(From left) Samantha Jo, Keyon Huggins and Jamica Harper are the newest entrepreneurs to join UChicago's L1 business incubator. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

WASHINGTON PARK — Three creative entrepreneurs have set up shop in L1, the University of Chicago business accelerator and retail store on the university’s “Art Block.”

L1 at 319 E. Garfield Blvd. offers training and support for local entrepreneurs looking to get brick-and-mortar experience before striking out on their own. Launched in 2020 as a part of the university’s Arts + Life initiative, the program offers selected participants a 10-month fellowship in which they receive discounted rental space to set up their business, as well as mentoring.

The new group of small business owners is Red Elephant Candle Co.’s Jamica Harper, Balm Yard founder Samantha Jo and Hyde & Park’s Keyon Huggins. All three have been part of the community for years, so it made sense to set up shop in a place that felt home, they said. And as an added bonus, the three have become fast friends.

The trio will be mentored by Silver Room owner Eric Williams and former L1 cohort Peter Gaona, whose Reformed School clothing and accessory line has amassed a loyal customer base.

Harper, who launched her line of candles earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, lives nearby and knew one of the accelerator’s inaugural fellows, Tiffany Joi, who encouraged her to apply.

“Every time I came in, it was a vibe. I was like, ‘OK, I can do this,'” said Harper, a St. Louis native who moved to Chicago in 2005.

Samantha Jo’s Balm Yard collection offers body butters and bath soaks. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

Harper tapped into her mental health training for Red Elephant, creating candles more focused on wellness than aesthetics. She pours each soy-based candle by hand, blending scents like lavender, sage and peppermint to help people with anxiety or everyday stress.

Harper’s preteen daughter, who also serves as her creative director, came up with the brand name. Products range from White Tea Lights ($8.99) to a handcrafted candle and tray set ($60).

Huggins spent most of his life in Florida before moving to Chicago in 2017. He, too, found the inspiration to strike out on his own during the pandemic, creating a line of unisex sprays and candles in the apartment he shared with his brother, a University of Chicago student.

Hyde & Park’s candles and room scents cost $16-$26. His line offers six “year-round” core scents.

“My scents range from florals to woodier, salty scents. I try to keep it very unisex. If I add a ‘feminine scent,’ I try to add a masculine one to complement it. Customers love that we have ‘hard-to-find’ scents you can’t find anywhere,” Huggins said.

Keyon Huggins’ Hyde & Park Co offers unisex room sprays and candles ranging from floral to woodsy scents. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

Jo, who hails from Morgan Park, also launched her collection of bath soaks and body butters during the pandemic.

The spark for Jo’s line came from reading about Zora Neale Hurston’s travels to Jamaica and West Africa, where the author learned about balm yards.

“A balm yard is a place where healing takes place, where rituals happen. It’s a gathering place where you come to an elder and get a cleansing or whatever prescription you need to make your life alright,” Jo said.

Mugwort is a staple in Jo’s cabinet, and she uses it for everything from teas to baths. With the business expanding, Jo hopes to grow the plant on her familial land in St. Augustine, Florida, to support relatives living there.

“Working with herbs has been the best gift,” said Jo, who also sells postcards of her art, along with bottles of Florida Water, oils and candles.

L1 is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

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