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I'm Sonja — social media and digital marketing trainer, consultant, and strategist. I'm here to help you and your team work smarter.

10 Minute Marketing

10MM: The Impact and Value of Marketing Through a Community with SJ McMillan

August 9, 2023

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In this episode of 10 Minute Marketing, Sonja is joined by entrepreneur and community leader SJ McMillan, founder of MelanList. MelanList is a community dedicated to helping align Black business owners, Black community, and promoting global Black consumerism.

Looking at how people spend their money, how businesses are being chosen by consumers, and how a business uplifts its community, SJ has built a network committed to partnering with, promoting, and authenticating Black-owned brands. This not only sows support within the community, but creates an easy path for consumers to buy with intention – and not just when it’s trendy to do so.

They further discuss how SJ goes about marketing MelanList itself, but how MelanList increases visibility for the businesses in its community. They bring up networking through nervousness, making connections across industries, building strategic partnerships, incentivizing their audiences, and word-of-mouth as powerful tactics to heighten awareness around brands.

From blossoming an idea into a business to her future goals, you don’t want to miss SJ’s insights on community-based business and marketing.

SJ McMillan is a visionary founder bringing business and community in stronger alignment. With a passion for stoking growth and considerate guidance, she infuses self-care and expanded perspectives into the fabric of her influence. Under her leadership, MelanList has partnered with new and thriving companies verifying their commitment to the community and supporting their success. SJ’s commitment to collaboration and representation has fostered a culture of discovery and excellence. Beyond her professional achievements, she embraces philanthropy and cultural introspection. Wielding financial activism, community service, and other actionable solutions to resolve social issues, SJ’s bold vision and unwavering determination empower MelanList to help reshape global Black consumerism.

You can also check out MelanList’s Free MeliMoney Trial to enter to win a $75 Amazon gift card every month for buying Black and uploading your receipt!

Watch the episode!

Read The Full Transcript From This Episode (click to expand and read the full interview)
    • Sonja: [00:00:00] Hi everyone. Welcome to 10 Minute Marketing Podcast. I’m your host, Sonja Crystal Williams. So today I am joined by this visionary woman, SJ McMillan. She is the founder of MelanList, which is a community dedicated to helping align Black business owners, Black community. And really promoting global Black consumerism.

      So SJ, thank you so much. Welcome And thank you for being here.

      SJ: Thank you so much Sonja, for having me.

      Sonja: It’s a pleasure having you join us. Yes. So let’s dig in and talk a little bit more about MelanList, the concept, what it is, how long you’ve been in business, and really when we hear that term black consumerism, what does that mean?

      SJ: [00:01:00] Great question. So, and I’m so happy to expound on that we know that we have gotten. In the habits where we’re just going out shopping what our parents used to buy, what our grandparents used to use, we’re in a really great opportunity now to connect with one another within the Black community about the resources that we’re offering.

      We’re great at problem solving. A lot of the best American adventures do happen to be Black people who are really figuring out how to make life better and. This is a moment where everyone who is being called to answer a question or solve a problem are doing that, and right now is the perfect time to connect.

      How you are actually spending your money, which is your power in this economy. Wherever you send your power, your focus, that is what’s going to continue to grow. And MelanList is creating this intentional opportunity for those who are interested to support the Black community, to actually stand by that and live through that.

      And we’re really also a lifestyle brand, helping to understand and uncover the great wealth of talent and excellence that we have in our community. Who are offering services in the way in which they get support and continue to grow is from us as consumers supporting them. So that’s really the basis of MelanList.

      I’ve been in business for about three years, and it has been a really wonderful experience. We’re meeting entrepreneurs at all different stages. We’re also definitely tapping into the community and listening to what they have to say about their past experience, what they would like to be better, and how to really close the gap between that mindless spending and me saying, Okay.

      Instead of just going to Target, I know I could, I might be able to get this product little 30 minutes out at this Black-owned market spot. Just thinking about that, pausing about that, and being more open to including more Black brands into the things that you use every day. Got it. Got it.

      Sonja: And so, I mean, this could be, from what I’m hearing, it’s something where Black business owners can support each other, but it’s really open for anyone that wants to support any Black business and really being intentional about how you spend your dollar to support those businesses.

