Kezia Williams of The Black upStart: “Don’t skip the steps and miss the lessons”

Young people should use what they have, do what they can and start where they are. Entrepreneurs like Mary McLeod Bethune started small. She wanted to own a large school, but she started in just one room with a handful of students. Issa Rae is known for her hit series on HBO, Insecure. However, she […]

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Young people should use what they have, do what they can and start where they are. Entrepreneurs like Mary McLeod Bethune started small. She wanted to own a large school, but she started in just one room with a handful of students. Issa Rae is known for her hit series on HBO, Insecure. However, she started on YouTube. Never despise small beginnings. It is in the early stages that you take the necessary steps to build a long-lasting enterprise. Those steps are your lessons. Don’t skip the steps and miss the lessons, as Nipsey Hussle would say.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kezia Williams.

Kezia (@keziamw) is the Chief Executive Officer of The Black upStart — a nationally recognized company serving African American innovators interested in starting successful and profitable, job-creating small businesses. Through the administration of an incubator program, The Black upStart administers a culturally sensitive, pioneering curriculum that integrates experiential learning methods, lean start-up methodology, and business case studies. To date, the organization has trained nearly 500 entrepreneurs in the District of Columbia, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Southern Africa. Black upStart graduates have launched ventures in 12 different states and have been featured on Netflix, ABC’s Shark Tank, the Washington Post, Essence Magazine, and Black Enterprise Magazine for their innovative businesses.

Recently, Kezia launched SkillhouseU: Classrooms for the Culture, an online school that provides necessary skills and training for entrepreneurship and wealth creation. Since the launch of SkillHouseU in March 2020, nearly 5,000 people have enrolled in over 22 classes facilitated by 12 recognized financial experts. Her Live-Classrooms sessions regularly reach 100,000+ viewers. With nearly 500,000+ followers on her personal and business Instagram pages, her team’s ability to disrupt traditional notions of education and entrepreneurship for Black wealth creators is purpose work.

Kezia also leads MyBlackReceipt, which is a tech company that launched to track spending at Black-owned businesses. In 17 days, she led a team that collected over 7.7 million dollars in receipts from conscious consumers that supported the #MyBlackReceipt “Buy Black” initiative. This is the nation’s first quantifiable initiative designed to measure the impact of consumer activists.

Since 2020, Kezia has served as a member of the Pepsi Dig In Advisory Council through which she counsels the company on ways to accelerate and uplift Black-owned restaurants.

Kezia has been featured by CNN, Forbes, USA Today, Black Enterprise and Yelp and is regularly a speaker at national conferences and symposiums across the nation. She has also been interviewed on Good Morning America, CNBC, Black News Network and Cheddar.

Kezia is the proud daughter of Gail Elaine Davis and a native of Richmond, Virginia.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I was born on the Southside of Richmond as Gail’s only child! My mom was the first in her family to graduate from college, rise to a senior level government position, own properties, start a business and reach an 800+ credit score. My mom is an entrepreneur, financial teacher, and generational pattern breaker. She is also the oldest of eight children who was conceived by married teenage parents residing in Richmond’s Jackson Ward — one of the poorest but self-determined neighborhoods in the area.

And, my mom used her life to teach me how to continue her legacy of resilience by preaching and practicing the economic philosophy of self-determination and financial independence. I witnessed her become a real estate empress and philanthropic community champion, but I also had a front row seat to watching her pay bills and mail them every month on time so her credit score would stay high. She also hired me to unlock the door at her open houses and distribute flyers to potential homebuyers while she closed the deals. These lessons taught me about entrepreneurship, credit, wealth accumulation and responsibility.

My mom is a boss. My mom is a success story. My mom is my first teacher. But as a child, I just thought my mommy was beautiful, stylish and the smartest human I had ever known.

It wasn’t until I was older that realized how she raised me — to become an economic emancipation activist, second generation financial teacher, wealth advocate and beneficiary of her brilliance.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

My newest entrepreneurial endeavor was inspired by the Montogomery Bus Boycott, where a long-term activation engaged a committed cadre of changemakers to produce equality yielding results over time, not just over night. My endeavor is called MyBlackReceipt, a technical platform that tracks purchases made at Black-owned businesses. With nearly 41% of Black-owned businesses expected to close by the pandemic’s end, it’s essential that we keep their doors open by intentionally buying their valuable products and necessary services.

MyBlackReceipt’s work is further amplified through partnership. For that reason, we are working with corporations like PepsiCo who have made a financial commitment to Black-owned businesses like us, EatOkra, Black and Mobile and the National Urban League. Through its Dig In program, Pepsi is specifically working with MyBlackReceipt to motivate consumers to spend 100 million dollars with Black-owned restaurants over five years.

We know change won’t happen overnight. But we are confident that change will happen over time.

And when it does, we hope our goal to normalize buying from Black businesses has been achieved.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

An entrepreneurial ecosystem ruled by a philosophy of financial segregation has mandated that Black entrepreneurs elevate with their feet planted firmly on the ground. To jump without moving your ankles is senseless advice we give to Black entrepreneurs when we tell them to pull up by their bootstraps. There are not enough banks, financial institutions, venture capitalists and angel investors committed to eradicating the funding disparity that exist for Black entrepreneurs.

