To celebrate Black History Month, we caught up with some up-and-coming entrepreneurs and innovators in the Black community to ask about what inspires them and sparks joy, what challenges them, their hopes for the future, and more. Meet the individuals who are changing the world—and making history.
"The Black community creates from a place that has pure intention behind it," said musician 6LACK. "Once it touches the world, it spreads fast." The singer-rapper-songwriter, known for his melancholy tunes and lyrical vulnerability, said it's important to remember and be grateful for the good things. "I try to stay as close to the light as I can." And he stays busy. In 2020 alone, he released his own single, collaborated on tracks with Selena Gomez, Gorillaz, and Sir Elton John, and even launched his own signature brand of hot sauce. He said creativity is key, and in today's "anything goes" music landscape, it's easier than ever for creators to find an audience for something that is unique and personal. "The rules of popular music have changed," he said. "It's now more about what we're making, how we're talking, what we're doing—and people follow suit." Despite his successes, 6LACK remains humble, finding inspiration in self-improvement. "Every day is practice for who you are as a person."
Dr. Aleron Kong
Creating worlds has always been second nature for best-selling fantasy author Dr. Aleron Kong, even during his previous career as a physician. Today, his comedic fantasy series, "The Land," has sold over a million copies, a major victory for inclusion and representation in a realm not typically known for its Black creators—or characters. "It's really important to me that when people read my books, they get that it's a Black character," said Dr. Kong. And though Dr. Kong's work these days may be otherworldly, it speaks to some very real-world concerns here in ours. "From gender equality to race, I want my books to have real conversations." Dr. Kong believes in the power of literature to lift up underserved communities, and he draws constant motivation and joy from readers who are connecting emotionally with his work, including those who have written to tell him that his stories have been life changing. "It never really occurred to me that I would have an impact or be able to connect with people all around the world," he said. "I just feel really blessed that I'm even able to do that."
Author Sharon Cooper is as excited about social change as her characters are about—well, each other. As a romance novelist, the passion inherent in Sharon’s work often echoes her real-world passion about Black empowerment. "We're creative people," she said, "but sometimes our creativity is not appreciated." In addition to the usual challenges faced by writers ("Writing is hard!"), Cooper said that young Black creators face extra hurdles, such as a lack of representation in media and culture, which may not encourage them to follow their dreams. "It's important to see people who look like me creating our own destiny, to remind those coming up that anything is possible," she said. "Black entrepreneurship leaves something behind for the next generation to build upon."
"The impact that I hope to see is opportunity being provided where there is little," said Ellana Turner, who believes that innovation is vital for the Black community. "It's how we stay competitive in the world." Turner is the founder and designer of Cloth & Cord, a website that sells "wearable art" inspired by her African ancestry. She points out the importance of Black-owned businesses that show younger generations a path to prosperity besides more stereotypical routes such as athletics or music. “When a child sees Black people not only working for companies but owning them, it shows them that they can also do that." Turner uses her platform as a successful entrepreneur to give back to her community, supporting younger generations of Black creators through financial contributions as well as mentorship. "Those who are blessed have to find a way to become a blessing," she said. "So that we all flourish."
Danyel Surrency Jones
"Collective brilliance is the solution. Positive thoughts breed positive actions,” said Danyel Surrency Jones, co-founder and CEO of Powerhandz, an online source for athletic training products. "The mind is so powerful, and how we use it can change the trajectory of our lives." Jones acknowledges the many hurdles faced by the Black community but believes that change is possible—and that Black innovation can help lead the way. "When innovation is fostered in the Black community, we close gaps on all social disparities." She commends those who are getting out there and making their voices heard—getting into "good trouble," as she puts it—and said that knowledge is key to creating lasting change. "Now, I understand that access to information is the key to creating my own valuation of self-worth," Jones said. "You don't know what you don't know until you decide not knowing is disastrous."
Black representation in the business world is critical, according to Matt Easton of AWS Sales—not only because it can pave the way to greater economic health within the Black community but also because of the sense of autonomy it brings. "It provides a voice for a community who for so long have had someone else speaking for them." Fueled by his faith, and a belief in the power of science, Easton mentors young people through Amazon's Future Engineer program, hoping to provide the next generation with increased access to technology as a way of thinking about problem solving. "The Black community has unique challenges that could be solved through socially responsible innovation." Despite his own considerable contributions, Easton is humbled by the legacy of his heritage. "I have no desire to disrespect those who have gone before me by giving less than my very best."
"Whatever you think you're worth, double it!" For Alexandra Mitchelson Events Product Manager at Amazon, adopting a healthy entitlement is something she had to learn and instills in her junior colleagues. "It's become clear to me that Black people undervalue ourselves, especially in corporate America." Mitchelson wants her mentees to know that the struggle doesn't have to be the norm, that they can achieve absolutely anything, and that their voices matter. "I want my work to have a sustainable impact on the youth and how they think and move." Recently named Vice President of Amazon's Black Employee Network, it's clear that Mitchelson practices what she preaches, with a little help from one of her biggest inspirations: "Beyoncé is bae."
