Pet enthusiasts recently gathered at the Georgia International Convention Center (GICC) to celebrate and admire a wide range of pets, from furry animals to reptiles and exotic creatures, during the first-of-its-kind O Zone International Pet Expo. Founder of the expo and the first African American to own a national pet deodorizing product line, Maria Lee-Driver, shares insight into her career journey that started in the beauty industry and ultimately led to a successful path in the pet sector. She also discusses why she plans to return to the ATL Airport District and the GICC on April 12-14 for the 2024 O Zone International Pet Expo.
Q: How did you become involved in the pet industry, and what inspired you to follow this career path? Was there a special pet in your life that inspired you to launch the O Zone International Pet Expo?
A: My toy poodle grand dog, Dior, inspired my all-natural pet deodorizing line, Fresh Mink Pets™, which includes shampoo, conditioner, pet fume and natural sage.
When I visit my youngest daughter, Taylor, Dior jumps all over me, greeting me with lots of energy and affection. While it is adorable, I couldn't go about my day smelling like a dog.
I already had an all-natural hair, skin and beauty product line, Oria's O'Shay, and a fragrance called Silence. Since I was already familiar with this industry, my daughter suggested that I create a product specifically for pets. Despite not having a dog of my own or any of the fundamental components to get started, I felt inspired by the idea and announced at a conference that I would launch a pet line in 2020.
During the pandemic, I created my all-natural pet deodorizing line, Fresh Mink Pets. While my friends and family raved about the product line, as friends and family should, I wanted to gauge the response from a broader audience and introduced Fresh Mink Pets at SuperZoo, a big pet expo held in Las Vegas. My friend who attended with me and I were the only African Americans among 1,000 exhibitors, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Upon returning home, my phone began buzzing with calls from interested distributors and retailers, proving that the appeal of my product extended beyond just friends and family.
Shortly after, Chewy.com started to carry Fresh Mink Pets products, making me the first African American to have a major pet brand featured on a national platform. We are currently collaborating with Chewy.com to develop a new 8-ounce size for our products which will relaunch on their website soon.
The idea for the O Zone International Pet Expo originated from a conversation with my cousin, during which I shared information about my product. Given his experience in organizing various events focused on reptiles, he suggested the concept of hosting an expo where I would handle the animal side and he would oversee the reptile side.
Q: What were your initial goals in starting the event?
A: My initial goal, which remains the goal today, is to raise community awareness. As an African American, I was taught to be afraid of snakes. By opening the O Zone International Pet Expo up to reptiles, people can gain a deeper understanding of what it is to have a pet snake. While owning a pet snake or other reptiles may not be for everyone, our expo will make you look at it from a different perspective. Our mission for the expo is awareness, education and adventure. Unlike the zoo, at our pet expo attendees can not only look at reptiles and other animals, but they can touch them and also take them home. That is the beauty of it!
Q: The GICC is proud to have hosted the inaugural O Zone International Pet Expo. The dates are already set for your 2024 event, which is also set to take place at the GICC. What makes the ATL Airport District a great hosting site for the O Zone International Pet Expo?
A: First and foremost, the hospitality we experienced was outstanding. The ATL Airport District warmly welcomed us and made us feel right at home, setting the stage for a successful event. Secondly, the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received after the first O Zone International Pet Expo left no doubt in our minds that we simply had to come back for another year and set the dates for April 2024.
Q: Were there any services offered by the CVB that helped you and attendees enjoy their time in the surrounding area during the expo?
A: The ATL Airport District team went above and beyond to support us. They did a lot of social media and strategically placed signage in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and at the entrance of the GICC to raise awareness and ensure a seamless experience for attendees. Any questions I had for them, they were prompt, thorough and informative in their responses. They even surprised our team with O Zone International Pet Expo cupcakes as an added delight!
Q: What lessons did you learn during your first year that you’ll use to make your next event even better?
A: It is crucial to get the community involved and proactively engage with potential vendors and attendees all year long.
Q: What are you most excited about in 2024 and beyond?
A: A bigger and better event. We have a couple of things on the horizon to help get the word out about the 2024 Pet Expo including a Fresh Pet magazine coming in the fall. We are also looking at doing a kiosk in one of the malls and starting a podcast called “O Just Pets.” In addition, 90% of my vendors were so impressed and want to participate next year.
Q: As the first Black woman to have a successful national line of pet products, what advice would you offer aspiring Black entrepreneurs?
A: To have success you must start with your vision. To be successful you must be consistent, committed and love what you do!
The ATL Airport District CVB team looks forward to watching the O Zone International Pet Expo grow and is honored to be of service in helping the event be as successful as possible in 2024 and beyond. Be sure to follow along on Facebook and Instagram to stay up to date on the developments for next year's event!