Yolanda Owens, a driven entrepreneur with a strong social conscience, dies

Yolanda Owens

Credit: Contributed photo

Credit: Contributed photo

Yolanda Owens

Yolanda Owens built her business from the ground up, pulling fruits and vegetables from the earth to create an array of health and skin care products inspired by the grandmother she called the “Home Remedy Queen.”

Owens sought to inspire “little brown girls” in the same way as she encouraged them to believe in themselves and to bravely follow their dreams.

“I want the little girls to know that they can do it and they can be just like me,” Owens told Scott Shigeoka, who interviewed her in 2020 for “Made in America,” a GoDaddy series about successful entrepreneurs that aired on YouTube.

Owens died of colon cancer on January 11. She was 57. She left behind loved ones and her family-run business, iwi fresh, which she built from a dream and a cashed-out 401(K) after leaving a comfortable six-figure corporate job in 2003.

Yolanda Owens

Credit: Contributed Ph

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Credit: Contributed Ph

Friends, family members and business associates all described Owens as a driven entrepreneur with a strong social conscience, a woman who dared to risk everything and never gave up. That’s even when faced with the prospect of losing her natural skin care and spa services business to a potentially career-crushing pandemic and the possibility of her own demise to cancer. Owens, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2019, battled both at the same time. Those close to Owens said that if she was afraid of financial ruin or her own death, she largely kept it to herself.

“She was fearless,” said Owens’ daughter, Maya Johnson. “She took things day by day, and we were with her on that journey.”

Owens’ journey started in Atlanta, where, excluding college and her early career, she spent her whole life. She grew up in the Adamsville neighborhood in the city’s southwest, playing kickball in the street and pursuing a variety of creative interests, including dancing and drawing. But it was her summer visits to Shreveport, Louisiana, to see her grandmother, Cosata Blackmon, called “Mother” by everyone, that left the biggest impression on Owens. Those experiences ultimately led Owens to an entrepreneurial career.

Owens felt drawn to her grandmother’s wild and eclectic garden, where all the growing things weren’t arranged in neat rows. From that garden, Blackmon treated Owens’ childhood eczema by bathing her in a mixture of onions, garlic and collard greens. And when the Charles Lincoln Harper High School graduate went to college – first Tuskegee University and then Albany State University – Blackmon would send her care packages containing natural skin treatments she’d prepared out of fruits and vegetables from the backyard.

It took many years, however, for Owens to return to the roots planted by her grandmother. Persuaded by her parents to pursue a sensible career path, Owens, who went to college on a mathematics scholarship, pursued a degree in computer science engineering and graduated from Albany State University. She then followed a corporate career path, first with IBM in Dallas, and later at Home Depot and SunTrust Bank in Atlanta.

Over time, however, Owens felt pulled in a different direction. She left SunTrust to develop her fledgling new company. Owens branded it with the rough acronym “I-W-I,” which stands for a favorite slogan: “it is what it is.”

Her decision unnerved family members. Owens, after all, was the first among them to graduate from college. In the “Made in America” interview, Owens recalled telling them “I really have to pursue what I really am.”

Owens downsized, turned her home into a mini-manufacturing plant, and made a name for herself by setting up booths at public events and trade shows. She taught employees at area spas about the virtues of her natural, refrigeration-required products and how to use them.

In 2010, Owens opened her Fresh Farm-to-Skin Spa in Castleberry Hill in Atlanta. She invited other entrepreneurs, including musicians and crafts people, into the space and offered entrepreneurial workshops. Celebrities started dropping into her spa, and in 2017 her products started showing up in a local Whole Foods store.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Owens pivoted by expanding her online business, offering curbside service, and successfully persuading Whole Foods to sell iwi products in more stores. Owens applied for and obtained business grants and loans to help keep the company afloat and delayed opening a 12,000-square-foot “Resting Retreat Spot” on Jonesboro Road.

That facility is now open and Owens’ business is rebounding even though she is gone.

“Yolanda was incredibly determined. Once she set her eyes on something, she would work until she got it,” said cousin Shantae Robinson, who works at iwi. “She used to say, ‘How would I know if it won’t work if I don’t try?’”

Owens is survived by two sons, Jordan and Austin Johnson, along with daughter Maya Johnson, who is within days of giving birth; both parents, Ralph Hill and Murry Henderson; two brothers, Corey Henderson and Berald Hill; and one grandson, Jah Johnson.

The family will soon announce plans for a memorial celebration.