Shawntée White-Yates

CEO & Founder of Harlem Hugs

In 2008, as the mother of a preteen girl, Shawntée observed a need to nurture her daughter and her friends. She noticed how vulnerable the girls were at that age and how they struggled with identity issues facing them. As she continued to observe the characteristics and personality traits the girls displayed, she was inspired to start a business that would help address these concerns. Thus Harlem Hugs was born!

As a native New Yorker and true “Harlemite”, Shawntée knew there would be a large population of young girls in and around the Harlem community that could benefit from her efforts. During the first two years of starting the business, she organized two Tween Pageants and had a great turnout. These events were not focused on highlighting the physical beauty of the girls. Instead, they were intended to showcase the tweens’ talent and to help foster courage and a heightened sense of self-esteem in the preteen girls. It was a platform that promotes their ability to talk about themselves and enables them to feel confident about performing in a public forum, through the display of something they were passionate about.

A graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA, Shawntée has used her Bachelor’s degree in Business Management to focus on her career in the corporate world, mostly within the Human Resources and Recruitment fields. Although the time spent in her day jobs have caused a delay in bringing Harlem Hugs to fruition since 2009, she has gained leadership and “intra-preneur” skills that will add value to her success as an entrepreneur. This is one of the main motivators for her decision to use the COVID-19 quarantine period as a time to re-launch Harlem Hugs, LLC, and bring it to higher heights in 2020.

This proud mother of a Spelman College grad, enjoys mentoring children to become the “superstars” they are born to be. As an altruist, one of her passions has always been to help youth, which brings her joy and fulfillment. She is hopeful, yet confident that her sorority sisters and philanthropists seeking to improve the community, will share in her vision to help develop preteens to excel in their future!

My Inspiration

As I watched my daughter go through adolescence, her personality changed several times. It became clear to me how important it is to guide children at the pre-teen stage. Although Sierra was my main inspiration to create Harlem Hugs, she wasn’t the only tween to inspire me.

I often observed the way Sierra and her friends interacted with one another. Seeing the qualities displayed by the other preteens like Sierra, gave me the desire to explore ways to help them find out more about their likes and dislikes. I saw an opportunity to engage them in doing things that exposed their passions.

Support System

Starting at the age of 6, I wanted to support my daughter in her desire to explore acting and modeling. During those years, I came to realize how stressful that industry could be for the parents and more so for the children involved. Sierra’s agent sent her on dozens of auditions for commercials, movies, stock photo-shoots, print advertisements, modeling gigs, videos, and the list goes on. She was always allowed to decide which audition she wanted to attend, to make sure that she enjoyed the experience.

This experience allowed me to see how many personality and identity challenges preteens face at that age. It was also another motivating factor in the evolution of Harlem Hugs.

Growing & Maturing

Giving Sierra the option to accept or reject auditions based on her preference made her grow and mature in the business more naturally. It also allowed her to have the self-confidence to make her own decisions in life, which included the schools she selected to attend and the places she preferred to work; even when her choices didn’t align with mine.

Highlights from 2020 Activities & Events

Our Mentors & Team

Eric Polite

MENTOR of the Year

Angela Johnson


Passion Smith


Natalie Robinson


Camila Muniz


Lynn Nguyen

Director of Communications

Larissa Lazaro

Director of Health & Wellness

Lisette Ranga

Director of Creative & Technology

Melissa Rosario

Director of Digital Content

Bruce Hedrington

Director of Photography

Kashida Maloney

Director of Decorations

Linda D. Yates

Director of Operations