A proud native of Richmond, Virginia, Kezia M. Williams has called D.C. home for the last 16 years. She epitomizes the qualities of the Chocolate City; her community mindset has empowered others to work collectively and build thriving economies. Kezia has made her mark in the city and has an ever-growing national influence with 500,000+ Instagram followers on her personal and business pages. Through her in-person Black upStart classes and virtually through SkillHouseU: Classrooms for Culture, Kezia and her team have taught more than 5,000 Black entrepreneurs, and those looking to level up in their money moves.
The implications of Covid-19 birthed #MyBlackReciept, a new project for the visionary. Understanding the pandemic’s grave health, economic, and social impacts, #MyBlackReciept supports small businesses and, as a result, Black communities. In May, Black Enterprise reported that 45 percent of Black-owned businesses could close because of the pandemic’s compounding challenges. From June 19 to July 6, 2020, participants were encouraged to upload their receipts to MyBlackReciept.com. The goal was to have the Black community and allies spend 5 million dollars at Black-owned businesses. The was met, exceedingly.
I hope that this movement influences the culture to shape a “new normal” wherein Black business is sought, not in reaction to white terror, but as an everyday priority.
MG: Who is “Professor Kez”?
KW: Mann listenn…she is an emancipation activist, Black wealth freedom fighting, entrepreneurial advocate, cashflow curator and unapologetic educator for Black people.
MG: When did you realize it was your time to share your financial and business expertise?
KW: When the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that less than 4 percent of Black business owners create jobs, I knew we needed Black job creators and not just Black jobs. When I read that Black wealth was projected to be zero by year 2053, I knew that we needed to flex with assets more than liabilities. When I read that Black women would lose $840,000 over their working career, I knew every Black person needed to multiply their streams of income or risk hustling backwards. The time for Black wealth independence has always been now, and I am humbled to serve that cause.
MG: How did you first share this knowledge?
KW: The Black upStart was founded in November 2015. The goal was to recruit 20 Black aspiring entrepreneurs to apply and join a pop-up school designed to teach them how to start a scalable small business. We received 123 applications in two days.
Just 48 hours before our first class, our business coach cancelled. Not only was this person contracted to coach the entire experience, but they were also responsible for curriculum implementation. With reservation, I stepped into the coaching role. Though I had taught college students online before, I had never taught adults and inside a classroom. Through God’s grace, I was able to leverage the skills I developed speaking publicly, the information I learned developing a validated entrepreneurship curriculum, and the experience I gained starting three businesses. One-hundred percent of our first class graduated, and some are still in business.
Our inaugural class laid the foundation for nearly 400+ Black entrepreneurs who have graduated after them. Each scholar has become family and alum of our Black business pop-up schools. You are part of that family, too, Malik! You along with your fellow upStarters are the manifestation of a faith walk. For that, I am grateful.
MG: I’ve spent my quarantine reading about Maroon spaces and the Reconstruction Era. I am looking back to shape a course forward, something that I know you do as well. As far as economics, where are you finding inspiration?
KW: Black consumers in Montgomery, Alabama weaponized their capital to protest the discriminatory practices of a racist enterprise for 381 consecutive days. Our ancestors chose sacrifice over individualistic gain, and comfort over convenience in order to unbuild a white supremacist structure that forced them to pay for their humiliation — and call it equality. Their actions prove that one day activations for change are insufficient. And, black squares, cute fliers with temporary calls to action, and 24-hour commitments to raise Black consciousness are popular but true behavioral change happens over time, not overnight. My team’s effort, MyBlackReceipt, was a 17-day spending activation inspired by the consistent, sacrificial commitment of the Montgomery bus boycott participants. We knew one- day Buy Black protests were not enough, and we look forward to continuing our movement as time progresses.
MG: Tell me a little more about SkillhouseU. Can you share a little about your dream team of skilled financial experts?
KW: We are elated to work with a few local heroes like Charm City Buyers (Khalil and Kyara Gray), Keith James of Coalition Properties, Sinclair Skinner of BitMari and Wallo267. We also had the honor of interviewing FUBU co-founder Carl Brown.
