Ivy Lawson never imagined she would open a business in Boston’s North End.
Born in Jamaica and raised in Hyde Park, she said that as a kid growing up in Boston she knew that the city’s Italian neighborhood wasn’t considered a place where she was welcome.
She recalled that as a teen in the ’70s, during the years of Boston’s busing crisis, she would stand across from the neighborhood with one of her friends, who was Italian.
“Of course the Rose Kennedy Greenway wasn’t there, Haymarket wasn’t the same, but we used to stand on the other side,” Lawson said. “And me, being a black person, she would run and get us pizza slices and go back. I remember that as teenagers we used to do that. We didn’t come to this section of the North End. You just didn’t, because it wasn’t, like, allowable.”
But yet decades later, on Nov. 19, she opened a storefront for her business, Ivyees “Everything Honey,” on a corner of Salem Street.
Seated inside the bright space on Thursday, amidst the festive pine smell of fresh holiday wreaths and her colorful bottles of shampoo and conditioner made with raw honey, Lawson said the significance of being the first person of color to open a business in the North End is not lost on her, acknowledging right away with a laugh that she’s “a pioneer.”
But that’s not what she set out to be when she started her company, and it’s certainly not what she planned for when she started looking for a space in Boston to open a brick-and-mortar location to sell the honey products she has spent years developing, she said.
“This is a weird feeling for me because it wasn’t purposefully saying, ‘I’m going to get into that space,’” Lawson said. “I just liked what I saw. And changes are good, and, if I’m part of that change and pioneering that change, hey, why not? I’ll take it.”
Lawson’s family moved to Boston when she was a small child, the eighth of 10 children. She praised her parents, married 67 years before they both passed away, for the world view they shaped in their children.
“One thing they instilled in us is to be able to have your own mind, if you see something wrong, try to correct it — don’t complain,” the business owner said.
She went to school and became an engineer, working for Raytheon for about 10 years and then IBM for another eight or nine. But her interest in natural products was piqued when she started her own family and her oldest son developed allergies to food and other products.
“I started reading labels, and it was shocking to me how much chemicals are in the food that we’re eating and what we’re using on our skin,” Lawson said.
The real turning point for her and her family occurred when she was on a trip to New York City in the late ‘90s, encountering stopped traffic near the Lincoln Tunnel because a white powder had spilled in the roadway. People dressed in hazmat suits were passing out masks.
When she asked one of them what spilled and was told it was an ingredient for one of the major toothpaste companies, she was shocked. When she got home, she immediately started creating her own tooth-cleaning mixtures for herself and her family.
“That was always in the back of my mind,” Lawson said. “Fast forward to a few months later, I was speaking to an entrepreneur and I was talking to him about what I could do to live a healthier life. And he said, ‘You should be an entrepreneur.’ And I didn’t even know what it meant to be an entrepreneur because nobody in my family had ever taken that route.”
It wasn’t till about seven years later, when an infestation of bees shut down the heating system of her Westford home with a flood of honey, that a new career path rooted in natural products started to emerge. She tried raw honey for the first time that week and also discovered the card from the entrepreneur she’d spoken with years earlier while packing up her home. She gave him a call. She was ready to leave her work in corporate America.
“I said, ‘I think I want to continue developing some natural products to use,’” Lawson said. “And he said, ‘Oh that’s funny — do you like honey?’ And I thought it was the weirdest conversation, because I was like, ‘Yeah, well I just tried raw honey and it was good.’”
It turned out that he had bee farmers in Jamaica who were looking for him to invest, and Lawson volunteered to go down and do a feasibility study. Within a few months of her visit, she decided to move there full time with her family and start her own honey business with her own hives in 2008.
“I say to people the universe just aligned itself, and I didn’t flout it, I just followed it,” Lawson said. “I didn’t resist. I just kind of followed it and said, ‘OK, this might be a sign for me to do it.’ Because I was not a honey person, and I didn’t know anything about bees.”
For the first five years of her business, she just focused on selling her own raw honey, which she called “Ivyees,” eventually getting her jars picked up by Whole Foods in 2011 where they continue to be sold in the company’s North Atlantic region.
Over the years, she’d also begun developing her own products derived from raw honey, starting with creating a face wash and moving on to other skin care treatments, shampoo, conditioner, and — eventually — her own toothpaste.
It contains honey, miswak (an ingredient introduced to her by a Jamaican woman in her 80s with “amazing” teeth), olive oil, and cinnamon.
