Ham, Cynthia Parker
Cynthia Parker Ham
It's not every day that a small minority-owned business gets a shot at the big time, but that's exactly what happened for Cynthia Parker Ham and her business partners. In 1998 Ham, along with her husband, John Ham, and their college buddy, Steven V. Jones, founded Cultural Hangups, Inc., as a North Carolina manufacturer of multicultural wall borders. Cultural Hangups quickly grew to include various home accessories and to serve African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American buyers through major retailers, including Wal-Mart and Lowe's.
The idea to start Cultural Hangups began in 1997 when the Hams were expecting their first child. The couple had purchased a new home and Cynthia, who always loved to decorate, was anxious to create a nursery using designs that celebrated African-American culture. They searched everywhere for appealing wall designs with an Afro-centric theme that would be appropriate for an infant's room. There were plenty of Barneys and Elmos to be found. The occasional afro-centric design often depicted people in "stick form or cartoon-like," Ham said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "I just felt like something was missing." Ham turned to the Internet, and consulted friends and family as far away as New York. Yet she turned up nothing that excited her.
Ham chanced to see television talk show host Oprah Winfrey interview celebrity Holly Robinson Peete one day. Peete discussed how she had created her own custom design for her infant's room. Ham considered a similar possibility: why not design her own wall borders? So, she enlisted the expertise of an artist friend who helped her realize the images she wanted. They created their first design—a wall border with African-American children drawn posed as different letters of the alphabet. Ham liked the border so much that she had it laminated before she hung it in the nursery. This way she could remove it and reuse the border should the family relocate to another home. The border created an immediate buzz as Ham showed it off at her baby shower. Her guests liked what they saw and encouraged her to pursue it as a business; some even asked how they could purchase it for their own homes.
At the time Ham was considering a new career path for herself. She was downsized from her job creating diversity programs at a bank in Charlotte, and was ready for something new. "That brought me to the realization that I had to be on my own and depend on myself. I put my foot on the pedal and jump-started the business," she told Charlotte Woman. Her husband John Ham had expertise in marketing, having worked for a hair product line and for the Red Cross, and began researching what it would take to start a business around his wife's idea. He set up test groups and conducted market analysis. Impressed by the idea, family friend Steven V. Jones encouraged the Hams. As a CPA, Jones offered to join the venture to supply the needed financial expertise.
By 1999 Cultural Hangups was born, at least in more fully-formed concept. "My parents were the initial investors; my sister, Karen, came up with a name that reflects our mission of designing cultural wall coverings," Ham explained to Sherri A. McGee in Essence. The Hams and Jones had to overcome several obstacles before the fledgling business began to flourish, however. "First of all, most African-Americans offer services, not products, so it was hard to get companies to take us seriously," Ham explained to CBB. "And it was very difficult identifying companies who could do it." Moreover, they had to steel themselves against those who did not share their vision. "Companies kept advising us that these types of products don't sell. It sometimes felt like a wild goose chase." Nevertheless, they persisted. By 2001, John Ham had found a suitable firm to print borders for Cultural Hangups and to provide much-welcome guidance.
With a source for their product, the next hurdle became marketing. Initially, Cultural Hangups sold products on the Internet and at trade shows, flea markets, and conventions, Ham told McGee. They also offered unique border designs targeted mainly to African-American sororities. "After the first year the business really began to blossom and has seen continuous growth," Ham told CBB. Cultural Hangups reached a national market through agreements with Wal-Mart and Lowe's that started stocking the company's products in 2004. With these high profile relationships and their expansion into coordinated home accessories, Cultural Hangups' products garnered attention from Essence, Entrepreneur, Living Space, Kids Room, Upscale, and Homes of Color magazines.
Pleased with the success of Cultural Hangups, Ham reflected on what it had taken to realize her dream. She stressed the importance of her partners. "Steve has the accounting background. He can tell you about units, and price, and how that all comes together," she explained to CBB. "We combine that with John's strong public relations and writing skills and my design expertise." She noted that recognizing personal limitations also played an important part: "We realized that Steve and I are not salespeople!" Despite her ability to work well with her husband and Jones, Ham emphasized that success rested on much more than teamwork. "If you are interested in starting a business, you must be the best," she told CBB. "If you are not committed to that, then don't do it at all. You need to learn to use your resources because you can't be good at everything, and you must be able to communicate effectively to succeed. Also, understand that your business will change next year, and the following year and so on. You have to figure out how it will affect you, and always have a plan B."
Ham confided to CBB that the biggest surprise to come from the success of Cultural Hangups has been the number of people who recognize her on the street and compliment the company's products. "They come from various backgrounds and lifestyles," she said. With this growing appeal, the recognition of the Cultural Hangups brand name spread. To capitalize on this, Ham and her partners continually looked toward the future. "One of our goals for the future is to link with other companies who do related products, like bedding. We're looking to build relationships with Latino companies, for instance, to create products and coordinate our product line with them. And we'd love to do a prototype for a big celebrity event, maybe something with Oprah. We're always thinking. Everyday we try to think of something unique that we can do to grow our business." Ham's enthusiasm and her commitment to Cultural Hangups boded well for her continued success.
But being Cultural Hangups' "visionary," as John Ham called her in Charlotte Woman, did not consume all of Ham's energies. She also found time to give back to her community. Ham mentored young women as a life skills coach and provided young people with employment training.
At a Glance …
Born Cynthia Parker Porter in 1970(?) in Fayetteville, NC; married John Ham, 1993; children: one daughter. Education: North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, Greensboro, NC, BS, business administration and marketing.
Career: Charlotte, NC, human resources department, bank employee; Cultural Hangups, Inc., Huntersville, NC, president and CEO, 1998–.
Addresses: Office—Cultural Hangups, 6917 Sweet-field Drive, Huntersville, NC 28078; Web—www.culturalhangups.com.
Black Enterprise, November 2005, p. 59.
Charlotte Woman, February 2004, p. 22.
Entrepreneur, April 2004, p. 120.
Essence, December 2003, p. 131.
Fayetteville Observer (NC), December 28, 2003.
Jacksonville Free Press (FL), June 30-July 6, 2005, p. 10.
Cultural Hangups, www.culturalhangups.com (June 28, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Cynthia P. Ham on July 14, 2006.
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