Brian Jenkins of Entrenuity: “Leadership requires being accountable for your actions”

First, let me say this unequivocally, not everyone is fit to be a leader. Leadership is for those who are willing to sacrifice their goals/ambitions for the mission’s greater good. Leadership requires being accountable for your actions. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of […]

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First, let me say this unequivocally, not everyone is fit to be a leader. Leadership is for those who are willing to sacrifice their goals/ambitions for the mission’s greater good. Leadership requires being accountable for your actions.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Jenkins.

Brian Jenkins, Founder and President of Entrenuity, NFP, and StartingUp BusinessSolutions, Inc., has successfully provided entrepreneurship education, training and small business development for over 20 years in Chicago, nationally, and abroad.

Under Brian’s leadership, both organizations have successfully launched businesses that have generated over millions of dollars in revenue and helped countless entrepreneurs with their business plan development. Brian has led entrepreneurship training workshops for teachers and youth workers and is directly responsible for training thousands of urban young people in the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and financial literacy, in addition to teaching character/integrity based business operations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Certainly! Providing entrepreneurship education instruction was not even on my radar as a “career path.” The only reason I got involved was in pursuit of my wife, Jenai, over 26 years ago! At the time, Jenai was running a program on the west side of Chicago that helped students prepare for college and identify scholarships for their college expenses. Entrepreneurship education was a new course offered as part of their overall educational programming, but Jenai didn’t want to teach it by herself. So, she recruited me to “team-teach” it with her. Of course, I said, “Yes,” as it was more time to spend with her. The class required training to use the curriculum. I was immediately fascinated by the business principles, language, and structure of the course that resulted in a business plan. Having been an English & Religion dual major in undergrad, I had limited exposure to business classes. The only business class I ever registered for in undergrad, Business Law, I dropped because I thought it was boring. The information I was learning in this new training began to reshape my outlook on business. I was learning to demystify the business terms and financial statements and ultimately craft a business plan of my own. As we taught, we unlocked the students’ potential by exposing them to the possibility of owning their own business. Soon their parents and other family members started attending classes with the children. It became apparent that entrepreneurship training and business ownership were necessary, just as algebra, history, or other core subjects were necessary to a student’s overall educational experience. However, it was not a core requirement for their educational experience. Being a person of faith, I made a commitment to God: “If there’s any way for me to be involved in entrepreneurship education, I’m here. I’m willing and able.” I made that commitment in 1993 and have continued in entrepreneurship education for a 27-year career that I could have never imagined. I have been privileged to train thousands of youth and their families, create curriculum, launch businesses and create Moxe, a co-working location in the South Loop of Chicago to coach, connect and capitalize Black, Latinx, and women entrepreneurs.

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

Several years ago, a key investor I’ll call DS invested $100,000 for a specific project that we were launching to move our entrepreneurship curriculum onto a cloud-based platform. DS and I had established a strong relationship based on Entrenuity’s mission and vision for urban youth, along with their support of my new ideas. The software developer selected for the project was a former Entrenuity Board Member who knew the inner workings of Entrenuity and the connections we were earning with new investors intent on investing in Entrenuity. Once we signed the contract with the software developer, he required a down payment to get the process started. A few weeks later, the developer asked for another payment and provided a storyboard with a few screenshots, but not much more. Several weeks went by without much communication from the developer. Since the developer was a former board member, I trusted him and took him at his word that other projects had delayed him. A few more weeks passed, another payment was requested and paid, but he still presented nothing substantial. By this time, I had paid at least $80,000 of the $110,000 contract without much to show. I then reached out to a colleague who had worked with software developers in the past. He informed me that I probably overpaid for the down payment, and the developer should have given me a production/payment schedule. After I told my colleague that the developer was a former board member, he became very concerned that I had been taken advantage of due to my naiveté regarding software development and my trust. My colleague offered to “go behind the scenes” to do some “recon” work of what the developer presented to me. Less than two hours later, he called me back and suggested that I sit down to hear what he and his team had discovered. The material the software developer had presented as “original organic content” developed for Entrenuity was not original at all; it was shareware — free to download via the internet. I was shocked.

