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Community Highlights: Meet Cornelius Hardy

Today we’d like to introduce you to Cornelius Hardy. 

Hi Cornelius, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.

So, my brand is called Cornelius Hardy, but it actually started off as a candle company around 2007 in California.

I’m originally from Chicago. Dad left at a young age. Grew up in poor neighborhoods. Becoming a gang member or drug dealer was the thing to do if you wanted to be cool. I saw fights, saw people get shot, etc. That life just wasn’t for me. I wanted out. Getting out is hard though unless you’re really great in sports and get a deal or something. You have to go to certain schools in your district, you only have access to so much which really isn’t much of anything. From a young age, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be an architect, and I wanted to own my own business.

I’ve always been into design and creating stuff since I was a kid. I actually used to get in trouble for drawing on my desk in school. I used to take things apart to see how they worked and put them back together. I took spare parts and built my first computer when I was a sophomore in high school in 1999. I think part of it came from my mom. She used to make these little tootsie roll head dolls and sell them. I think part of it came from not growing up with everything. It encourages you to be creative, and figure things out. The other part of it is being blessed. Fortunately, I was blessed with a lot of talents. There are a lot of things that can do or figure out. It wasn’t until recently that I realized not everyone has many talents. Some people only have one. Some people think they don’t have any, but really just haven’t figured out what their talent is.

I went away to a private high school outside of Chicago. It was my first year there that I started selling stuff to make my own money. I had a job while I was there because of work-study, but all of those funds went directly to my school bill. So, on the way to school, my parents and I would stop at this store called Waldo’s Dollar mart. This store had everything. I would buy Ramen noodles, little huggie juices, chips, single-use packs of cookies, and pops. (sodas). This stuff was intended for me but I would go to school and sell this stuff to my friends. I’d walk around with snacks around the dorm so the guys could see. I would sell noodles and a pop for $1.00 but they cost me like $0.10. I’d sell out of everything in a week or two.

The next time I went home I would bring back double what I purchased before. It got to a point where I wasn’t really eating or drinking any of this stuff. I just wanted the money. The crazy part is we had a dorm store. It would only open at a certain time every night. The money from the dorm store went towards boys’ club activities like outings, etc. I didn’t want to mess with that so I sold things that the store didn’t offer. There came a point where I was making more than the dorm store and the dean asked me to chill out. I kept selling but did it discreetly and the guys always kept it hush because they knew they would lose access to anytime snacks vs 7 pm snacks if the dean found out. I also used some of the money I made to support the dorm store. I did this for 4 years. In addition, I started cutting hair around the dorm and charging $20

After high school, I went to college in Michigan to study architecture. My parents couldn’t really afford it. They helped me get a small loan my second semester. For the first semester, one of my friend’s parents helped with the bill and with some food/snacks for my room. I had to figure out how to pay for all of the Architecture supplies I needed that weren’t included in the bill. I spent the entire year worried about how I was going to be able to come back the next year. My parents had got me this cheap Ford Tempo after high school so I started using it to deliver pizza. The car already wasn’t in good shape and it died not too long after. I got a job working on campus in the dorm in addition to campus safety. None of these jobs were going to pay enough to get me back into school the next year. What’s worse is I started slacking on my studies because I was working so much. It’s one of the worst feelings when you know what you want in life, but there are obstacles in your way preventing you from getting there.

I met my wife in college and we started hanging out when I wasn’t in class or working. It took my mind off of my situation. I switched my major to digital media my sophomore year. Things were good. I was getting straight A’s. Things weren’t good though. I couldn’t pay my bill. It doesn’t matter how well you are doing if you can’t pay the bill. I ended up moving off-campus with some friends and soon after ended up dropping out of college during the first semester of my sophomore year. It was heartbreaking for me. Not only that but my girlfriend had found out she was pregnant. I wasn’t ready for a kid. I can’t even afford to take care of myself.

She decided she was going back home to California. I went back home to Chicago.

I had been applying to jobs all over the place and had gotten a job offer in Florida. Hadn’t even told my parents she was pregnant yet. I was too afraid. I grew up in a Christian house and my mom was very against having sex before marriage. She instilled it in my brothers and I every day. I could just hear her speech. Plus, my mom and I didn’t get along well while I was living at home. I wanted to take the job in Florida. It would be a huge life decision not knowing anyone there and being completely on my own. I would have a kid in some other state without a dad. I couldn’t do that. I knew what it was like not having your dad in your life. My stepdad was more of a dad than my biological dad ever was. So, my wife and I talked and decided I should come to California. Her parents both owned small cleaning companies, and I could work for them. We would just stay with them for a while. So, I decided to take the offer.

