Black Futures Month: Four Black Leaders Who Walk The Talk

Black History Month is referred to by many as “Black Futures Month,” which the Movement for Black Lives defines as “time to both consider and celebrate our Black radical history and to dream and imagine a world in which we are free and self-determined.” More succinctly, Asheville-based Urban News named it, “about making space for Black people to envision and build the world of our dreams.”  

Making space for Black brilliance to emerge is both a personal and collective task. This often gives Black professionals on the rise an unfair “double duty”— they have to push past systemic racism in their various fields in order to succeed, while also choosing whether or not to take additional time and space to mentor others and ensure they can also access their dreams. 

And yet—research has shown that Black professionals often spend more of their personal capital mentoring young people and building inclusive spaces, which can take away from their own career objectives.  A 2017 study of Black professors, for instance, found “marginalized professors spent twice as much time mentoring, recruiting and ‘serving on various task forces,’” as white male counterparts. Experts in higher education note that additional energy could be spent on “the more career-accelerating work of publishing,” but that these professors are actively choosing to expend their energy building a more inclusive future. 

This mentorship is not just Black professionals helping Black youth, but for people across racial identities. This has certainly been my personal experience as a white woman over decades: it was often Black people who reached out proactively offering mentorship and support.

For instance: Majora Carter, fresh off receiving her MacArthur Genius Award, approached me when I was 23 after I gave a talk to say “How can I help?” For years, running a low-budget non-profit, she hosted me in her home whenever I visited New York. She and her husband James made a transformative difference in my early career by sharing not only their couch, but also core lessons in organizational management and movement building.  

In the context of my work as an impact investor with a focus on diverse entrepreneurs who are creating systems-level impact, I now often see an argument being made that funding diverse entrepreneurs is a social-change activity in part because these entrepreneurs will make great choices about ultimately giving back to the community with the wealth they build. In some cases this may be mandated structurally into a deal (like a certain percentage of proceeds going back to communities), or it may be an organic practice (like Diishan Imira, founder of Mayvenn, providing equity to employees at all levels simply because he felt it was the right thing to do). 

So far, anecdotal data is playing out–there are so many fantastic examples of mid-career Black professionals who proactively take time and money to help the next generation even if it takes away these resources from their primary activity. Below are profiles of four inspiring individuals who show it’s possible to climb, while also extending that hand back to pull up others closer to their dreams. 

Charlese Antoinette

What She Does

Over the past decade, Charlese Antoinette has established herself as one of the most talented and busy costume designers in the business, with a unique talent of creating characters that are imaginative yet grounded in reality. She’s most recently known for her amazing period looks in Judas and the Black Messiah featuring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, for which she received a 2021 Costume Designers Guild Award nomination. The film also received two Academy Awards. Her work has also been seen on TV shows including MACRO/ Netflix Original Raising Dion (Michael B. Jordan), which was number one internationally, as well as Kenya Barris’s Netflix Original sketch comedy show, Astronomy Club

How She’s Opening Doors for Others

Charlese Antoinette works with kids at the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland on the 1st and 3rd … [+] Fridays of the month. On 3rd Fridays, industry professionals will give guest talks so the kids can meet other Black professionals in costuming and fashion.
Charlese Antoinette/Boys and Girls Club Northeast Ohio

Charlese is unique in how she’s worked to create more opportunities for both her peers, and for future generations. In 2019, Charlese launched the Black Designer Databasewith a mission to support Black designers through the amplification of their work and connect them to new consumers and media opportunities. And then in 2020, she launched DESIGN YOU in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland, Ohio. 

Charlese explained, “I started the program while we were shooting Judas and the Black Messiah in Cleveland. We were shooting in an under-resourced neighborhood that was predominantly Black. And I could not see myself doing a film about the Black Panthers and not interfacing with the community that we were shooting in every day. I went to visit the boys and girls club of northeast Ohio with the cast including  Daniel Kaluuya LaKeith Stanfield. After visiting I got inspired and asked the center Director Joseph Greathouse II if I could donate sewing machines and start a sewing lab and program.” She subsequently donated 11 sewing machines in 2019. She added,  “Currently we are doing the program on 1st and 3rd Fridays. And on the 3rd Friday of the month I have industry friends come & speak. So the kids get to meet other Black professionals in fashion and costumes, get a mini lesson & ask them questions.”  They are still hoping to add more machines to their programs, and seeking a number of related supplies. Additionally, 100% of the proceeds from Charlese’s curated collection on resale platform Dora Maar are available here

Wendy Raquel Robinson

Wendy Raquel Robinson co-founded the Amazing Grace Conservatory, and in addition to her decades of … [+] experience in television, creates a nurturing environment for the next generation.
Meagan Shuptar/@meaganshuptar

What She Does

A Los Angeles native, Wendy Raquel Robinson has been professionally acting in films and television for over 25 years. Robinson graduated cum laud from Howard University with a BFA in Drama, and went on to debut on Martin alongside Martin Lawrence. 

Throughout the late 90s and early 00s, Robinson picked up a bevy of roles. She played “Piggy” Grier on The Steve Harvey Show for its full six-season run, as well as starring in the NBC sitcom Minor Adjustments and sketch show Cedric the Entertainer Presents. Since 2006, Robinson has played sports agent Tasha Mack on the dramedy The Game.

Wendy Raquel Robinson on stage with children from Amazing Grace Conservatory.
Amazing Grace Conservatory

How She’s Opening Doors for Others

Despite having a busy schedule as a professional actor, navigating the limited roles often available to Black women, Wendy has always made space to open up access to the arts to others. Since 1997, Wendy Robinson has been the executive and artistic director of the Amazing Grace Conservatory, a performing and digital arts school that serves underrepresented youth ages 5-18. Following Robinson’s own passion for the arts as well as that of late co-founder Tracy Lamar Coley, the school focuses on the arts and media production, and has welcomed thousands of students over their 25 year history. 

