Black Business Initiative

For years now, Denver has been a hub for businesses, with companies of all shapes and sizes choosing to relocate or expand into the region. In 2021, a report by U.S. News & World named Colorado the second highest economy in the United States, and in the same year, Denver became the top location for STEM growth and careers, showing that progressive and adaptive industries are drawn here.  

With all these opportunities coming out of Denver, it seems as though everyone should benefit from the growth. However, BIPOC-owned businesses and communities don’t always feel the benefits. With only about 1% of Denver’s businesses being Black-owned, the region’s economic growth is clearly not shown in BIPOC-business ownership. 

This disparity has not gone unnoticed, and many people are rallying behind efforts to increase the number of BIPOC-owned businesses in Denver. 

In 2015, Jice Johnson founded the Black Business Initiative (BBI), because she saw the need for more resources to provide Black entrepreneurs support in getting their businesses off the ground. 

She explained that the death of Trayvon Martin, and the civil unrest surrounding it, was what sparked her involvement in activism. It was around this time that she saw the docuseries “Hidden Colors” by Tariq Nasheed, which opened her eyes to the barriers that exist for Black communities and business owners. Specifically, she learned from Dr. Claud Anderson, author of PowerNomics: The National Plan to Empower Black America, that in a capitalistic society, a community needs a strong economic base to have a voice, and that Black communities often have many barriers holding them back from achieving this economic success and making their voices heard.  

“That really resonated with me so deeply,” Johnson said, “It really began to just send me on a … deep journey of research to try and understand why [Black Americans] were where we were as a socioeconomic group, and then what were some of those civic barriers? And why do those exist? And what are some of the solutions that exist to overcoming those obstacles?” 

Johnson said that it was this realization that created the five pillars of BBI’s mission: business acumen, mentorship, capital, patronage and policy. She emphasized that these are the foundational understandings that business owners need not only to run a successful business, but also to gain social capital and access to a voice for their own community. “Small businesses really run this country to a great extent,” Johnson stressed. “In smaller communities, smaller businesses really are leaders in those spaces.” When a community has few Black-owned businesses, that means less Black community members have voice and influence.  

BBI is happy to work with Prosper CO, Johnson said. “Representation for the Black community is important,” Johnson stated. “I think sometimes when we’re looking at diversity … What we’re looking at is, ‘Who are the faces sitting around the table?’, and so there are other Black faces that are sitting at the table in Prosper CO, but there are no other organizations that are representing the needs of the Black community at the steering committee level … I was happy to be that voice. 

“I do see myself as an expert in this space,” Johnson continued, “so I was very glad to come on board.” 

In 2020, Citigroup released a report analyzing how much the United States economy lost from 2000 to 2020 due to discrimination and unequal opportunities for Black Americans, including wage gaps, less access to higher education, denials for home and business loans, and fair and equitable lending. The result? The U.S. economy missed out on a $16 trillion potential. The report also states that had fair and equitable trading been provided to Black entrepreneurs, the United States might have seen a $13 trillion increase in business revenue and 6.1 million jobs created per year. 

Johnson cited this report, saying “The economy works together, and … if there’s a weak link inside of your economy, your economy isn’t strong … When [the social class gap] gets too wide, and these classes are stretched too far apart, you start to experience a lot of economic turmoil.”

A major project that Johnson and BBI are taking on is the New Community Transformation Fund (NCTF), of which Johnson is the founding principal. The NCTF is a Denver-based $50 million venture capital fund that has a goal of investing primarily in companies owned or operated by diverse business leaders. The fund will also invest in both current and prospective Denver companies, and it will require founders and portfolio companies to locate and operate in Denver. 

“When the murder of George Floyd happened, there were billions of dollars that were pledged to black communities,” stated Johnson, “and, as of right now, approximately 3-4% of that has been deployed. Well, part of the reason that lack of deployment has happened is because the Black community owns very few institutions that can house those dollars in the redistribution process.  