I asked my parents if one of them could take me to the airport. My mom and I had been fighting so we weren’t on good terms but she took me. I told them I was going to Florida for a job offer which was partially true. I had an offer but wasn’t taking it. I regret that decision. I still hadn’t told them about someone being pregnant. I decided to write my parents and both brothers individual letters. I regret that decision to this day. My mom didn’t find out where I was going or that my girlfriend was pregnant until I was already on the plane. She was not happy at all of the delivery. We talked once, and then not at all for months.

2003 comes and my girlfriend and I decide to get married. We did one of those small court weddings. None of my family was able to come because of the distance. A few months later my daughter was born.

Up until the time my daughter was born, the promise of me having a job with her parents didn’t pan out. I got there but there was no job. I started looking for work which was frustrating because you’d spend all day applying for jobs, and going to interviews never to get a callback. Her dad and I didn’t get along and we still lived in her parent’s house. Before we got married, I lived at her aunt’s house while she lived at home. I would have to help out at the house which was fine. I’d have to cut the grass except there was no lawnmower. I think it was due to the rocks in the grass. I would have to cut all of the grass with a weed wacker. So, I’d have rocks jumping up at me while I’m trying to cut. I remember a rock hitting me in the face barely missing my eye. I hated it.

I eventually got a job at a family fun park as a game attendant. I would replace tickets in the games when they ran out. Clear jams etc. I moved on to fixing broken machines, then to supervisor, then to lead over a restaurant addition they added. This was all great except there wasn’t a lot of pay to go with it, just more responsibility. One of the managers was power-hungry and would talk down to me and everyone else that was on a shift with him. I thought why should I accept this for the little I’m being paid. I got another job at a major electronics store and left the previous job.

The electronic store was supposed to be a dream job because I loved computers and would get to help people purchase the right ones. When I started, I was told you have to stock shelves first and then move up to sales. Ok, fine I can do that. I worked hard waiting for my moment. I noticed that rule didn’t apply to everyone, and everyone stocking shelves looked like me. I asked if I could move up, but nope. I noticed a sales guy giving wrong information to a customer who didn’t really know about the computer. He was new on the job. I stepped in and helped out. The customer purchased the computer, he got the commission and I didn’t even get a thank you. The final straw for me was being watched while working. We had a no-phone rule. My wife called me and I had a newborn at home so I’m thinking what if something is wrong. I take it real quick and ask if it’s an emergency. It wasn’t so I told her I’d have to call her back. I answered this phone very discreetly and it was maybe 10 seconds. Someone came over to me and said you can’t be on the phone. There was no one around so how did you know. They had been watching me on the cameras.

I come into work every day. Work hard. Never give any problems. Why are you watching me? Not too far after I had applied for a loss prevention spot that they desperately needed. I felt like I was in an interrogation about something I stole. The position ended up with someone else that didn’t look like me just like every other person on that team. When I realized I was never going to be anything besides a watched stock person, I quit.

I went through a few more jobs after that and my wife and I moved out on our own. I had gotten a job at a custom closet company. They flew me out to L.A. for training, and then the rest of the time I worked from home and visited clients on my own. I would listen to what they wanted, sketch it out, and then hand over the designs to the build team who then completed the job. It was so cool. Basically, working for myself, and being able to design, and see a sketched product come to life. I got to design for wealthy people and it was different than the life I currently had. One guy, a radio host had me design a room just for his shoes. I only owned like 2-3 pairs of shoes at the time so I thought it was insane. Things were going well, but the company ended up having some type of computer shutdown or something where they lost a bunch of customer files. My client’s projects were not getting completed and I wasn’t getting paid. This went on for a few months before I had no choice but to leave. I ended up taking the company to small claims or employment back pay or something just to get paid. From this point my life got difficult. I couldn’t find a job. My wife and I would fight about money. Things weren’t good. Losing this job did do one thing though and that was inspire me to start my own thing.