      SJ: [00:03:00] Right. Absolutely. We definitely charge the entrepreneurs because they’re living that experience. You know how much you want support, so you know exactly what that feels like. And as the business owner, we want to ingrain this idea of reaching out to one another within our ecosystem, within our culture, we really need to lean on each other a little bit more.

      I think we’ve just gotten so used to just being the, the. One person, army, you know, army of one over here. I’ll just do whatever I have to do. But there is an amazing network if we could just rely and tap into one another, tap into what we’re doing. There’s so many things that are happening in tandem, but if we could really combine that power, combine that focus, what more could we do together?

      So it’s also about just really reconnecting us to one another as well.

      Sonja: [00:04:00] All right. So it sounds like you’re really passionate about this. What’s the backstory? What led you on this journey for the past three years?

      SJ: Yeah, so I’m actually really excited about it and I’m coming from a very humble place.

      I was like the people that I’m reaching out to, just like my audience early 2020. I just made the decision that I need to be able to support my community in a more actionable way. Of course, you know, I will buy Black Tuesday. Of course I’ll do that, but is that enough to really move the needle forward and transform the way that we consider power and economy in the Black community?

      I wanted something that was. Much more immediate and much more heartfelt and really just based in community, based in that love and understanding that we can continue to develop and grow for one another. And me looking around my house in 2022 thinking, do I have anything in my house that’s Black-owned, does anything.

      I intentionally went out to buy, did I ever think about? Well, who makes, you know, who’s making couches out here? Who’s making curtains? Who’s doing these things? I’m so used to just going out and grabbing. But I have the opportunity to not only think about that, but include more of my culture and have more of myself reflected in the things that I purchased.

      And it has really been a transformative experience. I know that you all may have seen and her name is slipping me with that one woman who started that, you know, buying Black every day. And she might have not have been blessed to be in a place like Atlanta, Georgia, where there’s so many Black entrepreneurs.

      But the fact that she found that so challenging, that really just enlightened me that it’s not, it’s not 1998. We can very much so connect with one another now. Mm-hmm. And we need to really take advantage of that and really connect and come together because we have exactly what we need within each other to do whatever we wanna do.

      Sonja: [00:06:00] Yeah. I mean, when I hear this, it really makes me think about more recently, how there’s been more of a shift. And awareness, I think globally, but definitely nationally. Absolutely. And how through the pandemic and with so many over the past few years mm-hmm. Publicly cases around Black lives, like how it’s just come up in the forefront and a lot of larger companies are trying to make it more of a push, you know, to be more inclusive in different ways. And this seems to be part of it.

      SJ: Now that you mentioned that, Sonya, I had the opportunity to go to one of the Essence festivals. It wasn’t quite Essence Fest, but it was like a branch of it here. Yeah. Yeah. And I believe that the VP, the woman who is responsible for the burst of Black products in Target.

      I think she’s based here in Atlanta. And even the experience of going to Target and seeing that there’s like a whole Black section, I just never, you never really think about these things until that change happens. And yeah, seeing, walking down the aisle and seeing a whole stand for Scotch Porter and just realizing that these black brands are now getting the visibility that they’ve never had the opportunity to get, and that has been intentional all along. So it’s not like there aren’t Black businesses out here, it’s just that the visibility has been intentionally hidden and made difficult for us to really seek out.

      And that’s really what MelanList is about. We want everybody buying Black on a regular basis, not just when it’s cute, not when it’s a Black holiday, but really every day. And weaving that into a lifestyle. Yeah. Not when it’s a trend.

      Sonja: So that kind of leads me into the next question. When you bring up the point of visibility When someone becomes a part of the community, like what, what are the benefits? If I’m a business owner and I’m like, Hey, I wanna join MelanList, what am I doing? What am I getting from it?

      SJ: [00:08:00] Oh, absolutely. So I love this question because as an entrepreneur myself, we know, we run into situations where we’re just. I don’t wanna say it’s a stuck because there’s always a way to move, but there’s this wall that you hit and sometimes it can, it can be a, a low wall or a high wall.

      I really wanna create a community where we can come together as entrepreneurs and talk to one another. You don’t have to worry about anyone taking anything from you. The whole point of this is pouring in and building together. I have the opportunity to be partnered with some amazing individuals. Across different fields, across different industries.

