As Black and Brown people here in the United States of America, and quite frankly, in the world, we must understand the importance of creating our own “seat” at the proverbial table. We must empower ourselves to create spaces where we can have a positive impact on our communities, recognizing unmet needs. Jason Panda has an acute awareness of this fact and I had the pleasure of speaking with him about this and his journey towards entrepreneurship.
Leslie: Can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
Jason: My name is Jason Panda. I am the founder and owner of B Condoms. We are the only African American owned condom company in the United States. We have been around for about nine years. One of the things that we do is to not only keep people healthy, but we want to be able to educate and move the community forward in terms of eliminating both health disparity that you find among HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy and other areas; all while keeping you safe.
Leslie: Thank you, I really appreciate that. The fact that you are the only company, that is African American owned, who is concerned about the consumers. A lot of people out here just produce something just to “cash out” on the benefits of selling something to all of us.
Jason: I appreciate it. I think on that side a lot of times and part of the reason that I started this company; I was a lawyer before, but I hated law. But one of the reasons that I started the company was that there are times when you hear people on television or in marketing talking about HIV/AIDS or talking about STD’s and they are always using “coded” words towards Black people. So, when I thought about it, I realized that everybody kind of naturally aligns with Magnum; like everything is Magnum this, Magnum that and I recognized that that was their own way of making it. But Magnum did not employ anyone from our community. Magnum is not really moving our community forward and a lot of us complain about Magnum because they smell bad and they do not have any other features. They just don’t rock with what we genuinely like. So, I came up with this, if we already own nightlife, our own music, liquor, clothing; why don’t we own the condoms that we have sex with? Especially if you look at the disproportionate impact in terms of how it affects our community, right? So, because that was important, I thought why don’t we have our own brand; why don’t we have a seat at the table so that we can ensure that the product that we are putting out in our communities is better than what is already available?
So, our products are vegan friendly. We use all-natural thin organic latex, which is sensitive to those who may have allergies to latex products. Our latex rubber is odor-less, and our lubricant is a lot easier on female bodies too. So, when we combine that whole experience not only can we compete from a consumer side, because we understand the culture because it is our culture but from the product side as well; we are making sure that whatever we are going to put into our community will be just as good, if not better than what is already available.
Leslie: Can you tell us who your mentors/inspirations were as you were growing up and how did they impact you?
Jason: My picks may be a little different because I can be a little unique in some ways. I will mix it up between two people who I have never met but would love to meet; kind of like who influences me in terms of what I would like to do in order to create impact and then it would be two people at I have known.
So, the two people that I have never met that I would love to meet because of what they were able to do and how they were able to do it; the first one is a gentleman by the name of Paul Cuffe and anybody that has never heard of him should Google him. He was around during the 1900’s and he was not only one of the richest people in the United States, but he was also the richest Black man in the United States. He controlled all product global distribution to all the Black areas in the United States. He owned his own line of cargo ships which he used to control trade within the Black communities throughout the diaspora; to Blacks in the United Kingdom, to Blacks in the United States, to Blacks in the Caribbean; with those massive cargo ships. He controlled all the goods and he also hired an all-Black staff.
He was also the first Black man to walk through the front door of the White House and if you really research him (I have always said that if I ever make enough money, I would finance the story of his life) because I think that it is so powerful. One of the things that he said was, regardless of how wealthy we become as Blacks, we will never have a seat at the table if we do not have our own. He was one of the first to try to do what Marcus Garvey, with the all Black freight liner; where he wanted to use cargo ships to repatriate Blacks to Sierra Leone; in the hope that we would be able to build our own kingdom. So, he is one of the people who stick out in my mind who has always inspired me with what he was able to do with his own wealth and his own power.
I think second, would be Malcolm X. I have always been aligned with; you must have your own…your own. You can never be in a position where your ability to eat, your ability to take care of your own is dependent upon somebody else. So, even though I do believe in indignation and that whole type of thing, I have always believed that we have to take care of our own and that through us being able to have our own seat at the table and being able to speak for one another and to uplift each other, together community-wide, we will be able to grow. I do not believe that there will be any growth without us being able to grow together and I think if you look at our history and people talk about “talented ten” or this or that ; it is basically a way that the masses are withheld, while only a select few are able to make it through those gates of opportunity.
My parents have also influenced me. My mother used to run the largest detox and transitional care facility for drug addicts here in Massachusetts, where I grew up. She had a primarily all-Black staff and this facility was one of the best run in the state. She was able to provide opportunities to people that generally did not have opportunities. I learned from her the power of providing opportunities to those from within the community; people who made mistakes that others would not have looked past but also how you can run your own organization and be your own person; you could be your own man.
