Voices

“If you want to make a difference, it’s not about just donating money”: Akil Benjamin on his new initiative to mentor 300 Black businesses

Akil Benjamin, Head of Research & Strategy COMUZI & Director of M&C Saatchi Saturday School on the power of collective action, and the importance of recognising the value of Black business.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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The death of George Floyd has placed the systemic racism that underpins society across the world into sharp focus. The aftermath of his brutal death has sparked global protests which have seen racist statues been taken down or forcibly removed and police departments disbanded. This is not just a moment in history but a movement to fundamentally challenge the inhumanity of racism.

This is not just an American issue. In the UK, as the conversation developed, many brands and businesses were keen to demonstrate their support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, whether that was on social media, through statements made or emails sent to staff. The reality is though that actions speak louder than words. In essence this is a movement which demands not that brands and businesses broadcast what they believe but instead show how they are ushering in much-needed change.

“If you want to make a difference, it’s not about just donating money out your pocket. How about you give someone valuable information,” says Akil Benjamin as he discusses the initiative he recently launched to mentor 300 Black Businesses. After Floyd’s death and that of Ahmaud Arbery, shot in America while out jogging, Benjamin said he saw a lot of people sharing their reactions through writing online. While he didn’t want to blog, he felt that, “I want to communicate but I don’t know what to say.” 

The more volunteers we get, the more money we’ll get, the more Black businesses we’ll teach.

Akil Benjamin

Deeds not words

Benjamin set up his own business, the purposeful design studio COMUZI seven years ago from a university dorm room alongside two co-founders, Alex Fefegha and Richard Fagbolagun. He also founded the Saturday School programme last year saying, “my goal was to teach the community the basics of business at scale”. The project focuses on teaching Black women, women of colour and young people aged 16-25.

Towards the end of 2019 M&C Saatchi saw what he was doing and offered him £50,000 to see 1,000 people through the school. The agency knew of Benjamin personally because Justin Tindall, previously CCO of the agency, used to be his mentor having met on a Fearless Futures D&I course. The money meant the school could organise themselves to teach business planning, digital marketing, mental health and wellbeing and business finances to those who needed it most.

As the School continued virtually under lockdown, Benjamin realised he had successfully taught his 1400th business. Reflecting on the experience he notes that “I think I kind of have superpowers for this.” As he realised the success, his first thought was, “why can’t this mentor programme be big?” He goes on to explain: “You see community initiatives, especially for Black people, you see them as small. And they’re small because for some reason or another they haven’t got the access or reach or understanding or organisation or all of the above to manage the rush of resources effectively.”

Benjamin says that while the resource was there, it was a tweet that one of his friends Jide posted that really demonstrated how great the demand was. Jide wrote that he’d help five Black businesses by making their websites as well as covering the domain and web hosting costs for a year, something that Benjamin points out was a significant request as so many Black businesses lack the digital footprint they so need to succeed. In 24 hours, he’d had 1,000 requests. “There was huge demand for people needing support,” explains Benjamin.

From there the conversation escalated. He first approached M&C Saatchi about supporting 25 Black businesses. The request was too easily met, but he thought, “if this is too easy, this probably hasn’t been easy for a lot of people for a long time so, I’m going to exploit the hell out of this.” So, he moved his sights to 100 businesses. Using the basic economic models from Saturday School, Benjamin established that he needed £10,000 to teach 100 businesses and “for everyone to be happy”. He met that £10,000 target in just the first 24 hours of the GoFundMe page going live.

The power of a collective

When a friend suggested that having reached the target he was now done, he took a moment to step back and examine what the real purpose of the initiative was. He thought back to the economic models and realised that if they just got more volunteers to mentor on board, he could help more businesses. “The more volunteers we get, the more money we’ll get, the more Black businesses we’ll teach,” he explained. “It’s the same infrastructure, you just need a little more time.”

From five to 25 to 300 businesses, says Benjamin, has been “a beautiful thing” to watch, as a community rallied around to offer support. This idea of community is something that Benjamin reveals he has always been an advocate for. He cites the number of people involved in the ongoing mentoring programme as proof that no one person can succeed in isolation. 

He frequently makes the point that this isn’t about him but rather about the power of a collective. “The Black community is known for it, what can happen when people and businesses pool resources. It’s called ‘pardna’”. With help from Renee Hunt, a Director of a large media company, Benjamin is building a website, the community resource hub, “so that this stuff will really be accessible worldwide.”

Hopefully you’re going to use this opportunity to understand, to ask questions, to get over your fears.

Akil Benjamin

Investing in change

Benjamin pays tribute to the support that M&C Saatchi have given him, particularly Moray MacLennan, Worldwide CEO, and Antonia Bazeley, Director, International Business Development, as well as his colleagues at COMUZI and the organisation Out the Box UK. “Because these are people who actually help me do this stuff on a day to day basis,” he explains. “I think it’s just really important to acknowledge that they exist because I don’t exist by myself.”

He also points the time he spent at ustwo’s incubator hub as pivotal to his education on “human business.” Watching the way the businesses’ two founders Matt ‘Mills’ Miller and John ‘Sinx’ Sinclair worked inspired Benjamin. He says of the pair that “they’re people that bake so much time and energy into building something with care and craft.” In his short few years there, he adds, he “learnt the impact of doing human business, or really looking after your people and your community.”

A global resource hub

Benjamin’s aim is to build a resource hub for everyone to be able to use, whether they’re on the mentorship programme or not. He wants as many people as possible to make use of the resources available because, “if I sell this thing out, this only shows more demand.” The lessons he has already developed as part of M&C Saturday School will be one of many offerings hosted on the new site that will also include an area where people can access the mentorship programme.

Alongside a learning and development expert Alex Migale, Benjamin says he is working out a way to create the specifics of the “mentorship programme tailored for Black business.” This includes ensuring that the mentors themselves receive the relevant “structure and guidance,” something Benjamin believes is vital to the overall success of the programme itself.

This process, this initiative he says, “will be a nuanced lesson, it will be a subtle lesson, it will be a silent lesson. But it will be one of the biggest subversive lessons we’ve tried to achieve, and I love it.”

For Benjamin, the process of mentoring a Black business is not a moment for people to feel pleased they now have a Black friend. What happens, he says, is that, “You’ve got someone that’s got a responsibility to you and you’ve got a responsibility to them. You’re building a relationship. In building that relationship, hopefully you’re going to use this opportunity to understand, to ask questions, to get over your fears. I’m not saying to be explicit like hey, can I touch your hair. No.”

He goes on to say that this programme can become people’s training ground to learn: “Can you use your observations to understand how this community is different from you and how you might be able to work with them? Not just today in this context, but today in a wider context with other people that you work with. Because I’m sure you have subordinates that are Black and I’m sure their experience of you might not be what you think it is.”

No value, no entry

Benjamin makes the economic case for supporting Black business, by demonstrating just how much he has turned the initial monetary investment into. He also says that he does not want brands and individuals thinking that they can “just leverage us for free.” As he carves out a space for brands to offer to help and support Black businesses, Benjamin’s message to those brands is, “you have to come and deliver value because it’s no value, no entry,” a lesson he learned himself from Shannie Mears, Co-Founder of The Elephant Room.

He gives recognition to the people who have been supporting Black communities for years through GoFundMe pages and other resources, saying that they are now getting the attention they deserve. Almost like the cream is rising to the top.” This includes organisations like Out the Box UK, YSYS, BYP Network, Kwanda and the youth writer, advocate and writer Tanya Compass.

As the initiative continues to attract investment, both of time and money, Benjamin is excited as he revels in how big the project could get. “There are so many different roads to go down,” he says. The way he is feeling right now? “I want to ooze gratitude,” he smiles, both to the people he’s working alongside and to those who are demonstrating their willingness to help.

As to the people, brands and businesses keen to get involved in the programme, Benjamin’s parting words are brief: “CEOs, brand managers, people with money to spend, come find me. I’m a nice person.” A nice person with a mission which is far too vital to ignore. 

 

If you’d like to learn more about the mentoring initiative, visit the Mentor 300 Black Businesses' website or the initiative's GoFundMe page. You can also email Akil Benjamin directly – akil@ssxl.org

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