      I have a fantastic network as well. So when you do join as a business partner, you really get access to anything. We are really here sitting down, what are your goals? What do you wanna do? And let’s make it happen together. Just having that sound board, just having the other person who is highly invested in you with your success in return.

      Mm-hmm. I’ve found that my business partners have found that just as a grounding, stable force. We also do regular check-ins as well. So it’s not just a one-time thing like, Hey, now you’re a partner. That’s it. It’s an ongoing relationship as we’re working to get, get and reach success together and figure out what else we could do to.

      Sonja: So it sounds very personalized. And are these business owners, are they connecting with each other in the process? And you, y’all are helping to facilitate it?

      SJ: Absolutely. So I definitely think that’s important because there’s always so much cross pollination happening.

      If one business partner might be in a different sector, but there’s a connection there, I’m always, I call myself a synthesizer. I really love making connections. Because it could just be something so flipping as someone mentioned something and that’s exactly what this other individual’s looking for.

      So really pairing us together more intentionally as well. Yeah, synthesizer.

      Sonja: [00:10:00] I like that description. So, alright, so you’ve had now MelanList for three years. Let’s talk a little bit about growth. Yeah. Because it’s something that every entrepreneur encounters you gotta do if you wanna stay in business.

      So, you know, digging into like, what are some of the ways that you’ve been able to grow melon lists, has it just been organically, it’s blossomed? Or what are, what are some of the specific things you’ve been able to do?

      SJ: Yeah, well I think I have a very like low revenue business model just in general.

      ‘Cause the fact is like my goal is not to sell, sell, sell. My goal is not to have a thousand business partners. That would be awesome, but I’m more really wanting to focus on who we’re bringing together. And sometimes different businesses are at different stages. So it’s really, like you were saying, individualized.

      Another thing that I really like to do is with the business partners that are joining, we’re really asking them to incorporate the ideals of Black economics and financial activism into what they do. So we ask that they be at least 50% Black-owned, that they understand that the goal is to hire Black people to work from them.

      That they’re also making sure that they’re having an opportunity to communicate with the community, that they’re actually interacting with the community. ‘Cause it’s very easy to just get siloed into this business partner, like this business owner mentality without realizing the audience that you’re trying to serve.

      So you definitely have to stay connected there. And it’s just a few of the ways in which. We really want to help create a brand here at MelanList where you see anybody associate with MelanList, you understand that they’re coming at a certain level. So any of those fears or lived experiences that our community may have with buying Black, we’re really there to overcome those and making sure that we’re setting a standard that’ll make it very seamless for people to be intentional and transition to Black alternatives more.

      Sonja: Yep. So, so you’re helping them grow. In their own regards within their businesses. And then as you all are, are kind of setting your sights. So you mentioned like not necessarily trying to work with a thousand partners because it’s a very personalized approach. Mm-hmm. But how do you, how do you go about finding these partners?

      Like, is it, you know, you dug into your own Rolodex. I know that’s an old school term.

      SJ: I love it. No, yeah.

      Sonja: Your digital Rolodex, your contacts but no, how, how does that work for you? How have you been able to piece this community together?

      SJ: Yeah, so I’m a very social creature and the only thing that, you know, that I know to do is to connect. Sometimes it can be face-to-face. I prefer face-to-face. Okay. But I’m also, you know, we’re understanding we’re in this digital world. Sometimes you can’t reach people. A few of my global business partners, I honestly just met through living my truth and continuing to, to set this as a priority.

      [00:13:00] For instance, my very first business partner, I was on the search for an image that really described how I felt and how I wanted my business to be represented. So I found this beautiful mixed media artist painting, and I reached out to her and I said, can I use this image? And after that, we’ve almost been inseparable.

      She’s been amazing. She’s a a PhD educator in London and Royalton. She’s a mixed media lifestyle artist. So you’ll tell her about your life and she’ll create art for you. And it was just this amazing collaboration. So if I had felt shy, if I had felt unconfident, if I had felt. Like, oh, I can’t do that.

