Business

The strong women who modeled how to blaze trails

By Leila Ugincius

(VCUN) – By now, Rabia Kamara’s story is familiar to many.

The 2010 Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business graduate went on to attend culinary school before eventually opening her own ice cream shop, Ruby Scoops, in Richmond. Earlier this year, she won the Food Network’s inaugural season of “Ben & Jerry’s: Clash of the Cones,” which pitted six ice cream confectioners from across the country in a contest to impress Ben & Jerry’s ice cream co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.

Kamara makes it all look effortless. But there was no fairy godmother making everything magically happen. It took a tremendous amount of work to traverse the rocky road to success.

Growing up, Kamara was passionate about the culinary arts, but never saw anyone in the industry who resembled her that she could look up to.

“I don’t know who I would say my role models are culinary-wise,” she said.

But she had plenty of strong women in her life who modeled how to blaze trails. Her maternal grandmother, Suzanne, moved to the United States from Africa in the 1960s. She earned enough money to bring the rest of her family here.

“She decided she needed to do what was best for her family,” Kamara said. “I had people in my life that are very persevering and determined and I realized that that is a quality I myself have as well.”

Kamara’s mother, who grew up in Mauritius, came from Lebanon in 1970 with a suitcase in one hand and a 2-year-old in the other. Ironically, she drove an ice cream truck when she first arrived in the U.S. Eventually, she earned her M.D. and became a family practitioner. Kamara’s father came from Sierra Leone by way of England in the 1980s. Together they raised seven children.

As a child, Kamara wanted to be the next Mrs. Fields. Her parents thought that was “adorable.” But they did not think it was a career. (Her sisters are in more conventional fields such as real estate and law.) Kamara first came to VCU to attend the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture for advertising. She then switched to marketing.

While at VCU, Kamara reconnected with cooking and feeding people and realized how much she enjoyed it.

“I really wanted to wake up and enjoy what I did every day, because I just know so many people who resent that portion of their life and just dread getting up and going to work every day,” she said. “And I didn’t want to experience that in my life.”

Upon graduating from VCU and at the risk of disappointing her parents, who wanted her to go to law school, Kamara attended the L’Academie de Cuisine in her native Maryland. She worked at two restaurants at the time, all the while knowing she one day wanted to work for herself.

In 2015, she opened Ruby Scoops as a pop-up shop in the Washington area. She would occasionally work events in Richmond. Last year, when she was ready to open her first brick-and-mortar ice cream parlor, she chose to return here.

“Every time I came, I didn’t want to leave and I would get really emotional by having to go back home,” Kamara said, “because Richmond is really what led me to figuring out what I want to do with myself career-wise and led me even to this [realization] that I want to cook, I want to make ice cream. … So it just seemed like a no-brainer to me to come here and do it because Richmond has a burgeoning food scene. It’s very Black and there’s a lot of support of small and Black-owned businesses.”

That support is hard to find as a minority, Kamara said. While trying to establish her own business, she ran into microaggressions and assumptions.

“It’s really hard to get capital,” she said, especially as a Black woman business owner competing with white men.

Handing out ice cream in September. (Kevin Morley)

But Kamara never gave up. In November 2020, with the pandemic raging and many other restaurants closing for good, she opened Ruby Scoops in Richmond’s North Side to a line of customers wrapped around the block. Less than a year later, she was dominant during her summer in Vermont on “Clash of the Cones,” winning three of the competition’s four challenges. And earlier this fall, she opened a second shop, Suzy Sno, in the Jackson Ward neighborhood. It is named after her grandmother Suzanne, who came to the U.S. all those years ago, and features New Orleans-style shaved ice.

“We’re just excited to be bringing another kind of delectable frozen treat to Richmond that is different than ice cream and to see where else this will lead me and other businesses that will open,” she said. “It’s exciting.”

Kamara said she hopes to be a role model for children — not just the future bakers and confectioners, but for all children who look like her.

“I think just having people who are doing what they want in life serves as proof that everybody can really be whoever they want,” Kamara said. “It’s not just about little kids that want to cook, but about little brown and Black children who are being told who they need to be or should be, and finding ways to follow their own paths and do what works for them and not feeling like they have to follow the status quo. Especially, a lot of the time with Black children, we are always put into boxes.

“When kids are young and they say that they want to be, whatever it is that they want for their careers, we as adults should listen to them and try to invest in them the way other people invested in us,” she said. “Instead of [saying], ‘You can’t do that’ or ‘You shouldn’t do that,’ let’s explore and see if that’s really what [they] want to do.”

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