was unemployed and looking for an opportunity. She soon found that The Can Do Kitchen, an incubator kitchen in her hometown of Kalamazoo, was offering a grant to help economically disadvantaged people start a food business. At first, Pullano wanted to start a samosa business – small meat and veggie pastries – with another woman, but after that woman was denied a return visa to the United States, Pullano decided to go in her own direction.

“Samosas were not really my passion, and so as I explored other ideas in which to pitch for this grant I had to think about what I had a passion for,” Pullamo said.

She had always had a passion for coffee, and traveling to Spain taught her to love a strong, bold cup of coffee. Pullano began to do research and looked into how to brew cold coffee specifically.

“I noticed a very new burgeoning trend and product that was not yet in my area, but

Robert Lee, the “lee” in Mamaleelu, offering samples of the cold brew coffee.

showed lots of promise,” Pullano said. “Ignited by the need to support myself and my children Robert Lee (lee) and Lulu (lu),  the concept of Mamaleelu Cold Brew was born.”


That was in 2014. Since then, Pullano has learned a lot about the ups and downs of being not only a business owner, but a black woman business owner in an industry that is largely white and male dominated.

“Being an entrepreneur is a wonderfully terrifying endeavor, for probably all of us,” she said. “When you combine that with being a black entrepreneur, we are talking about a challenge on a whole other level.”

Pullano said she resonated with the idea of, in the business world, it’s okay to make mistakes and fail as long as you pick yourself back up and keep trying.

“But as a black entrepreneur, the axiom doesn’t really hold true,” Pullano said. “Many times we have only one shot to succeed. There are no family funds to bail us out. The wealth disparity in the black community does not provide for a soft cushion to land on if your venture does not pan out.

“This can lead to not being able to take the necessary risks to grow your business, and so it stays stagnant. I have found this to be true in my case.”

Additionally, while black women are the most rapidly growing demographic of entrepreneurs and business owners, they are still the least funded.

Mamaleelu Cold Brew coffees can be found in local grocery stores and markets in Kalamazoo. Pullano offers a couple different ready-to-drink cold brew flavors and roasts ($2.99/each), and even a concentrated bottle ($9.99/each) that can last a coffee drinker for six to eight drinks.


“We use single origin East African beans, which are fairly traded, and organic,” Pullano said. “Our Michigan Roaster uses an exclusive Mamaleelu roast and roasts our beans to order to ensure freshness and quality.”

Looking ahead, Pullano wants to expand her reach, with more customers and markets selling her coffee. She currently produces in a shared commercial kitchen, and hopes to eventually move to a production facility. Finally, she wants to make waves in an industry that she doesn’t see a lot of herself in.

“Getting more involved in the coffee industry, I want to explore the lack of diversity within the industry and have conversations that facilitate actions, which bring about opportunity to those of us who have not been traditionally at the table.”

Interested buyers can visit www.mamaleelucoldbrew.com to contact Pullano.


0 comments on “Spreading ‘LIT’-eracy with We Are LIT”

Spreading ‘LIT’-eracy with We Are LIT

By Kayla Sosa

We Are LIT is more than just a book shop, it’s a movement within the community to bring more diverse books and reading to everyone.

The “shop” is actually online, and offers new, multicultural selections to readers of all ages.

“The inspiration for We Are LIT derived from a lifelong passion for reading, books, and travel,” said We Are LIT Owner Kendra McNeil. “As well as the recognized need for a vibrant, culturally diverse literary scene in West Michigan.”

McNeil, at one of her pop-up events. 

The passion behind the shop is McNeil’s goal to make it easier for members of the Grand Rapids community to access multicultural books. The shop started as an e-commerce bookshop in 2017 and has grown to not only accommodate readers online, but across the state at various pop-up events.

Growing up, McNeil said her earliest memory of reading is age five, but she said she didn’t read a book by a black author or that featured black characters until the age of 15.

“Not because books were not available, they were, however, books written by or featuring a person of color, black or otherwise, were not. I consider that a trauma in my childhood,” McNeil said. “The marginalization of black writers in the publishing industry is an important issue within the social justice movement that deserves its own platform to be debated and solved, separate from how individuals read, enjoy, talk about, and celebrate the amazing work created by marginalized writers across all genres.”

To combat this issue for the younger generations, We Are LIT is opening access to these books to young kids, but adults as well, who may not have much of an opportunity otherwise in many bookstores.

We Are LIT at Muse GR
A customer checks out with McNeil at a pop-up event.

As an entrepreneur, McNeil said the biggest lesson she’s learned so far has been to “surround yourself with the right people.” Being from Chicago, McNeil still needs more local connections to expand and support her business. She also hopes to partner with local libraries in the future, although she says the Kent District Library by her house is “LIT!”