These faculty members’ collective intelligence elevated our level of understanding inside a virtual classroom and our adult learners emerged wiser about real estate, cryptocurrency and marketing/advertising every single time they taught.
MG: How important is your network during the entrepreneurial process?
KW: Your network is your net worth. Issa Rae proved this when she crowdfunded Season 2 of Awkward Black Girl. Not only did her YouTube followers see value in the strong, culturally relevant voice of a young, Black professional represented in Season 1, but they also endorsed the creative dream of a Black woman entrepreneur by donating to her campaign to produce more episodes.
As Black people, we often don’t give ourselves permission to see the power of our dollar when we invest it in Black spaces. Issa’s first angel, first VC, first financial endorsement came from her community. Issa was and is still gracious enough to acknowledge that Insecure could not have happened without Black people. That’s why we still root for her, like she roots for us.
MG: What is the #MyBlackReciept?
KW: My vision as the lead for #MyBlackReceipt was to track consumer spending at Black-owned businesses through a public counter. It was launched by The Black upStart on Juneteenth, or Black Economic Independence Day, with the intention of buying Black through July 6, 2020. The organizing team for the first phase also included Torrence Reed of Zoom Technologies, Talib Graves-Manns of Knox Street Studios, Darryl Perkins of Broccoli City, and 19 Keys of The Black Standard.
This initiative was in response to the public lynching of George Floyd and the discriminatory denial of Payment Protection Program loans to under-funded, at-risk, tax-paying Black entrepreneurs. Our project leverages the $1.3 trillion dollars that Black consumers spend annually, and re-directs those dollars to Black storefronts. #MyBlackReceipt is the first measurable Buy Black campaign that leverages technology to drive social change. This initiative inspired Black consumers and also allies to buy from Black-owned businesses, save their receipts and upload them to a form that tracks their collective purchases along with other committed consumers using a public counting tool. We believe that when consumers take pride in documenting their Black business patronization, it will create long-term value for all participating.
MG: Can we still participate?
KW: Absolutely! The site is still live at myblackreceipt.com
MG: What are some easy and potentially overlooked ways to strengthen our money mindset?
KW: Every Black person should start an LLC and leverage the tax benefits of ownership to reduce their tax liability. The tax code was set up for owners to win and employees to pay! An LLC can not only be used to reduce your tax bill, but also can be used with your skinfolk and your kinfolk to start an investment circle to buy property and invest in the stock market.
MG: What are some first steps to starting a business enterprise, especially given potential hesitation to spend or invest during a pandemic?
KW: Find a problem and solve it! Ideally speaking, find a need in the Black community and create a solution for it. When Mary McLeod Bethune opened her one-room schoolhouse, she was solving the problem of the lack of viable, quality educational opportunities for Black children. When Diishan Imira started Mayvenn, he was solving the problem of Black women consumers not having enough hair extension options and qualified stylists to install them. When Eunique Jones [Gibson] started Because of Them We Can, she was solving the problem of Black people not seeing themselves and their stories represented in the media.
MG: What businesses are you currently patronizing?
KW: I applaud Jerri Evans’ effort to scale her vegan shop and juice bar, Turning Natural! I visit her store at least three times a week and buy my favorite Bob Marley or Marion Barry smoothies and spinach patty. Now that my braids are out, I also buy hair products from Bel Nouvo founded by Arcman Durosier. Finally, I shop routinely at Nubian Hueman founded by Anika Hobbs and also shop online at Grass-fields. All of these are Black-owned businesses managed by incredibly talented, driven and valued entrepreneurs.
MG: What resources are there specifically for Black D.C. Millenials interested in better money management and entrepreneurship?
KW: I highly encourage them to visit skillhouse.com and take a course about Black wealth building. We are currently expanding our course offerings to include wealth building courses from Nipsey Hussle and Master P. Anyone who sends me an Instagram direct message at @keziamw, I will provide a 10 percent discount on any class.
MG: What’s next for the Black upStart?
KW: We will continue to grow SkillhouseU into the largest, online Afro-centric learning environment for the culture. Also, MyBlackReceipt will establish a new-age Black Wall Street by tracking sales generated inside Black-owned businesses nationwide.