"Black people are the foundation of culture," said Timothy Hinshaw, Head of Hip-Hop and R&B at Amazon Music and creator of Rotation, a curated playlist that places Black music at the forefront. "Our voice, our ideas, and our existence matter." Growing up in a tough neighborhood in Compton, Hinshaw credits the support of family and friends for the inspiration it took to go beyond mere survival and create avenues to success. "My mom and my grandmother made so many sacrifices to see that I had opportunity," he said. "I owed it to them to make the best of those opportunities." These sorts of opportunities grow with increased knowledge, Hinshaw said, and the first step is cultivating the innovation that occurs naturally in the Black community, educating young people on potential career paths outside of entertainment. "If you visit some of the most underserved Black communities in America, you'll find creativity in all forms at an extremely high level." Above all, he encourages aspiring Black creators to stay true to themselves. "Never be afraid to embrace your Blackness."
Lenore Champagne Beirne
"The status quo is unacceptable."
Lenore Champagne Beirne is an entrepreneur and founder of Bright Ventures—who in times of challenge finds joy in seeing the Black community unite, be it for social change or simply for togetherness and healing. "That's joyful to witness, even when the catalyst is grief," she said. She takes her role as culture shifter seriously, reflecting on the legacy of her own father, who, as a pioneering Black entrepreneur, is a "constant source of inspiration." Her advice for aspiring Black creators? "Honor yourself, trust yourself, push yourself. And never stop learning."
"When others count you out, show them they don't know how to count."
Growing up in challenging circumstances, Quanique Toston was determined not to become a statistic. "Instead of being consumed by it all, those life lessons gave me the motivation to strive for greatness." With an adventurous spirit and the support of her faith, Toston defied the overwhelming odds to become a successful entrepreneur as the founder of LQ Logistics, an Amazon Delivery Service Partner. Toston believes strongly in the power of Black entrepreneurship to improve society and help close the racial wealth gap. She said the idea of Black success should be the norm, not the exception. "It should not be a 'wow' moment when our culture is spotlighted." She encourages her fellow Black entrepreneurs to take risks, and she cautions that, although not every dream may end up being a success, "Don't let that stop you from dreaming."
"It's OK to start small. Just do it."
Black History Month is a time of gratitude and inspiration for Lourdes Liz, founder of skincare company 16J Organics and a firm believer in the power of Black business. "It is vital that we encourage younger generations to pursue entrepreneurial careers," she said. While some may feel overwhelmed by their lack of resources, she encourages them to press on. "Start with what you can do right now." Liz hopes more Black people will consider taking the first step into owning a business, considering the crucial role Black-owned businesses can play in strengthening Black communities. "Feeding jobs into our local economies strengthens our community, our voices, and our political empowerment." Today, Liz is hopeful about her own legacy. "If I could inspire others to take that first baby step in launching their business, I would be happy."
Johny Delvar and Christopher Mundy
"Nothing is impossible."
Sometimes inspiration springs from the most ordinary of circumstances. When Johny Delvar and Christopher Mundy observed their neighbors struggling to carry multiple food items on their way to friends' houses and family events, inspiration struck: "We decided there had to be a better way." And so Lock It Plates was born. It's no surprise that the original inspiration came in the observation of a simple act of community like sharing a meal, given the co-founders' belief in the power of Black community. They say it's crucial to encourage more Black innovators to pursue their ideas, and representation is a key factor. "If there are people in leadership roles who look similar to you—share similar background and experiences as you—that gives you hope." So, what gives them joy? "Joy is like peace; you have to have it deep within."
"All of the contributions that Black people have made… can't be contained to just one month."
Latasha Gillespie is the Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Amazon Studios—as well as creator of the Howard Entertainment program, which aims to create opportunity for Black students in the entertainment industry. She believes that innovation and entrepreneurship are in the very DNA of Black people. "Necessity is the mother of invention," she said. She also believes that within Black innovation lies the power to change the world. "Black people define culture. We create a culture and then freely share it." Gillespie wants to hand down the best possible world to future generations, and she hopes that the legacy of Black people is one of hope and cultural autonomy. "It's crucial today that we not only own our own businesses, but that we own our own homes, our own stories and narratives."
There can be a high cost to "living Black" in America, and Shawn D. Rochester is on a mission to prove it. In his book, "The Black Tax," he describes the weighty financial burden that centuries of oppression have placed on the backs of the Black community—and he offers a solution. "People need to see what's being lost with all of this discriminatory behavior." He also points out the need for a change in the popular image of Black people: "It's like a funhouse [mirror]. It's all distorted. That's not who you are." Though he acknowledges serious hurdles in the path of progress for Black people, including major gaps in unemployment rates and not enough Black-owned businesses, he remains optimistic. "That motivates me. I think it's correctable."
"If I put in the work and time, I can solve any problem."
The virtue of "getting better" has always been important to Tony Weldon, a Commercial Architect for AWS Cloud who said he approaches business the same way he approaches a mile run. "I view challenges as opportunities to demonstrate improvement." Similarly, he believes that the Black community, and society in general, can benefit from the continued empowerment of Black business owners. "If we cultivate this talent instead of stifling it, it's a win for everyone." Reflecting on the past, and the somewhat random nature of his career experience, he offers the following advice for aspiring Black entrepreneurs: "Don't be afraid to experiment. Make mistakes."
"Black culture is Black people being themselves."
Supporting her community is something Angelina Howard, Senior Product Manager for Amazon Digital Video Games, is passionate about—particularly during the challenging times of 2020. "Being able to leverage my voice and platform to push for change gave me a lot of motivation to not give up." As former President of Amazon's Black Employee Network, Howard has been a dedicated advocate for BIPOC employees and continues to push for inclusion and representation at all levels within Amazon and in the community at large. Howard is optimistic, predicting a near future where Black platforms are empowered to "showcase and benefit from their culture instead of asking permission."