I wish there was one story that I could tell about a Black entrepreneur who turned their contacts into capital through crowdfunding or leveraged their good credit to fund their dreams through cash advances, or built their business on weekends. However, the problem cannot be streamlined into a neat story about one Black entrepreneur that was able to overcome. One success story does not fix an unfair system. For that reason, MyBlackReceipt is a community driven solution that invests capital in Black businesses through consumers’ buying power.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

June 2020, I witnessed one of my college students get tazed by law enforcement. My student was assaulted in the midst of protests initiated in response to the public execution of George Floyd. I cried as I watched his body convulse under the electroshock; and, it was in that moment I decided to create a solution that could — with time — establish economic parity for a people who have been historically relegated to the bottom of America’s capitalist system. MyBlackReceipt is a solution that calls upon the community to be intentional when they purchase and buy value from Black businesses who will use the capital to give back and build wealth for their communities.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Young people should use what they have, do what they can and start where they are. Entrepreneurs like Mary McLeod Bethune started small. She wanted to own a large school, but she started in just one room with a handful of students. Issa Rae is known for her hit series on HBO, Insecure. However, she started on YouTube. Never despise small beginnings. It is in the early stages that you take the necessary steps to build a long-lasting enterprise. Those steps are your lessons. Don’t skip the steps and miss the lessons, as Nipsey Hussle would say.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

It was ten minutes before MyBlackReceipt was about to launch, my developer told me the site would not be ready. We had just spent 20 consecutive hours preparing a custom coded receipt form and notified 10,000 people to post about our launch. But, my developer told me he needed another day.

I felt like a complete failure inside, but I told my team “we will be okay.” Together we decided to go “live” and share our obstacle with the users who were depending on us. I had just unlocked my phone and selected “live” when my developer called to tell me the receipt form was working, just two minutes before launch, and that our site was ready to receive receipts.

It was definitely an emotionally trying time for our small team, but it was a test of resiliency as well. Things don’t always work out like this. Sometimes you win, like we did in this story. Sometimes you learn — which we did over the next 17 days as our technology struggled under the weight of international interest. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn. But you only lose if you quit.

Our commitment to staying the course is what eventually led to our first, funded national partnership with Pepsi. Through our partnership with them, a 17-day campaign will now expand to serve a five-year goal for consumers to spend 100 million dollars at Black-owned restaurants.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I quit my job with a plan to use my unemployment to fund my business enterprise. I did not know unemployment was unavailable to individuals who quit their job. At the time, it wasn’t funny! However, I can laugh now at how naïve I was about entrepreneurship. I can also laugh at the awkward silence of the unemployment rep who listened to me in disbelief. I can still hear her saying, “We don’t pay quitters, honey.”

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Torrence Reed volunteered his time to lead the technical build of the initial MyBlackReceipt prototype. Not only did he trust my vision as a friend, but he sacrificed 8–9 hours daily for three consecutive weeks to ensure our webpage was fully developed by an ad hoc tech team. Torrence slept on his in-law’s kitchen floor in order to maintain continued technical connection, managed our website while moving from one home to another with his family of five, and was a tremendous support throughout a tumultuous creation process. I am eternally grateful for him! Follow him on Instagram at @torrencereed3.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

MyBlackReceipt activated an army of conscious consumers to spend over 7 million dollars with Black-owned businesses over 17 consecutive days. My hope is that their purchases created not only immediate impact, but a long-term change in behavior to buy Black habitually. Black-owned businesses don’t need temporary charity. We need to be recognized for the undeniable value we create as integral parts of the American economic system.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Make sure that policies are equitable. Sometimes we talk about government sanctioned policies like slavery, redlining, the Homestead Act, or the Patent Oath as if they compromised Black life, Black business, Black wealth, and Black people generations ago. However, there are also policies present day — like the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan — that disproportionately benefited some entrepreneurs but not Black entrepreneurs overwhelmingly. We must stop the dangerous narrative of thinking every person in America can pull themselves up by their bootstraps when other communities pulled up on a policy.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Success will cost you commitment.

I chose to share five words versus five things because billion-dollar dreams are not birthed with bargain basement work ethic. You must push yourself beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone choosing to materialize the substance that you hoped for and evidence things not yet seen. As an entrepreneur, you will see with vision what others cannot. So, your faith must be bigger than you fear. You are called to a purpose higher than self and the only way you lose — the only way we lose — is if you quit. The cost is great, but the returns are immeasurable.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and blaze trails.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Issa Rae! I admire how she has been able to turn her passion into a purpose driven empire where she not only sustains her success but uses her influence to hire, platform and invest in the careers of Black talent unapologetically. She epitomizes her call to action, which was heard nationwide, that is: I am rooting for everyone who is Black.

How can our readers follow you online?

@keziamw and @theblackupstart

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