St. Ambrose freshman not only majors in business, she makes and sells candles

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Taya Jones with her hand-crafted scented candles at the Helping Small Business Succeed store at NorthPark Mall Friday, Dec. 17, 2021 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Taya Jones is a freshman at St. Ambrose University, Davenport, and a business major. She’s putting her money where her passion is, running her own business — Greenlee Candle Co.

A super bright, driven 20-year-old native of Prophetstown, Ill., Jones graduated high school at 17, and wanted to get out of her hometown, after her parents divorced.

“I kind of just wanted to do my own thing, so I pushed myself to graduate a year early from high school,” Jones said Friday of P-town, noting she also earned Sauk Valley College credits. “I packed my car up and moved to Florida. I wanted to be somewhere warm, and Illinois wasn’t that, somewhere interesting. I wanted something different.”

She moved to Orlando for a couple years, to attend Advent Health University, a small private school. When COVID happened, Jones moved to Missouri, Kansas and Chicago (and the first night she lived there, she got robbed).

“I think everything happens for a reason; I think that’s why I’m at where I am today,” she said. “Eventually, I made it to here.”

Jones is a 20-year-old Prophetstown native who’s due to graduate from St. Ambrose University in 2024 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Jones came to Davenport in July 2021 and got a full scholarship to St. Ambrose.

She’s renting a house a mile from the university, and switched her major from pre-med to business. “It made sense to me; it’s what I enjoy doing. It’s kind of funny how it happened – I wanted to find a way to make more money, to pay bills.

“I was laying in bed one day, and was thinking, ‘I think I’m gonna make candles,” Jones said. “I just went online, started looking at things, I placed the order and here I am.”

She’s been selling her merchandise at NorthPark Mall, 320 W. Kimberly Road (at a Helping Small Business Succeed store), since Black Friday, Nov. 26. “It’s pretty cool,” she said in the store. “I’ve made friends along the way because of being a small business, but before I didn’t know any.”

Jones reached out to SAU president Amy Novak when she started her business, and she responded promptly.

“She was really excited for it, and thought it would be successful, and she thinks I’m a salesperson,” Jones said. “She told me it would be wise to switch to a business degree. She was willing to help. And I’m going to do a student vendor fair on February 4th.”

Jones has only been working at the mall on weekends during school, Fridays noon to 8 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays noon to 6. During Christmas break (through Jan. 22), she will be there much more often.

For the company, she wanted to make something different than other scented candles, not with toxic chemicals, but more eco-friendly (crafted from organic soy wax).

“I ended up finding organic waxes and organic oils – to make candles perfectly safe for animals, kids, adults,” Jones said. “At the same time, I made them super affordable. That’s where my candles are a bit different than others.”

Greenlee Candles — named for her middle name — are made by hand at Jones’ home, including the labels. The only thing she doesn’t make is the packaging, which you can reuse or recycle.

“I think it’s harder than a lot of people would assume,” Jones said of candle-making. “You have to formulate the right wax; you have to have the right size wicks, and the right types of wicks. And you have to heat the wax to a certain temperature when you’re adding the oil, and before you pour them into a container, you have to let hem cool to a certain temperature.

“So it’s actually a very particular process,” she said. “I’ve kind of got the hang of it by now.”

Jones says her handmade candles are created with organic soy wax, and are environmentally friendly (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The hardest part for the business was financial, since Jones started up without taking out loans (her parents couldn’t afford to help her). “At the same time, I gotta start with something. I’m not using any of my business money for my own wants or needs. Everything is going back into the business, to keep growing it. A least now, I’m not using out-of-pocket money to continue the business.”

“Hopefully, eventually I will be able to use the profit money for myself, but it’ll be a process,” Jones said. She noted some people assume from social media that she is well-off.

“People probably don’t realize how much that actually goes into it, the funding,” she said. “Recently, people see my business doing fairly well, and they assume that I’m doing well, so they don’t need to support me as much. What they don’t realize is, I don’t touch any of that money for myself. It just keeps going back into getting better packaging, better product.”

Jones is expected to graduate in 2024, but wants to finish as soon as she can.

Benefits of the mall

Being at NorthPark has some built-in advantages, with good amounts of holiday walk-in traffic. “The biggest thing people have to realize, no matter where you are, there are going to be bad days – days where you have hardly any sales,” she said.

“Even if people come in and don’t buy, they’re seeing your name; they’re seeing our product. They start to know who you are,” Jones said. The difference between online sales and in-person is that at the mall, a lot of that is from strangers – for new people to see a new brand. “Online, is a lot of family and friends, supporting and stuff, which is great.”

“I need to venture my brand out to new people,” she said.

Two of the popular Greenlee Candle varieties — Hansel & Gretel and Strawberry Shortcake (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Her favorite and most popular candle scent is strawberry shortcake – she’s had to re-stock it three or four times already. “I try to have a wide variety, to have stuff for everyone,” Jones said, noting she has two men’s scents: Kentucky bourbon, and Black Sea. The latter is an upscale cologne scent.

Food scents are very popular – including caramel popcorn, cinnamon, apple, pumpkin maple nut waffles, banana nut bread, and a “Hansel and Gretel” (made with flavors of graham cracker, vanilla frosting, raisins, and cinnamon).

It’s helped to open during the holiday season, Jones said. “The most important thing is continuing that trend, and keep growing.”

She’ll use her four-week break from SAU to get as much inventory made as possible. After the busier holiday season, Jones will work to ensure Greenlee sales don’t drop off.

“I’m pretty hard-headed, so I try to not let things I do fall off,” she said. “Sales might slow a little, but I typically don’t let things just fall off when I want to do something. I’m pretty stubborn.”

Jones is always looking to see what customers want, and what is doing well. “I’m always trying new things,” she said.

Helping Small Business Succeed has been at the mall for almost two years, and between its two locations, showcases 22 local businesses, said owner Camille Hodges.

Taya Jones, left, and Camille Hodges at the Helping Small Business Succeed store at NorthPark Mall Friday, Dec. 17, 2021 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Our purpose on doing it was, at the beginning of COVID, a lot of the businesses that had actual buildings had to into selling from their home,” she said. “We came up with the idea of coming into the mall and everybody joining together.”

The leasing rates for HSBS vendors is $75 from Friday to Sunday, and $300 Sunday to Saturday.

Hodges said she loves Jones’ candles, and has bought several. “They smell really good,” Hodges said. Greenlee offers wax melts in small cubes ($4.50 per package), and larger candles for $10 and $16.99.

The site says: “Expect these luxurious aromas to fill your entire home with warmth and joy.” For a full catalog and to order, visit the candle company site.

For more information on the HSBS initiative, visit their Facebook page.

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