“That was something that we were already working on,” continued Johnson, “and access to capital being one of our pillars … requires for us to figure out how we begin to house capital as one of those resources … [The NCTF] has a twofold effect, because not only does a very small percentage of venture capital go to founders of color, but also across the country there are very few people of color that are fund managers. So, what we actually have is a twofold approach here. We are both creating fund managers of color, as well as funding businesses.”

When the murder of George Floyd happened, there were billions of dollars that were pledged to black communities, and, as of right now, approximately 3-4% of that has been deployed. Well, part of the reason that lack of deployment has happened is because the Black community owns very few institutions that can actually house those dollars in the redistribution process.

 – Jice Johnson, founder & CVO of Black Business Initiative

Johnson also stressed that the NCTF not only benefits the business owners, but the community as a whole, since each business funded by NCTF will provide job opportunities and new ideas to Denver. She said, “We are working to infuse the economy with fresh blood … If we start to invest in organizations that are founded by people of color, their boards don’t look the same, their workforce doesn’t look the same, their environment doesn’t look the same … We’re not telling people to go and change what they’re doing, we’re saying this is the new way to do it, and we’re going to make your old system look pretty archaic.” 

Johnson said she’s been approached by several organizations who wanted to bring her on to discuss the problems and issues of Black employment and other equity initiatives, and she has turned every offer down. “I’m no longer interested in talking about the problem,” Johnson explained, “the problem is incredibly well-documented. There are studies. There is research. There are people that have been saying this for decades … We’re not talking about what the problem is anymore, we have to only focus on actually moving the needle forward and solutions.” 

“One of the sentiments that has been said to me on multiple occasions … is people are tired of talking about race. I say, ‘Well, I’m Black every day,’” Johnson said. “The idea that we’re going to shift or change a 500-year issue in the course of a couple years … is not reasonable. These systems are deeply rooted, so that means that we have to begin to do some digging, and having some hard conversations, and I think that organizations need to be willing to open up their policies and their practices, and be willing to make major system-shattering changes … and be willing to have the conversation as to what it’s going to take to make actual change and move past talking about it.” 

While we can take pathways to move forward, BBI is working to provide Black entrepreneurs with the funding, mentorship and knowledge that they need not only to run a business, but to shape their community and build stability that will last for generations. 

Panoramic Pro Painting: An Example of Success

One of the businesses that BBI has directly impacted is Panoramic Pro Painting, founded by Colorado native Evan Simmons. His company does interior and exterior painting for both residential and commercial clients. After working for Sherwin Williams Paint Company for ten years, Simmons noticed that there was a widening gap in the customer service connection and knowledge within the industry. Simmons saw the opportunity to found his own painting business where he could inform customers of what they need and provide direct connections.  

He met Johnson by chance about a year ago, after working on a project for her old home. It was there that Johnson told him about BBI and all the resources it provided for Black entrepreneurs like himself.  

Simmons says the connections he’s made through BBI have been one of his biggest takeaways, including his connection with the SIYG Consulting Firm. “[SIYG has] been pretty much my business coach and holding me accountable for the last year,” Simmons said. “I’ve been able to grow, I’ve had somebody there to hold me accountable to what I say I’m going to do, given me all the tools that I need to kind of create my plan … That’s just been a game changer for my business.”  

When thinking about the most important lesson he’s learned from working with BBI, Simmons said, “I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity, and a lot of resources that are available to help young entrepreneurs … There’s people here that are actually here to help people like myself, and that want to see us grow and want to see us succeed … You’re not in it by yourself.” 

When asked about what they would like to say to any Black entrepreneurs thinking about connecting with BBI but have concerns, both Johnson and Simmons said, “Just do it.” 

“Explore those opportunities, don’t always think that, ‘Oh I’ve got too much on my plate. I don’t have time for that,’” said Simmons. “Reach out, make a phone call, sit down and have that meeting, because you’d be surprised [to see] all these tools that are out there that could really help you if you just took the time to kind of explore them.” 

“Go for it,” Johnson said, “We’re here to support you.” 

Jice Johnson, Founder & CVO of Black Business Initiative