“It is not often that I can’t find a book I am looking for and when it does happen, I don’t hesitate to use the ‘recommend a book’ feature,” McNeil said. “They are great about acquiring recommended books.”

McNeil would like to partner with libraries by hosting storytimes that feature diverse books and becoming a vendor at various author events. Of course, she hopes to one day own her own brick-and-mortar bookshop in Grand Rapids.

To get involved with We Are LIT, you can first visit their website at www.wearelitgr.com. In addition, find the bookshop at various events in the community:

  • A monthly pop-up shop at the Downtown Market where the focus on books is on lifestyle: cooking, travel, gardening and other hobbies.
  • Women Who Read Grand Rapids is a city-wide book club for women, hosted by We Are LIT and Life Now Talk Media. The women who make up the club come from all various backgrounds and the club’s mission is to “foster a sisterhood through reading.”
  • Find or book We Are LIT for various pop-up book shops at stores around the city and reading initiatives at schools around the area.


We Are LIT at Downtown Market
We Are LIT pop-up shop at the Downtown Market, featuring the Lifestyle Collection.


0 comments on “The state of black business in Grand Rapids”

The state of black business in Grand Rapids

What a local advocacy organization is doing to support black entrepreneurs

By Kayla Sosa

Jamiel Robinson is the founder of GRABB – Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses – an organization that supports and assists black business owners and entrepreneurs in West Michigan. Starting off as a directory for black owned businesses in the area, the social enterprise has now grown to support over 80 businesses in the area and hosts eight various initiatives that support black business and economic development.

Jamiel R grabb

Robinson said he was born and raised in Grand Rapids to a family of business and property owners and entrepreneurs.

“My grandfather and my uncle were business folks in the city,” Robinson said. “From little, small corner stores to the barbershop, and then also being landlords and property owners.”

Being the next generation, and seeing the high rates of poverty facing black people and other people of color in this city, Robinson wanted to do something about it.

That’s how he began planning GRABB in 2012, and officially launched the organization in 2013.

In a 2015 article in Forbes Magazine, Grand Rapids was ranked the second worst place in the U.S. for African-Americans. In the article, the city is referenced as an old, industrial town that was one of the first places black people moved to from the south during the Great Migration. Now, in those towns – like Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Pittsburg – black people earn, on average $10,000 to $15,000 less than their counterparts in Atlanta, and self-employment is half what it is in Atlanta, and other successful cities. The data may have changed slightly in a few years, but Robinson agreed that the issue existed long before the article, and still exists today.

“The vast majority of us in the African-American community didn’t need Forbes to validate that,” Robinson said. “We already knew the conditions, it just wasn’t put out in a major publication.”

GRABB started as a directory, answering Robinson’s question of: where exactly are the black businesses in GR? The directory was online and featured about 70 different businesses, and still exists today at www.grabblocal.com. There, you can also view a Google Map that pins all the businesses in the area.

“As we were finding businesses, businesses were closing,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t just about helping people to locate businesses, but there were other foundational and systemic issues that needed to be addressed. That’s when we shifted slightly into looking at it from an institutional and systemic … and economic development standpoint, and offering businesses programs and assistance.”


One of the biggest things businesses need help getting, especially at first, is capital. In the business world, “capital” essentially means “cash.” It’s whatever money or profit a business is left after all expenses. Robinson said some businesses will come to GRABB with the issue of not having a lot of capital; essentially keeping the business alive month to month, but not having any additional funds.

“We see a lot of businesses that will go out of business from being undercapitalized,” Robinson said. “That speaks to the issue of access to capital. So, can you access the capital you need, when you need it? We’re working with banks and the city and other folks on how do we make capital more accessible, especially to black entrepreneurs.”

Robinson said it’s been proven time and time again that black businesses have a harder time accessing capital, which gives him more of a reason to be an advocate. Since GRABB started their efforts, Robinson said the city has started to pay more attention to business owners of color in general.

“We’re making sure that the programs and these systems are working correctly,” Robinson said.

In many ways, GRABB works as an advocate and representative for businesses that are trying to get a loan, or other vital business contracts and decisions. When someone else is there to advocate and defend, the system is more likely to work in the people’s favor.

“So those are just some of the ways we’ve been able to help businesses and change the climate here in the city,” he said. “Since we’ve been around, we’ve seen a shift.”GRABB-186


One of the most recent events hosted by GRABB was the second annual #TheShift Summit. Robinson coined #TheShift as being the “changing of realities within the black community.” The annual summit is held to celebrate black business and provide educational information and networking opportunities for current and future black business owners. This is just one of the ways that GRABB is working within the community and retaining members.

theshift 2018 pic
Crowd at the most recent #TheShift summit in 2018. 

To learn more and to get involved, visit www.grabblocal.com.