April 25, 2024

Women’s Month Spotlight: Harlem’s Own, DarDra Coaxum

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There is something about being a New York City native that breeds pride in where you come from and informs the things that you do. DarDra Coaxum, co-owner of both the restaurant Harlem Shake and HRLM Champagne, has always kept her neighborhood at the forefront.

DarDra’s father, Dard Coaxum, a renowned restaurateur in Harlem, couldn’t make an important business meeting concerning Harlem Shake in 2013. He then introduced DarDra to Harlem Shake’s founder, Jelena Pasic, leading to DarDra attending in her father’s place. The meeting was a success and Jelena and DarDra hit it off, with DarDra becoming a co-owner and investor in the soon-to-be neighborhood mainstay. As it comes to Harlem Shake, she has done it all, from interior design to social media, applying all of her skills and experience to making the restaurant as big as it can be.

DarDra would later start HRLM Champagne in 2020, created on the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance. The champagne intends to celebrate the luxury and cultural impact of Harlem’s past, present, and future. With DarDra as co-owner and CEO, HRLM Champagne has a bright future, along with a steadfast commitment to showing Harlem in its best light.

For Women’s History Month, we’re shining a light on DarDra Coaxum’s inspirational story and her full-fledged dedication to her Harlem neighborhood.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Okayplayer: What inspired you to start HRLM Champagne?

DarDra Coaxum: My father started a clothing line called Harlem American. The clothing line took off, everybody in Harlem was wearing it, and people that were not even in Harlem were wearing it. After the clothing line was established, we had this idea of going into the line of spirits, specifically champagne because champagne is seen as more elegant. Our goal is to always represent Harlem in the best way, so one slogan that we say is: “It takes courage to turn your heritage into a lifestyle.” And that’s exactly what we were doing with HRLM Champagne. [It] was launched during the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance and that was done intentionally because that’s essentially what we’re doing and want to continue the legacy. I think a lot of people that are not from here love Harlem, but you turn on the news “Oh there was a shooting or a robbery,” I think some people just kind of zoned in on that, rather than focusing on all of the wonderful things that our community is made of.

What is your role in Harlem Shake and HRLM Champagne?

I am the CEO and co-owner of HRLM Champagne. With Harlem Shake, I am an investor and co-owner and I’m also the interior designer. I started Harlem Shake by being the co-owner and this was when Instagram first launched. I was like, “Okay, we need an Instagram page,” so I started doing Harlem Shake’s social media. Everybody else is like 10 to 15 years my senior, so I was the only one who knew about Instagram and Facebook and all that stuff. I used that to my advantage and started pumping out content as frequently as I could. [Being an influencer] has given me so much more brand outreach [for] Harlem Shake and HRLM Champagne.

What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way?

It’s all unfamiliar territory to me — these are businesses that I am doing for the first time. You learn as you go, and I learned that rejection is just redirection. Just because something goes wrong doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world. So I think the difficulties I’ve dealt with are just adjusting to change, constantly being able to adjust. The same formula that you had five years ago might not work today and it’s okay to change that. It’s okay to be like, “This ain’t working no more” or “Let me call a friend who has done this before” so that I could restructure whatever it is and I’m working on.

What was a difficult moment in your career you’ve had to overcome?

During the pandemic, we didn’t know we were going to make it out of that with Harlem Shake. So rather than having all of our employees there all the time, we cut back on the employees. HRLM Champagne launched during the midst of the pandemic and we’re like, “Well, how are we going to promote these events?” You know, we had to change everything to adjust to what was to come.

How would you describe your overall experience as a business owner, so far?

This is tough to answer because one I’m an only child, and two, I’m a Capricorn, so I am always striving for the next thing. The one thing that you have to remind yourself is to be present, to celebrate your accomplishments no matter how big or small they are. So I would think that I’ve done a very good job at remaining true to myself, which I think is probably the most important thing that you have to do. In a world where there’s Instagram and TikTok and so many other places where you can compare yourself to other people’s journey, it’s such a waste of time. All you can do is measure your success to who you were the day before and who you [were] last year. I’m just getting better with time and I think my business is my business as well; I just hope to continue to do that. I’m proud of myself, but I still got a lot of work to do

What advice would you offer to other women in business?

Remember to take care of yourself, your mental state is what’s most important when running this business. People say things like “I don’t sleep, it’s all about the grind.” I’m not about that life, I am all about: you work hard, you play hard too. The other thing I would say is listen to your elders — you would be surprised how far you can get from just outsourcing or getting a mentor. You know, I’m fortunate enough to have come from a family of entrepreneurs where I can just go downstairs and ask my grandpa, “Hey Papa, I don’t know what to do here.” If you don’t have that, find some women that are doing the things you want to do and ask for help. When I was in my 20s, I was very hard-headed, I thought I knew everything. I was very smart but there was still a lot more that I needed to learn.

One more part that I want to mention is patience. You have to be patient if you are starting a business or a project, just because you’ve done it for two years doesn’t mean anything. Keep going, if you believe in yourself and whatever it is that you’re doing, you will be successful. HRLM Champagne was launched in 2020, that was four years ago. Do I want to be super successful right now? Yes. Do I want to see my champagne in every store and every video and movie etc., of course I do. But if you look at businesses like Veuve Cliquot, those empires have been here for 100-plus years. That’s nothing in comparison to four years, so I have no choice but to be patient and I think with my patience will come more success.

What’s next for Harlem Shake and HRLM Champagne?

Right now we’re pushing for Harlem Shake to be a franchise. So if anybody wants to open their own Harlem Shake in another state, they can. As far as HRLM Champagne, the story is kind of similar. I mean, I would love to see our champagne be a household name and be everyone’s first choice for their champagne, but also at the end of the day, keep in mind we’re doing this for Harlem; I’m always going to look out for Harlem first. So right now, we’re working on some projects for the spring and summer, in some local places. We’re going to start a brunch in the spring at La Diagonal, which is a restaurant here in Harlem. Harlem Shake also carries Harlem champagne, you know. We get asked to do a lot of sponsorship across New York City, but the places that I’m always going to go with first are the places that are in Harlem unless there’s a Black woman who’s doing something similar to me.

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