People of SU

Lighting Her Way

Written by Andrew Binion

March 8, 2023

Photo featuring alumna and candle maker Colina Bruce

How double alumna Colina Bruce turned a pandemic-inspired side hustle into a full-fledged business.

In celebrating Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (March 8), The Newsroom is spotlighting women making a difference in their industries, communities and beyond. In this installment we feature double alumna Colina Bruce, owner of Noir Lux Candle Company.

It started for Colina Bruce as a money-saving experiment in candle making during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That grew into a side hustle before blossoming into a full-time job as her small business took off, complete with a brick-and-mortar shop, and on February 12, Noir Lux Candle Company’s store celebrated its one-year anniversary. 

For the second-generation Black woman entrepreneur in Seattle, and double Seattle University alumna, Noir Lux led Bruce, ‘07, ‘15 MA, to an inflection point—unexpectedly—where she decided to pursue a new direction.

With the help of a Jones Progress Award through the Albers School of Business and Economics Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center and a shout out in Oprah Daily, Bruce left her positions at SU as director of educational partnerships for the Seattle University Youth Initiative to run her business full-time (Bruce also taught as an adjunct professor in the Non-Profit Leadership program).

“I knew this was something,” Bruce says of her small batch, soy-based candles, which were created as a symbol of self-care and also to raise awareness about mental health in the Black community. “It was going to be a learning curve for me, but at the same time I knew the purpose was greater than just making candles.”

As someone fond of candles as a self-care measure, Bruce found herself during the pandemic burning candles every day and the cost was adding up.

“I just decided to see if I could make them, save some money,” Bruce says. Trying her hand at candle-making meant testing different fragrances and materials. The first real batch were handed out as party favors at a friend’s birthday. 

That first attempt got her wheels turning about how she could create a quality candle and possibly provide a little more income. “I was just planning to have a side hustle during the pandemic, with a goal of selling 10 to 15 candles a month, and it just kind of took off.”

Each time Bruce finished another batch they sold out. At first, she wondered if that was a sign of support from her friends and family—“her village,” as she calls them—rather than demand for her candles. 

But the candles, made with wooden wicks with fragrances meant to evoke nostalgia, culture and good vibes such as lavender, sandalwood and butterscotch, kept selling. 

She branched out from just selling candles to leading in-person and online seminars where people could craft their own candles. 

And then her growing business got a boost with the Jones Progress Award. The rigorous program for alumni and graduating students looking to start their own businesses pairs them with mentors and other resources. After meeting their goals the program awards the entrepreneurs a $10,000 grant, which Bruce won in 2020. Around the same time she got another boost when Oprah Daily featured Noir Lux’s “Cake by the Pound” candle among the 25 best candles from Black-owned companies in the U.S. In 2020, she started selling her candles online. 

As other storefronts were boarding up and moving online, Bruce defied the odds, instead opening the Noir Lux Candle Bar (3020 Warren Place) in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood.

The storefront is not just for her and her now 10 employees to make candles—Bruce has grown the staff from one to 10, with five new hires in just the past 6 months—but also as a place to promote other Black-owned businesses and as an events space.

With a family and her day job at SU, she found herself burning the candle at both ends, working three days a week at the university and four at the shop. So last April she made the decision to leave her role at SU to focus all her energy on the business. 

“It was scary,” Bruce says of her decision to leave after working at the university for seven years.

In striking out on her own, one thing she had to learn was how to delegate.

“As a business owner, there is a lot you want to handle yourself,” Bruce says. “It’s your baby, you just want to make sure everything is amazing. But at some point you have to understand if you don’t start to divvy things out, or accept help, you will not be good at anything and you will have things fall through the cracks.”

Though Bruce spent much of her career in nonprofits, she was exposed at an early age to Black entrepreneurism.

Bruce’s mother, Patti Barlow, owned the hair salon Sophtiscuts in Seattle’s Central District, where growing up Bruce worked pushing a broom and booking appointments. Though the experience made an impression on Bruce, especially being in a tight-knit community surrounded by mostly Black-owned businesses, she didn’t understand at the time what that meant. 

“When I was younger, I really didn’t take it all in, I didn’t understand the significance of my mom being a Black woman business owner as much as I do now,” Bruce says. “It was a little bit of a norm for me. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized it was more of an exception than a norm.”

In the five pre-pandemic years leading up to 2019, the number of businesses owned by Black women grew 50 percent, faster than any other female demographic group, according to a report from J.P. Morgan Wealth Management.

However, businesses owned by Black or African American women make up a significant minority of businesses. 

An analysis published in 2022 by the National Women’s Business Council, based on U.S. Census figures, found Black or African American women owned about 12.7 percent of all women-owned businesses. 

Bruce says it's important for up-and-coming business owners to see people who look like them and advises prospective business owners to not compare themselves to others.

She also gives a portion of her proceeds to various organizations and programs, including SU’s Black Student Union—10 percent of February sales of its Black History Month Periodt candle supports the BSU Scholarship. 

The candle features teakwood, amber and ginger, with “Month” crossed out to signify that one month a year is insufficient to celebrate the contributions of Black folks. Noir Lux’s website also encourages direct contributions to BSU’s scholarship.

Further, Bruce advises those interested in starting their own business to not be afraid to take something you care about or enjoy and find ways to bring that to a wider audience. 

“If you have a skillset or a trade you are passionate about it’s OK to think about how to monetize it as long as it’s not compromising your moral values,” she says.

Colina Bruce and Noir Lux Candle Company was recently featured on NPR's Marketplace. Listen to the interview.