My colleague and his team proceeded to walk me through each page of the supposed “original content” and then found the same content on other websites. I called the software developer and demanded an immediate conference call with myself and another Entrenuity Board Member. We presented the findings of the supposed original content vs. the discovered shareware and demanded an explanation. The developer gave excuses and expressed he was in a cash flow crisis but promised he would correct the problem and provide the content as contracted. I updated our investor and the Entrenuity Board. We determined it was best to terminate the contract and find a new developer. Upon being informed of this decision, the developer became very emotional, asking for another chance to correct the situation. We declined. It became clear that I was out $80,000 with nothing of substance to show for it. I was angry, humiliated, and frustrated that someone I trusted could take advantage of myself and my investor.

Once I had all the facts, I contacted DS and a few other Advisory Board Members on a conference call. I revisited all the details of the relationship with the developer as a former trusted Entrenuity Board Member, the details of the project, and the discovery of the shareware content. Two of the Advisory Board Members on the call, who had not invested anything into the project, were irate with me and blamed me for trusting the developer. After fifteen minutes of them blasting me, DS calmly interrupted and asked, “Which one of us on this call has not lost money because we trusted someone at one of our firms?” The phone went dead silent. Nobody said a word. It was as if Jesus was speaking to the accusers of the woman caught in adultery — just silence as the stones dropped. DS then stated in his deep, authoritative voice, “Brian made the mistake of trusting a former board member, a colleague, that he’s known for years. Brian did not know the proper protocol to hold the developer accountable for the contracted work. It was Brian’s mistake, and he’ll [Brian] deal with the consequences.” That was the end of the discussion. As the conference call concluded, I received a follow-up call from DS within 30 minutes. I was already nervous and knew this call was coming. DS stated, “Brian, you made a mistake, and it was costly. Since cause you told the truth, took ownership, and didn’t try to misrepresent the situation in your favor, we will not only reinvest in the project, but we will increase our investment by the $80,000 loss you incurred. But don’t make the same mistake again.” His response was nothing but grace! I was relieved that someone I had developed a long-term relationship with based on trust, truth, and transparency forgave me for the mistake I made with his investment. DS passed away several years ago, but this is a lesson that I will remember for the rest of my life. I also learned to extend grace and forgiveness when others make mistakes too.

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

I met with a funder/investor who was the CEO of a publicly-traded company, seeking funding for Entrenuity. This CEO was the epitome of a CEO, very direct and focused, and had limited time. I was on the clock and only had 27-minutes to meet with him after exchanging greetings. Before the meeting, I had mailed him a copy of our audit, along with a program report explaining how his investment had been used and the results thereof. Unlike other persons who received the same audit and program report, he read every detail and had highlighted and underlined some sections. He then began to ask very detailed questions regarding the audit. It became brutally evident that I was unprepared to answer the questions. He removed his glasses and looked me dead in the eye, and said, “Young man, never present financials that you cannot answer. I have fired executives for less.” He politely informed me the meeting was over and that I could reschedule for the next quarter when he expected his questions to be answered. It was then and there that I vowed never to present financials that I could not thoroughly explain.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Entrenuity, through our Moxe Venture Partners (MVP) program, is intentionally making capital connections between Black, Latinx, and Women founders to our network of investors. MVP identifies founders who have credible a product/service and have demonstrated some level of success in the marketplace but need additional exposure to capital opportunities to grow their business. MVP solicits, selects, prepares, and works with founders to present at our Capital Matchmaker events held 2–3x per year. MVP investors have the opportunity to meet founders of color, who they usually would not connect with, previously vetted by MVP, to create a potential capital connection.

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

A few years ago, I had the privilege to consult with Jenn Kamins (Giacchino). At the time, Jenn was the Founder/Director of Brave Camps, a Chicago based organization focused on providing young women of color experiences in coding, design thinking, and leadership. My task was to help Jenn determine her operational costs for programmatic activities to ensure she was charging clients — her clients being private donors and foundations — enough for Brave Camps’ services. Jenn and I would meet 1x every other week, and she would be tasked with an assignment to complete before we met again. Over several weeks, through several costing/pricing exercises using my book, StartingUp Now: 24 Steps to Launch Your Own Business, as a guide, Jenn determined she was undervaluing her programmatic cost by almost 30%. She began to work with her team/staff to make corrections in their model to lead to greater sustainability. As we were working through the process, Jenn received a HUGE opportunity. A for-profit tech company based in the United Kingdom, but with offices in the United States, had been tracking Brave Camps’ growth and success. A person from the company reached out to Jenn with a Request for Proposal (RFP) but needed to ensure her operational cost aligned with their giving structure. Jenn was able to respond immediately with her newly determined cost structure that included the 30% increase. Within 48 hours of Jenn submitting her proposal and budget, Brave Camps was approved for a $100,000 donation/investment. Jenn was publicly recognized on stage by the tech company here in Chicago and used the new pricing model for several years. Brave Camps grew their capacity and budget by 3X over the next few years and impacted more young women and their families within their missional goals/objectives.

