Pictured above: Mik Harris and Larry Kinnie pose with their post at the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington D.C., June 23, 2014.
It all started with a call marked "blocked".
The owners of Sweet Retreat Boutique cupcake shop on Academy Street downtown Newark initially ignored the phone call from a woman named Holly because the telephone number wasn't marked.
It's a good thing they checked their messages: it turns out Holly was calling from the White House, and she wanted to invite them to speak at a summit on working families that took place last month. "She wanted me to explain my story and how Sweet Retreat came about," said Larry Kinnie, who owns the shop along with Mik Harris and Jason Gray.
The Working Families Summit featured a speech by President Barack Obama, and remarks by business owners, wonks, and academics about policies that can make life more tenable for the country's working families. Sweet Retreat had been invited because of their support for Newark's Paid Sick Time Ordinance, one of only two cities in New Jersey, and of less than a handful of municipalities nationwide, to offer such a benefit.
Sweet Retreat's owners understand the implication of the acts well. Kinnie said the shop is a tribute to his young daughter, who died in 2010 after a valiant two-year bout with cancer. Harris, who holds a master's degree in organizational leadership, and was in Philadelphia working on his Ph.D. when doctor's discovered his daughter's illness, and stayed with a friend in Newark so he could commute to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to oversee his daughter's treatments. He said the experience of caring for his daughter greatly underscored home the importance of family friendly policies in business.
It was in New York that Kinnie met Harris, who has a master’s degree in human resources management. The pair set up shop in Newark in 2011.
In addition to their closely held beliefs about how employees should be treated, the entrepreneurs also got a boost out of sharing an address with the Newark Arts Council when they launched. It meant they'd interact with Karen Brown, who at the time was working with the council, and would occasionally stop by the cupcake shop located on the ground-level floor of her building. "Ms. Karen", as the owners politely refer to her, happened to be an incredibly well connected professional with firsthand knowledge of how to get things done in the city. She swiftly took the pair under her wing.
"Karen is like this wealth of knowledge," Harris said. "She didn't even know us, she just worked in this building and came down" to the shop, he continued. "She's been so supportive" ever since, he added.
Brown, who would go on to head up the ForwardEver Sustainable Business Alliance (note: BrickCityLive.com is one of the ForwardEver’s affinity partners), would give them tips on business resources in the area, tell them what networking events to attend, refer them to key people they should know, and recently helped referred them for the Kiva Zip loan program (their loan application is open, and anyone can lend as little as $5 to help Sweet Retreat with their marketing efforts and website). It was her referral to Corinne Horowitz of the New Jersey Main Street Alliance that would prove to be fateful.
"Corrine wanted to speak with businesses that were advocates for friendly workplace policies for working families," Brown said, "and that's how [the White House visit] came to be".
In addition to their personal views on workplace policies for families, and particularly Kinnie's wrenching experience caring for his daughter, the two entrepreneurs said a thoughtful approach to businesses also informed their views on policies like paid sick leave and an increased minimum wage.
"It's not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do," to build a sustainable business, said Harris.
"This is particularly important as it relates to food-related businesses," Brown chimed in. "It's common sense to want your employees to feel valued, but you also have to think, "do you want people working around food when they're sick? These policies are important not only for employees, but for the health of businesses and customers."
The White House event itself, which was attended by several thousand people at an Omni Hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C. was a monumental moment for the entrepreneurs. Sweet Retreat Boutique was one of five businesses that were selected to speak, though they ultimately didn't have a chance to deliver remarks the day of. Still, they had the remarkable experience of seeing their likenesses blown up to billboard size at the event, and said seeing President Obama close-up an indelible experience.
Back in Newark, the pair are busy running their shop and thinking about the future. Both said they're concentrating mainly on maximizing the opportunity at the Newark shop. They pointed out that in addition to cupcakes, they also offer specialty cakes that the shop can deliver within a fairly wide circumference of the shop. They're also interested in other opportunities to get their name out, from collaborating with other entrepreneurs in the area to appearing on television baking shows.
"My daughter put everything in perspective," said Kinnie. "I like to go with the flow, and if an opportunity presents itself, I take advantage."