“I just centered everything around raw honey,” Lawson said. “That was one of the ingredients that I wanted to work with, and I just started adding other natural ingredients and just kept developing. So my house became a big lab basically.”
As her business grew, she worked with dermatologists and chemists to refine the goods she was having produced on a larger scale.
“I was adamant about not putting any harsh chemicals in what I develop,” Lawson said. “[Consultants] would give me chemical names and I would research and see what’s a good substitute that’s natural for this. And it took a lot of digging — a lot of library time — to find what people used to use before we developed all this synthetic and all this harsh chemicals to add to our products.”
All of the treatments and the ingredients used in her products have been thoroughly tested and have an FDA sign off, she said.
“That was important to me because I wanted to make sure that what I was selling was fool proof,” Lawson said. “A lot of people do natural set products and they don’t even know what they’re developing. And because there’s not a lot of testing done on it, it could be just as dangerous as using harsh chemicals if it’s not formulated correctly.”
‘Skin is skin’
Lawson moved back to the U.S. in 2011 to continue to grow her business. In addition to the relationships she built with Jamaican apiaries, she now works with bee farmers in Belize, Guyana, Grenada, Puerto Rico, and Greece. All her face care, which is made with the unique Manuka honey, is produced in New Zealand.
She estimates that about 70 percent of her customers are repeat buyers. And while she found her company was doing well with wholesale, selling on Amazon and picking up interest from other big retailers about putting Ivyees on their shelves, she felt something was missing.
Lawson described herself as customer-driven, emphasizing that she’s really only just wanted to make good products and share them with others.
“This was a risk for me to take and say, ‘Let me open a brick-and-mortar,’” Lawson said. “But I wanted all the products to be in one spot, so I can tell people about it and they can use it.”
She’d always wanted to open a space in Boston, and in June she started looking for a new home for Ivyees.
In August, she was first shown the space at 120 Salem St. in the North End. She came back afterward and parked outside for an hour, just watching the foot traffic, to see if her vision for her shop would fit in the neighborhood.
It was lovely, she realized.
“What I saw was people having conversations, people who looked like they were satisfied with their meal they’d eaten,” she said. “And people who were all different kinds of people.”
She decided to go for it.
She got a loan from the city, and Mayor Marty Walsh attended a ribbon cutting for the business on Nov. 29.
“It’s great to see women-owned, person-of-color-owned, small businesses thriving all across our city,” Walsh said in an emailed statement to Boston.com. “This business was built from ground up. Everything Honey reflects the work ethic and spirit of this community—and of its owner. Ivy is a role model for how following your passion brings success, and we are thrilled to welcome her to the North End.”
Lawson said moving in, she wasn’t concerned about any potential lingering attitudes that she’d experienced with the neighborhood as a teen.
“I wasn’t nervous about that,” she said. “I am concerned that Boston is not as inclusive because we try, as African Americans, black people, we try in this city. And it needs to be more inclusive. It needs to be more accepting.”
Boston’s city limits, she pointed out, don’t stop with downtown and Beacon Hill. Hyde Park, Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Charlestown, and East Boston are all unique, she said, and shouldn’t be excluded. Because at the end of the day, diversity works, she said.
“That’s the message that I’m trying — I’m not trying to be anybody’s hero or anybody’s pioneer, but I just think that I’ve seen it,” Lawson said. “I’ve seen racism in Boston like crazy. But it is what it is, and you try to do your best to be a good person. And I’m selling products for everyone. I sell products for everyone. Skin is skin.”
Lawson hopes to open more locations, maybe even in other cities, but in the meantime she isn’t afraid to take things slow. Continuing to test and develop new offerings without straying from her core of a grassroots approach to providing her customers with products made with raw honey.
Never in a “million years” did she think she would end up where she is today with her wholesale opportunities and storefront, she said. She just wanted to make a change in her life, and made the products she knew she wanted for herself and her family.
It’s an approach that she said she now shares with the young people she’s mentoring. If you have an idea for something that will solve a problem or make your own and somebody else’s life better, go for it.
Don’t be afraid to fail, and, she said, don’t be afraid of owning what you create.
“I love it when young people have that entrepreneurial spirit because I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was at 19, 20,” Lawson said. “Even when I had my first son, I didn’t know what being an entrepreneur was. I knew he was allergic to stuff and I was spending hours looking at labels, but I didn’t know how to say, ‘Well let me solve this problem because we’re eating way too much chemicals.’ I would have started this business 20 years earlier if I understood what it was.”