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Part 2: Inside the Mind of Kelli Lemon

atmathew May 28, 2019
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Kelli Lemon’s high school experience, her time at the University of Virginia, and her career after graduating, along with her family and friends, all reminded her that she was built to care for people, and to bring people from all corners and walks of life and include them in conversations. Whether it’s managing her restaurant, interviewing people over coffee, or hosting a radio show, Kelli is always aware of the people involved. Unfortunately, for as long as she has lived and worked in Richmond, as much she has grown, as much as the city is growing, misconceptions still exist. People still think downtown is a rough area. She told me that her white friends think there is nothing to do in Richmond because they are too scared to be involved with the activities of downtown. She told me that her African-American friends think there is nothing to do in Richmond because they don’t feel invited to the activities of the rest of Richmond. Since Kelli operates in both circles, she can help connect people and grow their network to include more people who do not look or talk like them. She explained to me that Richmond is growing at a shocking rate, almost double to the national growth rate. Richmond is a brand and she told me that the brand is sometimes misidentified. Some people come to the city and only see the “bright” parts of the city. She said these people are missing the greater struggles of the city: housing, homelessness, racism, etc. She urges people to come to Richmond, but if they do, then they should really come. She thinks one of the best ways to combat this tale of two cities is to completely understand our past and our current realities. She feels a tug on her heart to not just sit aside and do her own work, but get involved and help out by connecting and educating people.

Kelli’s passion and work to bring all corners of Richmond together is tough and it often comes without proper recognition: as a young African-American woman entrepreneur, there are a lot of barriers in front of her which make success challenging. Yet, when I asked her to talk to me about joy in her life, her answer was simple, “I love what I do. If it doesn’t make me happy, I ain’t doing it.” Her answer was not even just limited to the present. She said she experienced so much joy during high school. Even with all the tensions and struggles, her joy was experiencing the city on the weekends and nights and slowly bringing more and more people to experience it with her. She told me a big part of her joy is the ability to say “no.” She said it takes strength and practice to use the word “no” as a complete sentence. In the times of her life where she wasn’t as happy, she told me she was too concerned with what other people thought of her that she didn’t feel comfortable saying no. She wasn’t in control of what she was doing because of pressures that came from social settings, her friends or her parents. She found joy through personal growth, age, and learning how to decide for herself what she was going through; she attributes her ability to do this well to her support network of mentors. Kelli said a big part of her joy comes from telling people that are close to her what’s going on in her heart and mind. She said she is a big believer in mental health and therapy, and both are directly linked to her joy.

As some of you may know, I am on a sort of hunt for answers on joy. I’m interested in how people pursue joy. Do they pursue it? Or do they let joy pursue them? When I asked Kelli about how she finds her joy she explained to me that the idea that one can speak something into existence is important to her. She seeks to put this manifestation out there and she sees the importance of being specific when you speak; she believes in being able to speak happiness into reality. But that does not take away from living in the moment. She began to explain an example of this as we were sitting in the coffee shop: “Right now, I am very aware of what is happening in this room, I know that someone over there is talking, someone else is over there painting, and there is my mom in the cafe, and all of these things are giving me joy on top of this moment right now.” As she pointed all these things out, I realized how little I pay attention to what is around me, but also realized just how much dedication Kelli takes to find her joy. This really stuck with me. She was not ignoring me or not enjoying our moments together, but instead, she was enjoying the present and also bringing in those in her peripheral vision into her moment of joy as well. She cared enough for everyone around her to include them in her current moment. It is this mental exercise that reminded me just how intentional and caring Kelli is to everyone in her community. I hope that in my work and personal life I can do this as well as her. Even as I write this piece, I am impacted by Kelli; I am trying to also appreciate the music helping me work, the people encouraging me via text as I write, and the beautiful view out my window.

I honestly was prepared to skip over asking Kelli what she is on to next. I just assumed that there was nothing else this amazing woman could do; I mean it seems like she does everything already. I figured it would be rude to ask, “So what else you got?” Turns out, I was wrong. She is working on a lot. She told me she is working on a CBD oil company, and she wants to put it into coffee and tea. She is excited where that will go as laws are changing quickly. She also told me that her business partner, DJ Lonnie B, just opened a studio office upstairs of the Urban Hang Suite RVA. It is half audiovisual radio and half office, and it helps keep her in this building while allowing other people to create more. She wants to invest in property for African-American businesses and wants African-American ownership to be a priority, specifically in the area of Brookland Park. She wants more of the people who have lived in that area for years to finally be real property owners. Finally, she said, she hopes to see the Urban Hang Suite RVA go to Charlottesville, Hampton, or other nearby locations in Virginia.

I have learned a lot from Kelli Lemon. A lot of it, I could not even get to here. We spent a lot of time just chatting: chatting about our experiences at UVa, talking about immigrant parents, and she gave me a lot of advice on growing up. Through all of it, Kelli never made me feel like an outsider. From the second I walked into her business to the second she hugged me goodbye, I felt like her friend. I felt like I was cared for and I had someone that appreciates me for who I am. I never felt like I had to be someone I am not. I did not feel like I had to be a professional interviewer who only cared about getting good answers. I felt like I could be myself: a young goofy 22-year old that has a lot to learn. I have known Kelli now for a total of an hour and she honestly is someone I look up to greatly. Kelli’s work in Richmond is not only important but relatable to all careers and walks of life. Her work does not require a genius mind, even though she has one, it doesn’t require millions of dollars, even though she’s an extremely successful entrepreneur, and it does not even require knowing hundreds of people, even though Kelli pretty much knows everyone in Richmond. All of her work stems from the desire to make everyone feel included no matter the cost. To really hear people for who they are. Her last charge to me was to let everyone know that if they are on the fence about Richmond, they should absolutely come. But if you do, she encourages people to have an open mind and to be ready to go all in. With people like Kelli Lemon leading the charge to make Richmond a thriving inclusive family, I feel confident and excited to participate, so count me in Kelli. I’m all in.

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