On a typical Saturday in households across Washington, D.C., many 8-year-olds are playing Minecraft, reading comics, and watching toy unboxings on YouTube. They’re racing around on bikes and skateboards, skinning their knees. Or maybe they’re acting out scenes from Marvel films, because when they grow up, they want to be superheroes.
But Austin Gill isn’t your average 8-year-old. Sure, he likes Lego and dinosaurs as much as the next kid. But on this very same Saturday, Austin is probably honing his elevator pitch. He, along with his older brothers Collin, 13, and Ryan, 10, are wearing crisp, branded aprons and selling candles at a market—candles they made themselves.
When the three Gill brothers approached their parents for money to buy Nerf Blasters and a PlayStation 4, they were given a choice: get a job or start a business.
When the three Gill brothers approached their parents for money to buy Nerf Blasters and a PlayStation 4, they were given a choice: get a job or start a business. They chose the latter. Mom—Celena, a small business owner and former teacher who homeschools her sons—saw the business as an opportunity for the boys to learn a series of lessons. They decided to hand-make and sell candles, and Frères Branchiaux was born. In addition to daily math and reading tutorials, they’re also learning about supply chain, customer service, and marketing.Collin says he’s proud to have something he made himself. “We get to make our own money and we’re our own bosses, too.” For Ryan—Mom describes him as the sensitive one with a big heart—his joy comes from helping others. The boys decided to donate 10 percent of their profits to the homeless, specifically a local shelter where their oldest brother, Nai, volunteers. The cause is close to home for the family. “I had family members who are homeless,” Ryan says. “We took them in and helped them get back on their feet.”
It honestly came out of necessity, because there was a time, as African-Americans, we didn’t have as much opportunity as others.
The startup is a rite of passage for the Gill brothers, whose family history is steeped in small business ownership. Celena talks about her grandfather who opened one of the first black-owned mechanic shops in Virginia and other members of her extended family who she remembers as always having side gigs—DJs, makers, restaurateurs. “It honestly came out of necessity, because there was a time, as African-Americans, we didn’t have as much opportunity as others,” she says.
Celena put her own career in education on hold to stay home with her kids. But, once they were all in school, she was bored, she says. “I didn’t want to go back to a regular job.” She started pursuing her true passions—design and fashion—and now prints her own designs on everything from pins to pillows, sold through her online store.
The family found a supplier, designed some simple branding, and launched Frères Branchiaux online. Though it’s Celena’s name on the business, the boys “do the day-to-day,” she says. They make candles—everything from applying labels to cutting wicks. But it’s at the markets where they really shine. Collin, Ryan, and Austin set up the booth themselves, talk to customers, and even manage sales directly from an app on their phones.
Still, Mom’s philosophy is simple: kids before kid-preneurs. The business isn’t running seven days a week, she says. Collin’s football commitments involve a lot of travel, and that takes priority over the candles. The flexibility of owning his own business, though, means that he’ll still be able to work while he’s juggling college prep and sports later on.
As soon as Collin, Ryan, or Austin decide they’re done with the business, that’s it, Mom says. But she’s also ready for the opposite: if Frères Branchiaux scales, she’s here for it. “I support them all the way,” she says. Collin will take the reins of the business as soon as he turns 18, Mom tells him. For now, as their legal guardian, she’s still technically the boss.
Now the business is scaling—including adding Ace Hardware as a retail partner—and though the whole family pitches in on production before big orders, for Celena and her three kids who are busy trying to be kids, it’s getting to be too much. They’ve hired a designer, and Celena is looking into virtual assistants. Eventually they’ll need to bring on more hands to help make candles, and even consider a facility outside the home.
For now, the boys are enjoying how their business is giving them extra spending money—Austin even splurged and bought himself an electric scooter. I ask if this is what they want to do when they grow up. While Ryan is interested in architecture and Collin has dreams of playing football professionally, Austin says, “I want to be a basketball player and a maker.” None of them mentioned being owners of a candle business, specifically. “It’s not something that they want to be,” says Celena. “It’s something they already are.”Illustration by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo