We’re so excited to be launching Change is Brewing, our new Limited Batch flavor. It features unforgettable artwork by the multitalented Laci Jordan, outrageously delicious brownies from Greyston Bakery, our long-time social enterprise partners, and incredible coffee from BLK & Bold, a three-year-old coffee company based in Des Moines, Iowa, that contributes 5% of its profits to programs that support at-risk youth.
Recently we got the chance to talk to Rod Johnson and Pernell Cezar, BLK & Bold co-founders, about how they met, how they started their business, and why it’s so important for businesses to be a force for good.
What’s the BLK & Bold origin story? How did the two of you meet and decide to go into business together?
Pernell and I grew up just across the street from each other in Gary, Indiana, and have known each other for about 20 years.
We've been in business now for about three years. It started with Pernell giving me a call and asking if I drank coffee. I was like, "Actually, I'm more of a tea guy!" But in our respective careers, we each had spent a lot of time in coffee shops. Being more of the coffee connoisseur, he got the idea to explore what it would be like to go on the other side of the counter. Ultimately it just was us taking an interest that we had in coffee and tea and trying to build a business around it that serves this community that we really care about.
What made you decide to build that community-centered mission into your business plan from the beginning?
I'm not sure how familiar you are with Gary, Indiana, or its plight, but we were fortunate to overcome some of those circumstances. That’s why there’s a social impact mission embedded in the core of our business. It's a matter of us not forgetting where we come from and trying to build our business to serve as an example for other corporations that you should be investing in the people who were there for you.
To follow up on that, what does it mean to you to be a Black-owned business at this moment in history, when there’s a brighter spotlight shining on equity and racial justice and representation? There’s a lot to celebrate, but there’s also a lot of work left to do.
Whether you look at coffee shops or at retailer distribution, there’s been a lack of engagement of the Black community when it comes to the economics of coffee. But at the same time, as we build a business model that creates a value add or value proposition to premium coffee, making it more accessible at mainstream places, connecting people back to domestic social impact, all while adding representation into that space, the fact that we’re the first nationally distributed Black brand doesn’t feel celebratory. That's just a fact-based statement, right?
Don't get me wrong. We definitely celebrate the impact that we do bring. I'd say even more we celebrate the momentum we continue to build because it truly solidifies the fact that conscious consumerism can be accessible. And that focusing on youth in need and under-resourced communities can be done as well.
You mentioned the historic lack of engagement when it comes to the coffee industry and the Black community. Have you found yourselves counteracting that in some way by taking on more of a leadership or mentor role?
Last year, I would say, we were put on a main stage when our energy was circled around taking care of our families, then circled around supporting our community and wanting to protest, but at the same time, being an outlet for other people wanting to protest and having to double down on what our business stands for in order to be a part of that experience. We have people pouring into us and that brings an even greater sense of accountability and how we pour it back into youth and our community.
And so as we build, we definitely look to use our voices as a megaphone to let people know that they can beat the odds, they can accomplish anything, even in areas where they don't see representation, they can pursue their dreams. So coaching and mentoring along the way has been really important for us.
Do you ever find it at all frustrating if the coverage of BLK & Bold focuses too much on the fact that you are Black men who started a business, as opposed to the coffee you roast or your mission to give back to the community?
I think there are lots of different ways for people to discover us. But when we're only talking about coffee, and the quality of our coffee, for example, we're not talking about our impact and we're not talking about the impact of representation. And when we're talking about just supporting youth, well, people may not think that we make a great cup of coffee. So we think that who we are as a total body of work is most important.
But what I will say is that while there’s a need for society to support Black businesses, there’s also a need for education about why that’s important. We want to move society forward, but that can't happen if we’re not educating people on how to move forward as well, versus just leaning on the top-line marketing or media aspect of it. Without that education, it becomes a bit performative, just jumping up to say we support Black businesses and leaving it at that.
It feels like coffee, much like ice cream, is a great way to bring people together to have those kinds of conversations.
I think about growing up and seeing my grandparents at the kitchen table, having conversations daily, over cups of coffee. And those conversations ranged across a multitude of topics. Personally, that wasn't part of the reason why I wanted to get into this business, but it is a benefit that we are able to perpetuate those types of conversations by way of this drink that we casually enjoy. I mean, the domino effect of that is the conversations that stem from it.
We're in the middle of a lot of change—political change, cultural change. What role do you think businesses like yours have in this moment?
We built this business to be an example for others that you can prioritize purpose as well as profit. It gives the community a glimmer of hope. It gives them something to latch onto during these trying times, that through their everyday practices, their daily ritual, so to speak, that it's much greater than just that cup of coffee. So I think that purpose-driven businesses play a major role, and not only during trying times. I wish more businesses understood the impact that they could make by investing in their communities, and, as I mentioned, hopefully they'll look to us as an example.
I think that having larger corporations and entities actually invest in their consumers’ communities is the way that we truly make fundamental change. If companies only build transactional relationships, people may enjoy and love their widget, but they won't have their hearts. And if you don't have their hearts, you can ultimately be replaced.
That approach to doing business and doing good is something BLK & Bold clearly shares with Ben & Jerry’s. How did the Change is Brewing collaboration come about?
We’re a B Corp and Ben & Jerry’s is a B Corp, so that’s where the connection began. Ben & Jerry's was looking to move further into their values in diversifying their supplier community and supporting the Black community, and that’s when we were first connected with the team.
I did a backflip and I'm not athletic! It was a dream come true. It speaks to that shared alignment. It speaks to a large corporation that's actually putting substance behind their plans. It's not just lip service. Like, "Hey, we actually want to exemplify what we convey to the rest of the world. We walk it like we talk it.” I'm glad that we are the business that helps them, in a small capacity, actually bring forth their plans to support Black-owned businesses and small businesses.
Also when we finally heard that the name was Change is Brewing, we broke out into a little break dance battle. We were happy as hell with that name because it embodies so much.
I love a good double entendre. And that was chef's kiss. That was creme de la creme.
What does a collaboration like this, along with the others that you're building, mean for the people you're trying to help and the community initiatives that you’re supporting?
We started this business to support people who had run up against the kind of obstacles that we were fortunate to overcome, and to be able to reinvest in the organizations that are attempting to service that community. It's very rewarding to have that amplified times X by way of our partnership with Ben & Jerry's. Again, I don't have the words to fully describe that, but the more that our business grows, the more our support grows for that very vulnerable demographic.
I mean, we saw last year that, and even continuing into 2021, that the people who are most in need are our youth, and the fact that we can be a vessel of support in some capacity to help them is why we started in the first place. So again, I’m just really very grateful that a light will shine on those respective organizations because they're doing awesome work in those communities, talking about financial literacy, or computer literacy, or helping children with very tangible skills. Whether it be the Conservation Corps out in LA or the City Growers out in New York, or providing some type of mentorship by way of The Black Man Can, I'm glad that these organizations will have their missions supported as a result of our partnership with Ben & Jerry's.