My father did not have a lot of traditional education and yet, he is the smartest person that I know. He taught me the importance of perseverance. He said that if you knock at the door and it does not open, then bang on it, if it still does not open then kick it and if that does not work then start running into it; eventually the door will open. So, your efforts may not pay off overnight but that was his motto in terms of how to be successful. He has a 9th grade education but was able to teach me physics in college; completely self-taught. So, when I combine all of that and think about my perspective in terms of why I feel the way that I do; I believe in higher education, but it is not the end all be all. I mean when the smartest person that you ever met never went to college; that says a lot. So, these four individuals have the biggest influence on me in terms of my outlook on life and my outlook on opportunity.
Leslie: Wow, that was very well said. I will have to google Paul Cuffe. To see that your parents had such a big impact on your life, to inspire everything that you are doing nowadays, is beautiful.
Jason: Yes, a lot of times we may not have the money to be able to do it all. We might have the experience and everything else but to know that there is someone that is just a phone call away…makes a difference. Sometimes, people may want to question whether they are doing things in the right way. I think that if you “do it” you must do it with good intentions because everybody makes mistakes, no one is perfect. My parents were always big on asking; what is plan B? If you know that you hate where you are at then what are you going to do about it? You must persevere and move on until you figure it out. It is better to take the longer approach to end up where you want to be then it is to be short sided in your approach and end up miserable. From that perspective, they have always been my biggest supporters.
Leslie: When did you realize that you had a passion for entrepreneurship?
Jason: All my life (laughs). Anyone who knew me would know that corporate was not for me. I think that I worked a corporate job for about 2 to 3 years of my life, maybe. I hustled year after year as I figured things out; wondering what my lane would be. I just knew that I wanted to control my own future and that was very important to me. I used to watch as my friends’ fathers would work 20-30 years at a company and then they would get laid off just before they were to retire. Growing up, you would see the experiences of your parents who were constantly being overlooked for job opportunities for no reason of their own; whether it was because of the color of their skin or because they were in an environment that was not conducive to their skill set. So, I realized that I was either going to walk down that same path or be a part of the few that get that opportunity or I would just create my own; where at least you know, whether you win or lose, it is going to be on your own merit. That is why I ended up with this type of lifestyle.
Leslie: That’s cool. I can appreciate that you pave your own path and you are a success because that is how much effort you are putting into it. You are not putting any limitations on yourself.
Jason: The hardest part of this lifestyle is creating the baseline and I am fortunate. To go back to the condom brand, we were successful, dealing with different governments. Governments are good, outside of the Coronavirus situation where everyone is scrambling. But governments were good in that you may be able to get more security and what happens in a situation where you start your business; people may go out and get office space and then they run out of money quickly because we are under capitalized in our communities. We do not get bank loans; by far it is more difficult to access a bank loan than it is for a house loan or a student loan. As a result, building an economic pathway is more challenging and it’s not that we do not have people who would like to become entrepreneurs, but the level of difficulty is much greater for our community. We do not have access to the capital.
So, that’s another reason why it takes longer to build because we need that foundation or what will happen is, that six months down the road, you will run out of money and then you are back to working a corporate job. I am big on government because at least with government you can get some semblance of stability; like you might be able to get a 3-year contract or maybe even a 5- year contract. At least when you get that contract, you have a foundation which is what I think all of us needs in terms of finally being able to compete in a space that is important to us.
Leslie: After graduating from college, you set out on a different career path. What inspired you to create B Condoms?
Jason: Here is what inspired me; as an undergraduate, I was a Bio major and then I thought that I wanted to be a doctor at one point; but then I saw blood and I was like, oh yeah that’s not going to work (they both laugh). So, what ended up happening was I was dating a girl who was going to law school and she was like, you know you could make a lot of money. You could do patent law…this, that and the other. So, I took the LSAT and did very well and so I thought maybe I am supposed to be a lawyer; but then I went to law school and I hated it. I realized that it was not for me. At this point, I joined a firm and I was making good money, but I hated my lifestyle. I felt like the walls were caving in on me every day. Because of my experience, I wanted to build a business that would focus on the community. So, I looked at two things; caskets and condoms. My reason for this was because I figured that in our community there are always Black funeral homeowners, so we could always go to them. I would be able to build a business that was insular to the racism and everything else that they deal with and then the other was condoms. It is like what I mentioned earlier, we already own nightlife, we have all these other things, but no one owns the brand; the condom brand that people are using. Because of capital requirements and everything else that is what led me to condoms. It was good for me because of my background; my mother worked in public health. Some of the community organizations that were working with governments was something that I had exposure to; not directly, like from a career perspective but that was all that my mother talked about every day; what it was like working in the community, working with people of color; working with us Black folk.
