Extraordinaries create a legacy

There’s a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit that runs through the deLeon family, one that’s powered community in Brooklyn for decades. Kai Avent-deLeon was inspired by her mother, Lisa deLeon, and her grandmother, Doreen deLeon’s own business ventures to start Sincerely, Tommy, a concept store that’s half boutique, half community space, in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Kai, Lisa, and Doreen each share how their family’s legacy of entrepreneurship has built an Extraordinary foundation that’s supported three generations and counting.

I couldn’t have started Sincerely, Tommy without my mom and grandmother. After I put the business plan together, I approached them with the idea of opening up

When I was thinking about the CONCEPT for SINCERELY, TOMMY, my MOM gave me the BEST ADVICE: Have a VISION.
— Kai Avent-deLeon

a concept space in Bed-Stuy, which didn’t yet exist in the neighborhood. In addition to emotional and financial support, they also provided me with a model of what it looks like to build something meaningful in one’s community.

My friends and I call my grandmother the mayor of Bed-Stuy. Her hard work has made Bed-Stuy what it is today. I’m so inspired by her story, how she came to this country by herself and built a real estate business from the ground up. She’s worked so hard so that myself, my cousins, and her children wouldn’t have to go through the same struggles. My mom has the same strength. She’s worked hard her whole life to provide me with a certain lifestyle. Because of her, we were able to travel a lot, which instilled in me a love of discovering new places. One of my favorite countries to go to is Mexico — Mexico City or Oaxaca — because of the beautiful pastels and textures. I love Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico for the same reason. These regions heavily influence the space and the products we sell. When I was thinking about how I wanted Sincerely, Tommy, to look and feel my mom gave me the best advice: Have a vision. I found that when I visualized the space, pulled from things that inspired me, everything came together more seamlessly.

Being Extraordinary means staying true to my vision. I try to do things that feel right and coincide with the message I’m trying to deliver, which for me, is always about being authentic. As long as I’m doing something that promotes my vision, then I feel good.
— Kai Avent-deLeon

Back when Kai was just a little pup, I owned an organic vegan juice bar and cafe in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, called Cafe Kai.

I was a bit of a pioneer at the time as there were not that many juice bars out in Brooklyn. Now, of course, they’re everywhere.

As an entrepreneur, I’m inspired by my mother. She saw potential in Bed-Stuy before anyone else did. I know, for her, what she did seems very matter of fact. Like, this is what I had to do, I didn’t have a choice. But I look at other women who were in the same situation, and they took a very different route. That’s why she’s Extraordinary: even though she faced adversity, especially as a black woman at that time, she still buckled down and did what she had to do.

My mother’s siblings, who also come from humble beginnings, have all done Extraordinary things with their lives. I often ask myself, What is it that runs through our bloodstream that makes us all take these paths? For example, when Kai expressed her interest in starting Sincerely, Tommy, my mother’s first response was, Okay, well, let’s find a building with a commercial space. She didn’t hesitate; she just jumped right in.

Same with Kai. She has this innate drive and talent. There’s this story I like to tell about her: Back when Kai was in elementary school, her dad bought her a huge chest of clothes, vintage stuff, and knock-offs. Any time her friends slept over, there was a fashion show — and Kai was the ringleader. She just threw things together without inhibition. I’m convinced that this was when she developed her eye. And now, with Sincerely, Tommy, she’s brought her vision to life in a way that’s so Extraordinary.
— Lisa deLeon

I moved to the U.S. from Grenada when I was 24. I was already married with kids by that time. I separated from my husband and then sent for my kids after four years or so. The thing with having kids is that you just know what you have to do to make life better for them. And I knew that moving to and creating a life in the U.S. was what I had to do. My sister was already living here, so she sent for me. That’s how it works: One person comes here, and then they send for the next person.

I came as a visitor, so I had a visitor’s Visa. Then I went to New York City Community College for my associate’s

KAI had a VISION. She KNEW that THINGS in that area were GOING to IMPROVE, and she was RIGHT. Her STORE is a LANDMARK in the NEIGHBORHOOD now and has INSPIRED OTHER PEOPLE to START BUSINESSES.
— Doreen deLeon

 

degree, and I had a student Visa. Then I got a permanent Visa. And then I became a citizen. I went on to work at New York University in the microbiology lab, so I was able to go to NYU for free and get my bachelor’s degree.

Even though I worked in the lab, I was never really interested in science; I’ve always been more of a liberal arts type. But I stayed working there because it was a good job and my children would be eligible for free tuition. I figured that it was an investment for their future, and I could pursue my passions after they went to college.

My real estate career started much later in life. I’d always admired the buildings in Bed-Stuy and realized there was a real market there. So I decided to become a real estate agent, and then I became a broker, selling homes to people coming from the Caribbean.

When Kai wanted to start Sincerely, Tommy, I found her a two-family building with a store on the ground floor. It was an old hardware store that was abandoned for some years. Kai saw the promise it in, and when we secured the building, she built out the whole space herself. Every time I walked in, all I did was say, wow, because she turned it into something remarkable.

Kai had a vision. She knew that things in that area were going to improve, and she was right. Her store is a landmark in the neighborhood now and has inspired other people to start businesses. Hopefully, it will be the sort of thing that continues, you know? I mean, our family is an example of that: Right here, you have three generations of women who’ve done just that.
— Doreen deLeon