Philadelphia entrepreneur Felicia Harris Williams jumps at an invitation from Cooper University Health Care in Camden to become a vendor at a Black History Month market as a way to introduce her small specialties to a new audience, especially other Black women.
But last week, Cooper disinvited him, saying in an email that the brand “doesn’t fit with our cultural theme because it’s not specifically an ethnic product.” Williams demanded an explanation and an apology.
“How is a black-owned company not ethnic for Black History Month?” Williams, 36, asked Monday. “It just didn’t make sense to me. It’s just unacceptable behavior.”
“Who makes that determination about who is black enough,” said Lloyd D. Henderson, president of the Camden County East Chapter of the NAACP. Obviously, someone is crazy.
Williams, owner of Gynger Tea, an online company that ships premium blends, candles and body care products nationwide. went to social networks to share the turn of events.
In a statement, Cooper said he apologized Monday to Williams “for a miscommunication that caused him understandable frustration.” He said the event guidelines prohibiting food and beverage vendors were not properly communicated.
It was Cooper’s first time hosting the vendor fair during Black History Month. Event sponsor Ardella Coleman, the hospital’s vice president of diversity and talent acquisition, also offered Monday to let Williams bring non-edible products to the vendor fair. Williams said he planned to decline.
Williams said she initially contacted Cooper’s diversity specialist in human resources, Francess Bowen-Metzger, in December, extending an offer to participate as a vendor. In the email message, to The Inquirer, Bowen-Metzger said she found Williams’ information on her Instagram page.
In an email a few days later, Metzger-Bowen confirmed that Williams was approved to participate as a vendor on February 22. Local black-owned businesses would get a chance to display and sell their products, she wrote.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to put my business in front of a new audience,” Williams said. “This is a perfect fit to be in a hospital.”
While in Texas on a recent business trip, Williams was surprised to learn that the event had been removed from his schedule. Williams’ assistant informed him that he was no longer invited to participate.
In the Jan. 24 email rescinding her invitation, Bowen-Metzger said she would keep Williams in mind for future sales opportunities with a “general theme.”
Williams told Bowen-Metzger he was “perplexed” by the decision to remove him as a vendor. He asked him to explain “what is the term ethnic?” and “what’s not ‘ethnic’ about organic tea blends custom made by a Black woman (me?)”
Cooper, among the largest health care providers in the region, responded with a statement on Monday that it could not allow vendors with items that could be ingested. Bowen-Metzger did not respond to phone and email messages from The Inquirer Monday.
Williams said she started her tea business after being diagnosed in 2015 with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a type of abnormal heart rhythm. He believes that his condition was not detected until he was 28 years old because of differences in health care.
Williams said her primary care physician recommended tea infused with raw ginger to help ease her condition. He believed that the tea had healing properties, and has since became a drunkard.
Williams, a mother of three, incorporated the business in 2018 and launched the online store in 2020. Her main target was Black women, especially those looking to improve their health. Many of the ingredients used in his teas come from tea farms in Africa, he said.
“I’m very intentional about the products I make,” Williams said. “I’m very unapologetic about the fact that I make my product with Black women in mind.”
Williams wants Cooper to change the way it treats “black and brown businesses” and ensure that procurement contracts are awarded to diverse vendors.
“I don’t want this to happen to other minorities,” he said.