A portrait of Melissa Mason
Melissa Mason, a VCU School of Social Work and College of Humanities and Sciences alum, and her childhood best friend Lillian Jackson co-founded Brown Skin Brunchin', a platform geared toward encouraging women of color to connect and build relationships over brunch. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

For VCU alum and 25,000 others using her platform, meaningful connections start with brunch

Melissa Mason’s business, Brown Skin Brunchin’, has helped thousands of minority women connect, personally and professionally, in 71 cities across three countries.

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When Melissa Mason and Lillian Jackson met on the playground at J.H. Blackwell Elementary School in Richmond nearly 30 years ago, they became fast friends.

“Once we met, we were inseparable,” Jackson said. “We were always together — throughout school, birthday parties, family events, things like that — until life took us apart.”

The friends made time to get together through college — Mason at Virginia Commonwealth University, Jackson at University of Maryland — marriages, motherhood, careers, promotions, even Jackson’s first big move from Richmond to Pittsburgh. But when a new opportunity meant Jackson would need to move to Las Vegas, the two realized they needed a new strategy to broaden their social circles, Mason said.

“We ended up having a conversation about friendships as adults, how difficult it is to make friends as an adult,” said Mason, who graduated from VCU in 2015 with a B.S. in psychology from the College of Humanities and Sciences and a B.S.W. from the School of Social Work. “When you’re a kid, you just go out to the playground and you play with whoever’s outside. As an adult, it’s a totally different thing.”

The traditional networking events Mason and Jackson tried weren’t quite as fun and easygoing as they’d hoped, so they took to social media to share their dilemma — and see if anyone wanted to get brunch. After booking a brunch in Los Angeles and another in Richmond with rapidly growing guest lists, Mason said, “we realized we were on to something.” The response from others having a hard time making connections was huge, she said.

“People were just coming out of everywhere, like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘How are you doing this?’ ‘We need that in our city.’ ‘How can we bring that here?’” Mason said. “We quickly learned that we were not the only people feeling that way.”

The pair founded Brown Skin Brunchin’, a platform and app (available on the App Store and Google Play) geared toward encouraging women from minority backgrounds to connect and build relationships over brunch. Since those first brunches in 2018, Jackson and Mason have expanded Brown Skin Brunchin’ to 71 cities with nearly 25,000 members in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean and thousands of followers on FacebookInstagram and TikTok.

“People come in – they’re a little nervous at first sometimes – but by five minutes in, you would never know that these people did not know each other,” Mason said. “We’ve had complete strangers that are now lifelong friends, traveling with each other, doing stuff outside of brunch. It’s great to see how bringing people together in that environment where they feel comfortable, how quickly people hit it off and just make new friends, make new connections, whether it be personal or professional.”

Creating a welcoming environment for women of color has been a major focus for the founders of Brown Skin Brunchin’.

Two women sitting on a blanket on a bach. The woman on the left is pouring wine into the glass of the woman on the right
VCU alum Melissa Mason, right, and her childhood best friend Lillian Jackson met on the playground at a Richmond elementary school 30 years ago. Together, Mason, who lives in Chesterfield, and Jackson, who moved to Las Vegas several years ago, co-founded Brown Skin Brunchin' when they wanted to find new ways to make connections locally after Jackson moved across the country. (Courtesy Brown Skin Brunchin')

“It’s geared toward women of color, and in communities of color it’s often more difficult to kind of interact and be open and not have to think about what it is you’re doing all the time,” said Mason, who cited her studies at VCU in helping her understand the impact building a community can have. “My education and background helped me with getting people to a point where they feel comfortable. (At our events) people can come and be free. They’re themselves. They can speak with someone who may understand what they’re going through as a person of color.”

In addition to helping others feel more at ease in a new situation, Mason said “meeting people where they are,” without preset expectations, is a lesson that applies to Brown Skin Brunchin’ from her studies at VCU, student internships in social work and psychology, and career using her degree in social work. The skills she developed outside the classroom, too, have served her well as she has balanced working full time and raising her kids while she and Jackson have built their business across two time zones.

“When I was a student at VCU, I had two school-age children. I was a double major. I was doing two internships at a time, and I was also working,” said Mason, who also served as a student leader in the Bachelor of Social Work Student Association and Students Today Alumni Tomorrow. “That, in and of itself, if you don’t learn how to multitask and manage your time in a situation like that, you won’t make it. So you have to figure out how to adjust, figure out what works best for you, figure out routines that work best for you and your family.”

That time management, paired with her strong friendship with Jackson, has made building Brown Skin Brunchin’ easier, though certainly not “easy,” Mason said with a laugh. Jackson agreed – and encouraged students and recent grads, if they want to build a business, to pursue their ideas, big or small.

“Never in a million years did I think that we could do something around brunch, which is something that we both love,” Jackson said. “Find your passion and go for it.”

Nine women standing together in a group
Brown Skin Brunchin' now has 25,000 members in 71 cities across the continent. Mason says they strive to create a fun, easygoing environment for members to get to know each other — and a platform for them to connect outside of brunch as well. (Courtesy Brown Skin Brunchin')