Fast-rising entrepreneurs Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson don't know who they'd be without their hometown and the community of people who challenged them to make the most of their lives. So they feel called to give back.
"Rod and I have a lot of conversations on what we're building and what that means for the 'normal' of the future, for our kids," said Cezar. "You know, this business was built by two Black men between 2018 and 2021."
Cezar and Johnson have pride in what they're creating through these turbulent times. Their coffee and tea company, BLK & Bold, is growing fast, and it recently launched a new blend called "The Warm Up" in partnership with the NBA.
They're making all this progress by working hard, but they're adamant that they don't see themselves as self-made. "In my opinion, there's no such thing as self-made," Johnson said. "It's definitely a community effort. People were opening doors for you."
Cezar's grandmother is one of those people who opened doors. She raised Cezar, and she set up a full basketball court in her backyard so he and his friends would have a safe place to hang out, have fun, and blow off steam. Johnson, who lived across the street, was a regular on that court.
The basketball games Cezar and Johnson played—and the grandmotherly love, vigilance, and determination that made the backyard court possible—are an example of what Cezar and Johnson see as a larger truth about their hometown of Gary, Indiana.
"The city has had its historical woes, but we have a lot of great people who are always looking out for each other," Cezar said. "It's something that creates scrappy and resourceful people. They can feel like they're the richest people in the world if they have the right support system around them."
Johnson added: "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for my support system, if it weren't for people who believed in me beyond my own thought process at any given time. So, I want to be very intentional to ensure that other people who are growing up in similar circumstances feel as though they have resources and people who care about them."
BLK & Bold contributes 5% of its profits to organizations that provide after-school activities, coding camps, urban farming, mentorship, and other programs to support children and teenagers in need across the U.S. The company's coast-to-coast contributions include Sunset Youth Services in San Francisco, Code Fever Miami in Florida, and the By Degrees Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa, where BLK & Bold is based.
“The opportunity to connect with people inside Amazon to continue to help us mature our capabilities is super validating but also extremely rewarding. With Amazon support, the sky really feels like it's the limit.”
Johnson and Cezar embrace dual roles as mentors and lifelong learners. Only four years ago, the co-founders were both in their previous careers—Cezar in retail merchandising and Johnson in higher-education fundraising. Now they have 10 employees, and their coffee and tea products are on the shelves of national chains.
There was a lot to learn in between.
"I bought a tabletop coffee roaster and worked with my father-in-law to install it in my garage," Cezar said. "Rod began to become a self-trained coder to start building our first website."
Their latest opportunity to learn is coming through Amazon's new Black Business Accelerator (BBA). Amazon's BBA provides access to capital, business guidance, mentorship, and marketing support to help Black business owners succeed as sellers in Amazon's store.
"The opportunity to connect with people inside Amazon to continue to help us mature our capabilities is super validating but also extremely rewarding," Cezar said. "With Amazon support, the sky really feels like it's the limit."
Cezar and Johnson are already rising fast in business. They credit their friendship. "We're on a three-year journey as a business that usually takes an organization a lot longer to culminate," Cezar said. "While the business is three years old, we've got 20-plus years of executive team relationship."
They have advice to other best friends thinking about going into business together: Savor the fun of it, but understand that friendship's true power as a business tool is the ability to be extra direct and real with one another. It's also a chance to deepen the friendship.
"You don't have to look over your shoulder or feel insecure about where that feedback's coming from," Cezar said. "We always know it's coming from a good place. You can say, 'I've got to be a little bit vulnerable right now.' It's always that sigh of relief."
"Our relationship has evolved over the years in probably the best ways that I would imagine," Johnson added. "It's certainly helpful running a business with someone that I have such a long, profound history with, because we can have those hard conversations, and it's fun while we're doing it."