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

Three things I would recommend addressing the problem are:

  • Be Intentional — Intentional disinvestment requires intentional investment. This statement from my book, Know More Nonprofits: Moving from Dependency to Sustainability, requires action. African Americans in the United States have been intentionally forced into labor since 1619. African-American forced labor has turned the United States into a global power relatively quickly, considering the United States was an outpost for European expansion without regard to the First Nation peoples already here. African Americans are the only group of people in the United States whom the United States legislated into perpetual slavery based on their ethnicity. To rectify the economic wealth gap and the lack of investment opportunities in Black businesses, investors must consider the totality of United States history, particularly towards its African-American citizens. Investors must adopt policies to create new funding models/methods if they are sincere about closing the capital chasm.
  • Coach, Connect, Capitalize (C3) Black, Latinx, and Women Founders — There must be a commitment to intentionally coach newly founded businesses, connect the founder to the investor(s) network, and provide capital-connecting opportunities. This must be intentional and with some level of frequency to begin to address the capital chasm. In a recent study jointly conducted by Rate My Investor and Diversity VC, the study found that just 1% of venture-backed founders were Black in 2019.1
  • Invest by 3X — for every dollar invested in a company founded by white men, invest 3x the amount in a company founded by a Black, Latinx, or a woman founder.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

First, let me say this unequivocally, not everyone is fit to be a leader. Leadership is for those who are willing to sacrifice their goals/ambitions for the mission’s greater good. Leadership requires being accountable for your actions. There is a story in the Bible of the Apostle Paul who had a gargantuan split with John Mark, to the extent where Paul dismisses John Mark from the trek and sends him back to his mother because he was not fit to lead at that time. John Mark could not meet the leadership expectation the Apostle Paul demanded. John Mark spent an additional 10-years of training before he was ready to attempt to lead again.

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

A video of these 5 Things can be seen here.

  • Character Counts: 3 T’s: Be truthful, Be trustworthy, Be transparent
  • A nonprofit is a legal structure, not an operational mindset
  • Don’t worry about the money; focus on creating the best product/service
  • Glean from Creative Disruptors
  • Not everyone has to be like ME; accept and respect people’s differences

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A1: I am a student of the Bible. The Bible prioritizes the poor, the disenfranchised, the widow, the orphan, those left on the outskirts of society without any means to participate in communal life, the very least of these. Entrepreneurship, the ability to solve a problem and scale a solution, can be taught to someone with a 5th-grade education or someone with an advanced graduate degree. Entrepreneurship is the universal trade language for the poor. The poor must be given the opportunity to create their own solutions. How we treat the poor, how we train the poor, and how we prioritize the poor is indicative of our love and concern for the poor. In my new book coming this fall, “Theology of Entrepreneurship: God as Creative Disruptor, ” I am comparing and contrasting God as Creator to some of the industry giants in the modern era, such as Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates, and their ability to both create and disrupt systems.

A2: Every high school student in the United States would graduate with a high school diploma and a business plan for an idea they want to launch.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The quote that’s inspired me for a long time comes from the famous Blues musician Muddy

Waters, “You can’t give what you ain’t got; you can’t lose what you never had.”

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. 🙂

Bill Gates. Simply put, Gates is a Creative Disruptor. His concept of a computer in every home revolutionized the personal computer industry. Gates had a core conviction and didn’t let go until he achieved his desired outcome. Gates could go into any prison, classroom, or mosque and lead a session on commitment and never quitting. Most people, regardless of their situation in life, can understand hardship and failure and the benefits of perseverance. I am equally impressed by Gates’ commitment through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They are creating disruption and new models with their foundation. I think it would be great to meet him and tag him as #CreativeDisruptor!

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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