It was a comfortable environment and then I realized that if you had a job that you were comfortable with and then you could build a team that respects each other, that’s all you need. No one minds having to go to work but you just want to be comfortable. You just want to be cool and to have the freedom to be you; to have a good lifestyle, that is all that matters at the end of the day. Let me make my money, I do not want to deal with any stress and heaviness and let me be me.
Leslie: I get it! I completely get it. My aunt owns a funeral home in Atlanta. It makes sense that when deciding between these two businesses, that you would choose condoms. Reproduction is a part of life; we all do it. Why not make sure to have a company that looks out for us and out well-being; our reproductive health, that is the way to go.
Jason: You will have longevity too because it is not something that will (as other things do), come and go. People are always going to be having sex. Our business may be impacted a little bit because of Covid-19, but once this phase balances off we are still going to be here, and we already have our earlier work. So, that is why I always like to say, look long term and don’t focus on the immediate, because fast money will leave fast; with those quick opportunities you will make it quick and it will be gone just as quick. You do not want to be in a position where you make money fast and then you look up and you have nothing to show for it.
Leslie: Once you created your company, what were your short/long term goals?
Jason: Short term goal was to be able to survive (laughs). When I first started, I was working out of my apartment. I was on the Master P model (they both laugh). I was living in my apartment which was the warehouse and no one owned a car (because in NY you don’t really need one), so when I was selling, I was getting on the subway with packs of condoms trying to go and meet the community orders.
So, when people talk about starting from the bottom, that’s what it was. I had money in the bank because of my savings from my days as a lawyer. But how do you build a business that will pay the rent? After that, once we saw the opportunity then it became how do you validate that there is a market and then make it an actual business? I did not have experience importing from overseas. I did not have any experience with selling and distribution into retail and everyone that I knew went to Walmart or Walgreens where they purchased their stuff but how many people do you know that got a check from it?
So, that is a different part of the game. Similar to what we were talking about with all the other challenges, if you do not know anyone that has gone through this, how are you going to learn? You are going to make mistakes doing it, right? Your presentation may not be what they expect. The wording that you use may not be what they expect. What happens is that these are a part of the challenges that you encounter; you are doing a lot of things for the first time and you are learning as you go. As long as you can appreciate that it will not be overnight success and that these things take a little bit of time; then when all the pieces come together you are a lot stronger because you already knew what would work and what wouldn’t work. So, then you have a better idea as to what your needs are versus what you can do yourself.
Leslie: Trust me, the path of entrepreneurship is, especially if we do not have someone there to guide us; who is doing the same things that you are doing or with the same mindset that has done it and is prospering in that field, you will be sitting on your butt for quite some time.
Jason: Yes, it takes time. You need to learn how to maneuver around the sharks. The only thing is, you have to really own your dream; because people will come by and say, yeah, I will do this for you, but I want 10 percent, I want 5 percent. That is not going to be true when it gets heavy. So, it is almost better to say, alright, I will not be able to get your help; you will have to google it and learn it on your own; as opposed to allowing people to chip away at your dream. The only people that will have experience is someone that has done it. If you want a P.R. company, you may want to deal with someone who has already built a massive P.R. company can help you but somebody that’s in products like me, I may be able to give you a little bit of guidance but I cannot tell you about products, I cannot tell you about P.R. because everything is always in the details. No matter what you want to do, everything is always in the details, and the details are always category or industry specific. So, that’s the part to make sure.
Leslie: Making sure that it all lines up. Can you tell us what separates your condoms from the other brands?
Jason: Oh yeah, I like these types of questions (they both laugh). I think that what separates us is that we have the big three: 1. We are the only one that is focused on the African American community. We measure how big of an impact that we have based on what we have been able to do in the community. So, on that part, community is number one. We are from the culture, for the culture and we care about moving the culture forward. Part 2 is the product. What I was saying earlier is that we use all-natural rubber latex. Our condoms are vegan; they are organic. We run them a little bit larger, they are odorless. We use long lasting lubricant and all our condom product investments are so that when people from our community use our product; use our condoms, they experience better sex. At the end of the day, it is kind of like any other thing, right? Why would Kobe wear Air-Jordan’s versus some cheap off the shelf brand? If you use a better sneaker, you can perform better, right? One of the things that a lot of people may have overlooked is, if you invest more in the condom, you will get a better sexual experience.