I have a slight addiction to smell so things like candles, cologne, or different types of fragrances always call out to me. My mom used to have these cheap votives around the house. I think they came from dollar tree or Walmart. I would constantly walk by and sniff them. She would never burn them, just sit them out, or have like 20 of them in a cabinet. When I got older, I would go to the mall and visit all of the candle shops. I used to go to this store called illuminations. They had some of the best scents. I would smell literally every candle in the store. It wasn’t until around 2006 or 2007 that I thought about making my own. I had been burning some candles from Walmart. I don’t know if they still sell them but they used to have these big candles for $5. They would smell good in the wrapper, but not when burned. The wick would disappear and leave so much wax behind. Even though it was $5, I felt like I was wasting money. I started researching and learned about all of the horrible effects of burning a candle. I was thinking how can stores sell this stuff. Further research introduced me to soy wax. Back then it wasn’t as popular as it is now. I decided to order some supplies and make some for myself.

It was a lot of trial and error to get the perfect burn, fragrance throw ratio. I had to change the wick a few times. There are so many wicks for candles. After a lot of testing, I had nailed it. I was burning candles every chance I got. I decided to try my hand at selling candles. I already had the supplies so why not. I started with travel tins and soon added votives, tea lights, and pillars. I named the business Hardy’s Scentuous Soy Candle Co. I see the name nowadays and think wow it’s just so long, but back then it meant that the candles were strongly scented.

Social media wasn’t as huge back then so I basically walked door to door and asked mom and pop stores to sell my candles. When I did get online, I was offering over 100 different fragrances and custom orders. I was getting orders from a local Yoga studio. I remember I used to deliver some of the candles still warm. I would never do that now. I had regular customers who would order a specific fragrance regularly. I also got my first celebrity client. An actress from Law & Order. When she called, I thought it was a scam. I almost hung up the phone on her. She wanted me to do a bunch of pillars for her wedding. I’m thinking what that’s huge. She and her husband loved the pillars and sent me a bunch of photos. We are distant friends on social media today and talk from time to time. During my time in California, I also did custom products for swag bags for one of the award shows on tv, and some birthday party favors for one of the Duff sisters.

I wasn’t making a lot of money but I was slowly growing a regular customer base, and I was finally enjoying what I was doing. Life was almost good. I was having some relationship issues and decided it would be best to relocate in order to solve those issues. Hello Florida, goodbye business. When I relocated to Florida my growing business pretty much just died. All of my customers were local, so they didn’t come with me. A few customers kept ordering but not as often as they used to because of shipping and then the orders just stopped.

I decided to put the business on hold and figure out something else. I had been driving workers comp patients part-time in California, and the company was based here in Florida, so I just kept doing it. I picked up a few different jobs here since the time I’ve lived here and yet again, I’ve never felt happy or like I belonged. Except I did work at Capital One in Tampa for a while a few years ago. Second best job I’ve had. It was a 2+ hour drive to work but the job itself was great.

In 2013/2014 I purchased a mobile home in Orlando for ridiculously cheap. The plan was to live there and save money until I could purchase a home. While I was there, I got into screen printing. I would make designs or create slogans and sell them online. I did custom orders for my church and local places but never enough to actually grow into anything large. I also just looked at it as selling random shirts that didn’t really describe me. I felt like an eBay or Amazon. One day I was in Macy’s which is one of my favorite stores. I’m walking through the men’s clothing and the cologne sections. I always hit the cologne sections. lol. I think to myself why can’t I make clothes like this and one day end up on these shelves. It took me a few times visiting and thinking that same thing before I actually did something about it.

When I had the candle company, I had always wanted to add more products but it’s only so much more you can add through a candle website without it being weird for your audience. I first started with the candles again. Different glass, new scents, less selection. I called it Cornelius Hardy Collection this time. We were getting closer to a brand but not quite. This candle experience just didn’t feel right. I felt like I wanted something more personal and more premium and it was premium-ish. At the same time, it was 2015 and I was having issues in my marriage again. I was going through depression from those issues, I was completely alone, and ended up just stopping the candles completely.

I lost my job at a gym I was working at which ended up closing. I had just recently become a realtor as well and sold only one home before going into shutdown mode. I went on inactive and just kept my license paid and education completed so I could eventually come back to it. I threw everything I owned in storage and found a room for rent in a large house with a family in Winter Garden. I would later lose everything I had put in that storage with the exception of a few clothes, a tv, my car, and a Microsoft Surface I had with me at the house I was renting. I had fallen behind on the bill and could not catch up due to the storage facility constantly adding more and more late fees. My entire life was in that unit. I felt like I had failed life. This was not where I saw myself in life at this age.

