Jill Johnson is the CEO at the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL) and Women of Color Connecting. Both organizations champion small business growth and development, with Women of Color Connecting targeting inclusion.
Professional WOMAN’s Magazine (PWM) spoke with Johnson about her goals and career journey.
PWM: Can you tell us about your career journey?
Johnson: My career journey started as a child working with my parents at their Amway business, and later when they started their newspaper publishing company. I saw what owning a small business was like and learned about the impact of access to capital and cash flow early. Working with them was the only job I had until getting an internship at Goldman Sachs during my junior summer in college. Upon graduation, I entered the Goldman Sachs financial analyst program in mergers and acquisitions. During the three years in that program, I saw an entirely different approach to and outcome of building a business. I saw clients who built sizable businesses that they were able to sell for nearly $100 million. These clients used business ownership to build wealth; this was a different approach from my parents and their business owner peer group, who were focused on earning a living. Not seeing a viable career path for myself at Goldman, I returned to work with my parents for several years. During the dot com boom, I stumbled into writing business plans after a friend asked for help for a dot com she had started. There I got a first-hand look at the different experiences that people had raising capital based on any of a number of factors, with race and gender seeming to be a key determinant. That experience led me to question where business owners like my parents or tech founders who were not highly networked white men would go to get help raising equity capital or figure out how to successfully exit their business. The answer to that question eventually led to the launch of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership, which my father and I co-founded together.
PWM: How can people/organizations champion small businesses inclusion and empower women of color?
Johnson: This is a lot simpler than people think. The answer is to be a champion and work to become an ally. This means that you take every opportunity you can make to buy from a small business, you go out of your way to purchase from black-owned businesses, and if you are in the position to hire vendors, make sure women of color are included in your vendor pool. This all starts with making the effort to identify entrepreneurs of color and then doing whatever you can to open doors for them. I believe that empowerment comes from within. To believe that we can empower others is to assume a level of power or control over others, an attitude which is actually part of the problem. The way to help women of color feel empowered is to see them, to acknowledge them, buy from them, and open doors to opportunity for them.
PWM: Tell us about your organizations, what you’ve accomplished, and what you hope to accomplish.
Johnson: The Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL) is an independent, not‐for‐profit organization that supports economic development through entrepreneurship. We are experts in creating and implementing small business programming in support of larger economic development objectives. Our mission is to eradicate the systemic barriers that prevent people of color from creating wealth through entrepreneurship. We focus a lot on leveraging the power of relationship capital. We have developed three brands around our core programmatic focus areas: Women of Color Connecting, The Making of Black Angels, and Small Businesses Need Us. We have helped thousands of entrepreneurs navigate the pitfalls of business ownership, giving them the runway they need to get to a successful outcome. The longer your runway, the more time you have to figure things out. Helping undercapitalized entrepreneurs figure out how to extend their runway is one of our core strengths. Our focus now is on helping more entrepreneurs create and execute a plan to get to an exit and build wealth. People of color and women who are able to do this often recycle capital and other resources back into people of color and women. Expanding this cycle is what will lead to greater inclusion in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We hope to significantly increase our volunteer community so that we have the capacity to help more entrepreneurs.
PWM: What are your Top 7 Predictions and Pitfalls to Look out for in 2021 on Capital Inclusion?
Johnson: I can’t say that I have any predictions for capital inclusion in 2021. I don’t really think that the situation will improve dramatically. I think there will be more companies that engage in activity for which they seek publicity and recognition, but at a fundamental level, they will still not be buying from a more diverse pool of vendors, they will not be parking their dollars with a more diverse pool of fund managers, nor will they be hiring a more diverse pool of talent into positions with P&L responsibility. It is likely that companies will announce big programs to dole out small dollar amounts to small business owners as grants.
I think we will continue to see an acceleration in the market for black and Latinx-led VC funds. I hope that the limited partner community will entrust these fund managers with larger amounts of capital. Getting more money into the hands of black and brown people and women of color especially is going to require more people who look like them being in control of the capital. This is the path to clearing the blind spots that currently exist in the capital markets.
If you are a high growth potential Women of Color entrepreneur or an ally who supports Women of Color entrepreneurs, we invite you to join our community. Inclusion must be intentional and change starts with you. Visit www.woccon.org to join the Women of Color Connecting community today. Follow us on Facebook or Instagram at W O C Connecting.
Photo Credit: Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership