MISHAWAKA — Zion Bradford is an entrepreneur with big plans.
“My goal is to have over 30 kiosks spread throughout the United States, and to have a franchise of my business,” said the 22-year-old owner of the body care products company Yoni Jay, LLC.
She also acknowledges the humble beginnings of her dream.
“As a kid, I liked making stuff in the bath tub, putting lotions together or making concoctions,” she said.
Now, she sells her soaps, lotions and body butter products online and at a kiosk at University Park Mall.
Aside from enjoying experimentation as a kid, there was a more immediate and personal impetus for it.
“My family comes from having very bad skin, really bad acne and eczema,” Bradford said.
Growing up, she tried it all: products prescribed by doctors, products marketed on television and products found on store shelves, all billed as cures for those conditions. But she didn’t like any of them.
“I tried it, I’ve tried a lot of stuff, even like the doctors’ prescriptions,” she said. “But a lot of the products I tried either smelled gross or made my skin feel more itchy than it already was.”
Making her own products required a great deal of trial and error, she said. “It’s not going to take a day or two to make certain products. It’s not going to take a day or two to make soaps.”
Fortunately, she took the messages she received from her father, Terrance Bradford, to heart.
Her dad, an engineer himself, always made sure his daughter heard positive messages when she was a little girl.
“When she was a kid, I got her a computer, and I was traveling, so I would record my voice saying things like ‘you’re an awesome child,’ ‘you’re beautiful,’ ‘you’re smart,’ ‘you’re intelligent,'” Terrance Bradford said. “So, when she played with that computer, she heard all of those affirmations.”
Zion’s father also encouraged her to build her own fortune by working for herself. The elder Bradford noted Zion comes from a long line of women entrepreneurs, noting her grandmother and great-grandmother started their own businesses.
He also warned her the road would not be easy.
“She saw her dad going to places like China and Mexico for work, but she didn’t see what it took to get there,” he said. “I had to explain that you have to work hard in the things that you do, and you have to find something you are passionate about, and she became passionate about making these products.”
It took a while for Zion to find her niche, she said. She loved watching her father make things, but decided she didn’t want to be an engineer. She thought about going into the medical field, but she soon realized she faced a major hurdle.
“I passed out at the sight of blood,” she said.
So she shifted gears.
“I’ve always loved plants, even as a little girl,” she said. “I used to rip my Barbie’s heads off and put plants in there, so I would take the head off and have an actual plant in there.
“My mom thought I was bad, but I wasn’t bad. I just loved plants.”
Plants and herbs became a part of Zion’s body product experimentation. The learning curve was steep. Zion said her first attempts at making skin products started when she was 18 years old. The 2017 Riley High School graduate said that she did not like those first batches. So she started reading books on skin conditions like eczema, as well as books on botany.
“I start from the basic, and then I put together a formula, and after I put together a formula I try to make it,” Zion said. “Then I tweak the formula if it doesn’t come out right.”
Once she’s satisfied with a product, she lets family members and friends try them.
Bradford launched her business, Yoni Jay, in 2020, right around the time that COVID was spreading and forcing the mall to close. Still, she went up to the mall and asked if anyone had a kiosk that sold soaps.
“They said no, so I said I will do it,” she said.
Even though Bradford opened the kiosk during the pandemic, she said the closing of the mall during the height of the pandemic did not hurt her business.
Kaelyn Walker, a friend who works at the kiosk, said that in many ways the pandemic only drove home the importance of business ownership.
“The pandemic showed us we can’t really rely on a job, and you can’t really rely on other people,” Walker said. “So, why not do for yourself to provide for yourself and your family?
“We took off during the pandemic, honestly.”
Business has been brisk recently, particularly on weekends. “We sell out pretty much almost every day,” Bradford said.
That means she spends much time working on developing her business. Her days begin early in the morning when she goes to her warehouse to make new items.
“I wake up at 6, go to my warehouse and make stuff,” she said. “I tell Kaelyn everything we need for the next day, and I bring what we need after I make it.
“We get to the booth and get straight to work.”
Her father is unsurprised by his daughter’s grind, but he is very impressed.
“She’s definitely working at it,” he said. “She doesn’t sleep; I’ll tell you that.”
Email South Bend Tribune reporter Howard Dukes at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @DukesHoward