      That’s so weird. Like, why would anybody do that? Really just continuing to move my mission forward has aligned me with so many amazing people. Another huge thing that I would obviously suggest for everybody is to get connected to a community. I promise you someone has been in the situation that you’re in.

      So for instance, I have a few different communities I’m a part of, like the Black Achievement Fund and also The Gathering Spot here in Atlanta. So it has been really easy to just, you know, show up as I am, seek out those who might need my support and also figure out what I can do to continue to support the people, whether they do or do not decide to be business partners.

      I’m just always out here spending money at different events, chatting people up, and it’s just that natural organic root that I found has been best for me. Yeah. When I’m thinking about marketing or getting just regular individuals, those who are supporting the community involved, I have this plan where we are continuing to make it a lifestyle.

      So we want to incentivize buying Black. We have these free challenges every month you can win a $75 Amazon gift card. And the point of that is, again, to get people thinking like one, why are they, why are they giving money away? Yeah. Like who’s doing that? Why? And the point is to incentivize you to keep buying Black.

      You buy Black, you submit your receipt. Now you have the opportunity to win $75 for just buying black. And we’re hoping that you reuse that money and keep it in the community. And that’s really what we’re wanting to see it show, right?

      Sonja: [00:15:00] And you buy from these brands and then when you love it, you tell friends, which helps it magnify it even more.

      I mean, I always tell clients and other business owners. Nothing, nothing, nothing replaces word of mouth. It is still the number one way to grow a business. But all of these other methods we have, digital means certainly helps amplify that.

      But no, it’s been a few powerful things, SJ, around just the idea of being really clear on what your vision is.

      Mm-hmm. And then walking into those rooms or those communities that you’ve identified that you’re a part of, and showing up authentically as yourself. And that’s really great advice to those of you that are listening, especially if you’re new to business. I often share a story with other business owners who were new.

      [00:16:00] That that was one of the first things I did when I launched my marketing agency. I would show up in rooms and just like you shy, nervous, you know, maybe some of those feelings were there, but talk anyway and get over the feelings. Mm-hmm. And then I would invite everybody I met, even if I didn’t even know if there was a connection or not.

      We were gonna go to coffee and tea, or at least have a phone conversation. It wasn’t that they were gonna become a client, it was who do they know? How can I create a relationship? So I, I definitely feel you on where you’re coming from on that.

      SJ: Yeah. And it’s so nice. You never know what people have going on.

      You never know what they’re involved in. And even if it’s just there from a support perspective, like I, when I go to black events, I end up buying, I, I try to buy from every single book. It’s a little, it’s a little while, but I’m a little bit of a shopaholic, and I literally just sit around all day thinking about like, how many black brands can we add?

      Like, who can we purchase from? We do different reviews and things because we want people to see that you can do this every day, and we’re not asking only by Black today. Like throw everything you have away. That’s not the ask. The ask is to think about how you can incorporate more Black brands or just simply replace the things that you already have that you know you’re running outta deodorant.

      Have you checked out a Black-owned deodorant? You might find something you like. There just so small little changes that can really help propel these brands forward to be more than they are, although they’re already great. But of course we wanna get more people on the bandwagon so we can continue to grow and scale as business owners.

      Sonja: So powerful. So, all right, so let’s enter our lightning round. I’m gonna grab my little paper. Okay. Keeps you guiding a little bit. So answers during the lightning round. Short, short, short. Okay. I have a few more questions. So one would be kind of on the marketing tip. Yes. What are your favorite channels that you like to market on from a marketing standpoint or get visibility from MelanList?

      SJ: [00:18:00] Yeah, I would probably say my top two are gonna be Instagram and and YouTube. We are doing current redesign now, where we really wanna focus in on those things. So you got, you all are be seeing a lot more from us a later half of the year. But I mean, I’ve had a great time with Instagram. You know, you can just slide in some DMs and send a message.

      But even now I live here in the Georgia area and I passed a Black vegan breakfast place and they had just relocated. So the Google address wasn’t updated. So I sent them a message like, Hey fam, can you make sure that you update your Google address? And they were like, ah, we did. It’s just taken a bit.

      So it’s just those little things like that just, I could have not said anything, but I didn’t know that they did that. But seeing us. How that connection has already been built. I tried to go there before. Now when I go to the new place, they’ll know who I am. So it’s never leaving someone out to dry or, you know, talking bad about them.