You cannot use cheap condoms and expect a 5-star experience. The woman may not have enjoyed it as much; the man may not have enjoyed it as much and a lot of times men complain because sometimes it actually is the condom (laughs), so you have to invest. You cannot expect a Maserati paying Toyota prices. So, from a product perspective that is number two. Number 3 it’s just who we are. I am a strong believer in making sure that as Black people we have a seat at the table. We are the only ones trying to make this case to the broader community. Both from a community perspective as well as from a marketing and branding perspective. That is what differentiates us from the other brands. If you look at Trojan or Lifestyles; none of them hire Black people.
We are talking about 2020 and these folks cannot put one person in front of you outside of somebody that they are going to pay for a quick marketing shoot as a person of color. How many people are you employing? How much of that money that you are taking from the community is going back to the community? I think that these are the types of discussions that we should be pushing to the forefront to challenge them and be like Yo! We can do it on our own and that is part of the reason that we are doing it. We are not a multi-billion conglomerate. These types of things of matter; as much as people may want to look at it, if you have kids, who is going to hire your children? Who is going to help your kid learn the experiences and have a template for what they want to do with their future? These are key items that we need to look at, in terms of who we support. So, that is the third reason why I think that we are different.
Leslie: How many different styles of condoms does your brand produce?
Jason: So, right now, twelve. We only have two for consumers right now. One of the things that happens which is something that I mentioned earlier, is that we starting off by focusing on government, right? That was so that we could create a foundation for the company. So, for government, we offer everything; ultra-sensitive, thin, ribbed, tropical flavors, tropical colors; basically, you name the condom type, we offer it. So, any community organization, any non-profit; any government that is all the types that they buy. The regular retail customers, we have two types; platinum extra-large; which is our competitor against the Magnum. Why go with gold when you can have platinum? The branding side is key. Gold has never been as good as platinum. We also have our classic; which is our standard lubricating condom as well. So, those are the two brands that people can buy. You can find them on Amazon and on Bcondoms.com right now. We are working to moving to retail later.
Leslie: Does your condoms negatively affect the PH balance, causing yeast infections like most other brands?
Jason: No, not at all. One thing about our condoms which is something that I spoke about before was our product features. We are vegan friendly, its organic, all-natural, our long-lasting lubricating condoms; all these combined are more sensitive in terms of impacting a woman’s body. That was important for us as well; not only from the product side but from the experience side too.
Leslie: I am glad that I asked, and I got a definite answer (laughs). Ok, so my last question is: What great words of wisdom and advice can you offer our aspiring entrepreneurs and readers?
Jason: The biggest piece of advice that I would recommend is to understand that it is going to take perseverance and patience. I do not think that a lot of us were made to understand that it does take time. I think that a lot of times people want to go and do something and they are expecting to be profitable in like two months, maybe three and everything is going to turn around that quickly and unfortunately, it does not work like that. So, I think that the more that we give people an honest expectation, because at least that would give people a benchmark. If you do not get the growth, funding or the relationship; you do not get too down on yourself. You just realize that it is going to take time. There are unique challenges when it comes to product companies, but it is important to let people know that they must persevere. It is not going to be easy. It will keep you up at night and you will be questioning yourself about what you are doing but if this is what you want then you got to be patient with it. Also, allow the business to take on what it is meant to be. I compare business sometimes to parenting. There are some parents who want their kids to be a doctor, some parents that want their kid to be an artist, but you have to let your kid be who they are going to be. So, people need to look at business in the same way. Initially, I did not think government was going to be good for us, but it turned out that it worked well for us. It was the best route before branching out into retail. Listen to your business, find out who your early adopters are; who is going to support you. That allows you to build that foundation that I like to talk about and position yourself accordingly.
Jason: Yes, listen to who your early adopters are going to be. The people will tell you. Initially, we were trying to go mainstream and then we looked at who was supporting us and it was Black people but you are almost trained to think a lot of times that you have to have an open brand that speaks to everybody; no! If Black people are paying you then do what is right for your people. You need to realize who is going to be there for you when the going gets tough. That is what I strongly believe. So, follow it and it will show you the way.
Leslie: Thank you so much for your time.