“I know you’re not one of my ‘little friends,’ but you are one of my favorite people.”
The sentiment — love and appreciation for one’s parents — is, of course, familiar to all of us who have ever given a greeting card. But the phrasing, which is a common admonishment from Black parents to overly familiar children, might not be. And that’s in part because the stationery world is, like many larger industries, mostly run by white people.
Enter SaVonne Anderson, founder and CEO of Newark, New Jersey, company Aya Paper Co. Through her small-but-mighty, eco-friendly venture, which sells cards, journals and other gifts made from recycled materials, she aims to provide Black people like herself with ways to express love that both feel authentic and minimize waste.
Her greeting cards, for example — the foundation upon which her business was launched — are made from post-consumer products, and intentionally, specifically depict Black people. “A Black person doesn’t usually get to see these images [on greeting cards], that really capture so many intimate, personal moments,” she says.
The approach has certainly resulted in growth for the 4-person-strong company, anyway. She launched in the middle of 2019, and pulled in $5,000 in revenue that first year, she says. In 2020, that shot up to $125,000. In the first quarter of 2021 alone, she reports making $104,000.
Part of that comes from the wholesale relationships she forged with major retailers like Kohl’s, Nordstrom and Macy’s. Some of it also comes from the press attention she’s garnered in publications like Architectural Digest and Allure. But Anderson points to customers who report “feeling seen, for once, in the stationary aisle” as another critical part of her business’ success.
“My goal is for this brand to give people opportunities to find joy and share it with other people, and to do that without causing any harm to the earth,” she says.
Growing a ‘People Business’ Mid-Pandemic
Prior to starting up, Anderson was a full-time graphic designer at The Studio Museum in Harlem, which showcases work by artists of African descent. For a boost in her spare time, she’d often revisit her collection of cards, notes and keepsakes she’d received over the years. “I’m not sure why I was keeping them — something told me to hold onto these things that are bringing me joy,” she says.
This pick-me-up pastime inspired her to make a small batch of greeting cards as a side project in 2018. “Stationery is something I’ve always really loved to buy and get from other people,” but she rarely saw herself fully represented in the options available for purchase. So she used her graphic design skills to make cards that showcased Black life — and almost immediately sold out of them as soon as she posted them on her personal website.
Anderson recognized the business opportunity, and set about turning this side hustle into a proper venture. Her official launch happened at a zero-waste pop-up event roughly one year later, in July 2019. “From the beginning, it was important to be in the community. I want to be a people-first brand,” she says of launching at an in-person function.
In the beginning, she grew Aya Paper Co. at events and marketplaces, making most of her money from in-person sales. And in February 2020, the company was stable enough for her to take the leap into full-time business ownership.
Of course, we all know what happened the following month.
Pandemic lockdowns — and the rapid-fire event cancellations that came with them — meant Anderson had to rethink her entire strategy. She went all in on her own pandemic pivot, spending the first 2 weeks of her personal coronavirus crisis refurbishing the brand’s website — mostly by sprucing up the online store for an unexpected turn to e-commerce sales. She also stepped up her social media presence and brought on a new hire to help her acquire wholesale accounts.
For several months, “it was very scrappy, figuring out different ways to make [the business] work” while the pandemic raged on. But growth continued apace, thanks to a groundswell of consumer desire to express love from afar — enough so that, in July 2020, she was able to move her business into an office space. One month later, she inked wholesale deals with Nordstrom and Kohl’s. An agreement with Macy’s followed at the start of the 2020 holiday season.
“We weren’t even fully into our second year, and we were having conversations with big brands. It was really exciting,” she says. It was also another steep learning curve in a year full of them — Anderson recalls the challenges of navigating business insurance, barcodes and legal representation years before she ever intended to do so.
Entering the Climate Chaos Fray
Then again, Anderson is used to a startup challenge. After all, it’s not easy to keep one’s paper-centric business completely sustainable. To date, though, she says she’s been successful in that endeavor, and proudly states that the entirety of Aya Paper Co.’s products are made from 100-percent recycled, ethically-produced materials sourced from local vendors.
Yet sustainability was admittedly not always at the forefront of her thoughts. “Growing up [in Newark], I didn’t necessarily think about the environment. It was not a part of my everyday life being in an urban neighborhood,” she recalls. “When my parents wanted to take me to the park, they took me to different neighborhoods. The kids [at those parks] were white — they didn’t look like me.”
It created a subconscious — and not easily shaken — idea that “having a connection with nature and the environment wasn’t something easily accessible for Black people,” Anderson adds. But as she got older, she learned that communities like hers were most susceptible to the myriad negative effects of climate change.
When she graduated from college, she found herself assessing her personal beliefs and values as she got ready to step out into the larger world — including her relationship with nature. This wasn’t about immersing herself in it, though — but rather, it was a newfound inner call to “consider how my choices affect the environment.”
And in service of that, “I want for Aya [Paper Co.] to be an opportunity to introduce others into that process — for others who look like me to see that this matters for you, too.”
This dovetails with her company’s overarching mission of amplifying Black voices and experiences, she adds. “It’s really important for people of color to have a voice in the [climate chaos] conversation — to have that autonomy, and to be an advocate for what it is that we need to lead healthier lives, and to be more fulfilled.”