      It’s how can we all support and rise and get this together because there’s enough for all of us. Help them out.

      Sonja: Yeah, I definitely, I’ve been the person that’s been contacted when I did something or I’m like, oh, that didn’t get me. And then I’ve been the other person on the other end that happened the other day.

      Someone’s business on their LinkedIn post, they mistyped their URL and I sent them a DM like, Hey, I know you wanna get those sales. You know? Yeah. Go on and update that real quick. So help each other out. Absolutely.

      SJ: Why not?

      Sonja: All right, so another question. Let’s say you’re given $50,000 to get a grant. And you could spend it on whatever you want to promote MelanList. Yes. How do you spend it?

      SJ: [00:20:00] Honestly, I’m going into manufacturing. And that is a goal that we have. So not only are we here supporting Black businesses, but we wanna make it, like I was saying, tangible actions. How can we get to the point where we’re hiring Black people, we’re changing lives at that family nuclear level, that people no longer have to go out into a workplace that might not value them, their culture, you know, the way that they think.

      How can we end up being. The destination for those seeking opportunities. And they’re also in our community. So when I talk about like the grand scope five years from MelanList, it’s like, how can we get more people hired? How can we continue to see changes on a more granular but impactful level?

      Sonja: Okay. Good one. Okay. Another one. What do you think is the biggest challenge your members face, that you help them through.

      SJ: Hmm. That, that’s a no-brainer. We also, yeah, we also are an angel investment firm as well. So if it aligns with, you know, what we have going on and what we’re really looking to make that powerful impact, there are some organizations that we have taken the opportunity to be investors in.

      And it also depends on where we’re at. Because there’s different things. As we know, there’s different layers in business, so depending on the goal that’s achieved, we definitely have that available or we’ll direct you to where you can get capital. We, again, we’re really tied in, so there’s more than one way to do a thing, and we evaluate what’s the best thing for our clients, how can we, like I said, continue to support them.

      Sonja: Okay. Shout outs. I heard Scotch Quarter. Yeah. What are some other top brands, it doesn’t have to be your favorite. Yes. We don’t wanna single the members out, but just what are other brands that come to mind that are in your member network and you’re like, or just brands that in general, you’re like, I like that brand. I support that brand.

      SJ: [00:22:00] So this is really where all my personal money goes. It’s just buying up everything. Mm-hmm. We can talk about. Hustle and Clean. We could talk about Power Hands. We could talk about Jovia, the lip bar Che Ruby Red. I.There’s just so many amazing Black brands. BAS, Baskin, Lather Melanin Natural Club.

      So many things that you all might not kind of be privy to. Mm-hmm. You might not have thought about. And even those ads that we see on social media promoting like Black hair care products, which are great, but we have so much more beyond Black haircare products and that beauty industry that we can really offer to support one another. Be Condoms. Shout out to Be Condoms.

      Sonja: Alright, so final two questions. Number one, how do people find out more about MelanList? And number two, any resources, freebies, perks, things like that that you wanna share?

      SJ: [00:23:00] Absolutely. So if you are interested one, either as a business partner, go ahead and reach out to our website, check it out.

      We do have our business partner questionnaire there, so if you’re interested in joining, if you’re a member of the community, maybe you’re. Haven’t started your business yet, or you’re really just figuring out how can I support?

      Please go ahead and join one of our free challenges. I mean, it’s absolutely free. You’re just uploading our receipt and then we pick a renter at random and email you with your gift card. We will make it very easy and very simple.

      Another thing I would suggest for you all is to simply reach out to us at if you have any questions or concerns. But check out our social media, check out what we are doing, check out where you see us, and if you align with that, that’s something you wanna be a part of. Reach out, let us know.

      Sonja: [00:24:00] Well thank you so much again, SJ, for being here and sharing absolutely how people can get in touch. Thank you all again for watching and listening, and we will see you on the next 10 Minute Marketing.


Social Media


Social Media & Digital Marketing Training

Tools, Templates, and Resources

work with me

1:1 VIP Power Day


I'm Sonja — social media and digital marketing trainer, consultant, and strategist. I'm here to help you and your team work smarter.