I did Uber while working random jobs and slowly started dreaming out what my brand would look like if or when I brought it back. I started building an Instagram page and interacting with people. Getting ideas from other companies. One thing I knew for sure is this time I wanted to go premium, and I wasn’t going to let anything or anyone stop me. My wife and I sorted through our issues, and we moved over to Altamonte Springs which also meant the kids didn’t have to wake up at 5 am to make the trek from Kissimmee to College Park for school.

I started working on my new brand which would be called Cornelius Hardy. So many luxury brands use their name, and I wanted to create something my kids could take on later if they wanted. Create a legacy. The name just fit. I designed a new candle look. A glass this time with a clean white label and a rose gold lid. Since then, I’ve changed the label to black. Instead of having over 100 different fragrances, I decided on creating just a few. As I create another, I get rid of one. I learned that having too many options can be overwhelming customers, which sometimes leads to no purchase at all. With a premium brand, a customer might want to own all 5 candles, but all 100 just seems out of reach.

I’ve since created a second style of candle. Matte black glass, slim rose gold lid with my name engraved in the lid. This one costs a lot more to make, but I wanted to add something a bit more premium. Something more exclusive for affluent buyers. So now I have two different styles of candles with two different price ranges to reach two different types of customers. Both styles have their own specific fragrances. You can’t get this fragrance in that style.

For my clothing, I wanted something that was comfortable. I wanted a shirt that fit well. I wanted clean simple graphics. I wanted a full line for the entire family. I started off with the t-shirts. Found a manufacturer in California that makes these super soft t-shirts. Wearing one just feels right. It feels almost tailored. I got measured for a fitted suit jacket once and the experience changed me. I will no longer wear clothes that don’t fit well. I wanted to provide that experience to my customers. Anyone that has worn a t-shirt from my brand always mentions how soft it is, and good the quality is. I added leggings, hoodies, a few dress styles that I bring in from a different manufacturer, and recently joggers from my original manufacturer although I was against joggers for so long.

Originally, I thought I want to make everything myself. I’m going to make it all. Then you realize, you just don’t have the time or the proper skill to make everything that you want the way that you want it. So, I leave the actual making of the clothes to manufacturers and I do all of the designing and printing in-house. I no longer screen print, I’ve moved on to vinyl which is a bit more expensive, but less messy and time-consuming. I make 100% of the candles from start to finish. Oh and I just released soap recently. I’ve been testing soap for most of 2021.

I’m not making a lot of money yet. Mentally I know this business is going to take a while to grow. I’m in for the long haul. Grow slowly and gain an audience that really loves the products. I’d love to open a physical store somewhere in Winter Park or a similar area in the near future. Until then I still do Uber part-time, and I’m also a Realtor. I finally got back into real estate last year although I haven’t spent a lot of time in it due to trying to really grow this brand.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It’s been a very rough road. Having challenges in your personal life play a huge role in building a business. For me, it was issues in my relationship and trying to support my family while building a business. I put it on hold multiple times. I never really had help. It’s always been a one-man team. Sometimes it helps to have a team that supports you and wants to see the same dream come to life.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
The business officially launched in 2018. I specialize in what I like to call luxury casual clothing. It’s a premium material, and comfortable for everyday wear. I create natural candles and soap. Currently, I’m known for super soft fabric and really fragrant candles. What sets me apart from others is my pursuit of classic luxury. Style that can be worn any time of year, and not fluctuate with trends. Brand wise I’m most proud of the look of my higher-priced candles. I worked on them even before I released the first style of candles. I kept going back to the drawing board because it just didn’t have the look I wanted. Now every time I look at one and see the black glass with the engraved lid I smile inside. I want your readers to know I’m committed to being different and building something that has lasting power. I’ll never follow trends no matter how much money I could potentially make. I’m also committed to doing my part in keeping my products as natural as possible while still having premium quality. Currently, my products can be found exclusively on my website at corneliushardy.com. I hope to open a retail space in the future.

Is there anyone you’d like to thank or give credit to?
God deserved credit first for giving me crazy talent to create things. Credit to my kids who let me drag them out to do photoshoots in random places. Credit to my wife for learning to trust my thoughts and decisions. Credit to my parents and family back in Chicago for cheering me on. Credit to my Instagram fans. I have some fans who like every single post, come through and say hi, or send me a message. You give me the motivation to keep steering this ship.

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