McKinsey helps accelerate Black economic development in Colorado

Jice Johnson saw a problem in her community and decided she’d address it. Never mind that she wasn’t exactly experienced in the sector, and the scope of the issue was broad and deep: She had drive, ideals, and commitment—the kind of person who didn’t hesitate to sign up to serve in the US Army after high school, shortly after 9/11.

When Jice returned from the army, she earned a master’s in management and leadership and worked in business administration and real estate. But as she saw racial injustice and its economic toll around her, she felt called to address it.

“How could I help? There's no cause to sign up and join like when I went into the military,” says Jice. “I decided to take my business degree and at the very minimum hold a workshop on business development for the local Black community in Denver.”

Jice Johnson
Jice Johnson, founder & CVO of Black Business Initiative, speaking at the organization's Black Boss Summit.
Jice Johnson

This work grew into the Black Business Initiative (BBI), a public benefit corporation (similar to a B-corp) founded in 2015 that supports and empowers Black entrepreneurs. In 2020, Jice worked with McKinsey associate partner Chris Daehnick on a plan to assist Black businesses struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic and on realizing her broader mission and vision.

“He told me I was essentially looking at launching three more organizations and it would be a tall order,” she says. “I said, ‘let’s go.’”

Benilda "Benny" Samuels
AYA Foundation executive director Benilda “Benny” Samuels
Benilda "Benny" Samuels

The additional three are now up and running as separate but complementary organizations with the common mission of Black economic empowerment: The AYA Foundation, which works to close the Black wealth gap through grants and technical supports for Black business owners; the Denver affiliate of the New Community Transformation Fund (now the DEMI FUND), a value capital fund that invests in companies owned and operated by business leaders of color; and the Economic Development Association for Black Communities, which develops inclusive economic development strategies and programming for Denver’s local Black community and advocates for policy solutions.

Jice and AYA Foundation executive director Benilda “Benny” Samuels explain how these organizations put economic power in the hands of the Black community and how McKinsey served as the right type of ally.

Black Business Initiative was the first organization you launched. What was your approach?

Jice: Sometimes we don't know what we don't know. I wanted to work with Black entrepreneurs to bridge their knowledge gaps, because if they’re not asking the right questions, it’s hard to advance. I’d say, "You think social media marketing is all you need, but we're also going to talk about building sales funnels, because if you don't have leads, then you're not going to get real traffic from organic marketing."

How did BBI evolve once you started creating additional organizations?

Jice: As a membership organization, the focus of BBI is now more on convening and networking, with the learning piece being housed by AYA Foundation.

Benny: We’ve inherited the programmatic work that BBI was running, because that was subsidized—it was essentially charitable work for the community.

McKinsey understands that if the Black community is doing well economically, we’re all doing well. That is a model for how support should be.

Jice Johnson, founder & CVO of Black Business Initiative

How did you set up AYA Foundation to serve the community?

Benny: In my 35 years in social change, our community has not had a public charity foundation dedicated to the Black community. Other charities housed the resources and gave them to us. AYA is a public charity that offers grants and runs programs on wealth building and entrepreneurship. It’s a model that is connected to the community. We don’t need to send out surveys to find out what the community needs because we are right there with them.

What kind of impact is AYA having?

Benny: In the short three years since beginning our operations, AYA Foundation’s creative, systems changing impact includes serving more than 91 founders and entrepreneurs with high-touch programs, technical assistance, and grants. Additionally, AYA Foundation has acted as the fiscal sponsor of philanthropic dollars to several start-ups, including the DEMI FUND.

Philanthropic dollars are sometimes used to support start-ups because of the inequitable barriers to entry for fund managers of color and the absence a network of family-and-friends investors. AYA’s fiscal sponsorship allowed for philanthropic dollars to be used to reduce the barriers to entry to starting an investment fund and to provide the matching funds required for investors. With these barriers reduced, DEMI became one of the largest first-time funds raised by a solo black woman general partner in the country.

How did McKinsey help with all these efforts?

Benny: We had to build infrastructure from the ground up, and that’s where Chris and McKinsey were tremendously helpful with AYA. First, Chris agreed to serve on our board, and he brings everything that he has to support us, like capacity support in business and strategic planning. A McKinsey team helped us build our first strategic plan, inclusive of a budget, which allowed us to do institutional fundraising with real credibility. Later, another McKinsey team helped us with a scaling plan, which helped us begin to accept donor advised funds.

Jice: McKinsey understands that if the Black community is doing well economically, we’re all doing well. That is a model for how support should be. It’s frustrating when allies are content to hold control of resources and send them where they believe they make the most impact. Building our own institutions allows us to bring that function into our community and not be a recipient of help, but to build the capacity to be the help. Chris and his team really got that.

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