Amazing Grace Conservatory offers scholarships for students to attend post-secondary schooling. Alumni have gone on to attend Yale, Juilliard, Carnegie Mellon and more. Notable alumni include Emmy Award Winner Issa Rae, Academy Award Winner Ashton Sanders, Grammy Award Winner Elle Varner and many more.

Marlon C Nichols

Marlon Nichols is the founding managing partner at MaC Venture Capital, a seed-stage venture capital … [+] firm that invests in visionary founders building the future that the world wants to see.
Marlon Nichols/MaC Ventures

What He Does

Marlon C Nichols is a founder and managing partner at MaC venture Capital, in addition to Cross Culture Ventures. Nichols has a deep background in technology and media, as a former Investment Director at Intel Capital and Kauffman Fellows alumnus. Marlon has made many high-profile investments in new media and markets, including Gimlet Media, Mayvenn, and Wonderschool among others. 

In both 2018 and 2019, Marlon Nichols was named to Pitchbook’s 25 Black Founders and VCs to watch, as well as being featured in Fortune and TechCrunch. Now, in addition to his myriad advisor and board roles, Nichols serves as adjunct faculty in entrepreneurship and venture capital at the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University.

In addition to his work at MaC, Nichols helps bring new students of color into the investment … [+] industry, partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to serve students who might otherwise have the connections needed to fulfill their potential.
Marlon Nichols/MaC Ventures

How He’s Opening Doors for Others

For more than five years, Marlon Nichols has partnered with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to demystify the world of startups and venture capital. Nichols has offered online courses, like Venture Capital 101 which covers the basics of funding and supporting startup firms. He’s also sponsored trips for HBCU students to visit Silicon Valley, and attend gatherings like South By Southwest where he has ensured there’s specific content designed around their educational needs.

“It’s well documented that the lion’s share of venture capital investment dollars go to white men and a meager percentage is distributed to Black and Latinx founders. It’s also true that people hire/invest in people who resemble and share similarities with them. Another fact is that roughly 1% of decision-makers at VC firms are Black/Latinx. I’m convinced that by solving for the latter we can begin to see positive change for the former,” Nichols said.

In recent years, the HBCUvc program has expanded to include 10-week paid internships that help build relationships between students and VC firms. 

Dr. Elizabeth Ofili

Born in Nigeria, Dr. Elizabeth Ofili is a world-recognized expert in the field of echocardiography … [+] or studying the heart with sound waves.
Dr. Elizabeth Ofili

What She Does

Dr. Ofili is a Nigerian-American cardiologist at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, founder of a health-tech platform Accuhealth, that has helped thousands of patients manage chronic illness including diabetes, and serves as Chair of Alliant Health Solutions and the Association of Black Cardiologists. Spanning more than three decades, her career is filled with firsts, particularly as a woman of color and first-generation immigrant.

Dr. Ofili has been continuously funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) since 1994, with a track record of growing the clinical research infrastructure and training programs at Morehouse with awards totaling over $175 million. Furthermore, mentorship and training in terms of workforce development is a big part of Dr. Ofili’s work, and she serves as Principal Investigator of the National Research Mentoring Network, a component of the NIH Diversity Consortium and collaboration, training practitioners and scientists with the aims of diversifying the biomedical research workforce. She is globally recognized for her expertise in cardiovascular health disparities in the African-American community, and in 2016, was inducted into the National Academy of Medicine, one of the highest honors for a physician.

Through Chief Gregory and Chief Mrs. Felicia Ofili Organization, Dr. Elizabeth Ofili has been able … [+] to direct educational tools and resources to underserved girls in sub-Saharan Africa.
CGFO/Dr. Elizabeth Ofili

How She’s Opening Doors for Others

Having grown up in a small village in Nigeria, Dr. Ofili came from humble beginnings and was only able to achieve the career success that she has, because her family invested in her education – her late father Chief Gregory Ofili gave her his entire pension (he worked at the time for the US government as a librarian) to pay for her to travel to the United States and attend Johns Hopkins University to continue her medical studies and pursue her Masters in Public Health – and her mother, Chief Mrs. Felicia Ofili returned to school after raising 7 children to study midwifery in Nigeria and help support the family. To pay it forward and create opportunities for young girls to also get engaged in science and medicine, she founded the Chief Gregory and Chief Mrs. Felicia Ofili (CGFO) Foundation in 2012. In collaboration with local community leaders and educators, CGFO prioritizes the education of girls as a vehicle for social change and community economic development. 

To date, with the generous support of companies like Arbor Pharmaceuticals and Alliant Health Solutions and patrons like Dr. Shaquille O’Neal, CGFO has transformed three dilapidated science labs in the local village of Ebu, Nigeria, and constructed new facilities that offer experiential learning and hands-on curriculum for middle school students in the area

The organization also funds yearly scholarships for disadvantaged students, and is laying plans for the development of a solar-powered tech hub that offers distance learning and links to other educational resources, independent of the power grid. They are seeking to expand their work to provide more community-based grants and educational infrastructure in Nigeria moving forward.

Through CGFO, Dr. Ofili hopes to honor her parents, who always believed in her and told her she could achieve anything. CGFO seeks to bring that vision to thousands more girls and change lives with education.

Thanks to Starkey Baker for their contributions to this piece. Full disclosures related to my work here. This post does not constitute investment, tax, or legal advice, and the author is not responsible for any actions taken based on the information provided herein. 

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