Black business leaders pay it forward
“Business can be a force for good. I absolutely believe it,” says Byron L. Boston, CEO and co-chief investment officer of Glen Allen-based real estate investment trust Dynex Capital Inc. “CEOs have an obligation to use profit to do positive things in the community.”
Boston and 11 other prominent Black business and nonprofit leaders spoke to Virginia Business about why the bottom line has never been purely about profit for them. Many report overcoming racial and financial hurdles to achieve success in their fields, and they say that never would have happened if it weren’t for many helping hands along the way, not to mention the unflagging support of the African American community. Now, they are fortunate enough to be in a position to pay it forward in a variety of ways.
“One of the biggest things I can do is to give back,” Boston says, and as head of Dynex, which has a market capitalization of more than $615 million, he’s well-positioned to do that.
Not by chance are equality and inclusion listed prominently among Dynex’s core values, and Boston makes sure that his company lives up to that ideal by having half of its staff and board made up of women and minority groups. Boston says he’s also changing outdated hiring dynamics by building a robust internship program.
Boston did not grow up privileged. His father was a World War II vet from Mississippi who had only eight years of schooling, and Boston, who grew up in St. Louis, was the first person in his family to go to college. Many barriers made his route to the boardroom “a ginormous cultural stretch,” says Boston, who’s adamant that he wouldn’t be where he is now without people who guided him toward success. For example, his high school football coach made sure that he was recruited by a top academic college, although Boston didn’t even have the appropriate clothes to wear when he left for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
After he earned his MBA from the University of Chicago, Dartmouth alumni kept on “coaching him all the way to Wall Street,” Boston says. Before joining Dynex in 2008, he worked at financial flagships such as Credit Suisse First Boston, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Freddie Mac. He also founded his own REIT, Sunset Financial Resources Inc., in 2004, selling it in 2006.
“Money in the hands of a good man is a powerful thing,” says Boston, who last year established a scholarship at Dartmouth for first-generation college students. He also has mentored first-generation college students at the University of Richmond and Virginia State University, as well as numerous young professionals.
“I’m very in tune with those who are like myself who need guidance. I’ve got years of mentoring other professionals at this point,” he says. “I’m really proud of my life. I’ve lived it outside my comfort zone, and I want others like me to realize that there is a broader world out there.”
But it’s a world that comes with challenges for Black Americans, many of whom regularly face challenging financial and cultural inequities. Given that, Virginia Business asked some of Virginia’s Black business leaders to discuss how they are helping the next generation to overcome these challenges.
Founder, Black Girl Ventures Foundation
“Everyone thought I was crazy — again,” Bell says about starting nonprofit Black Girl Ventures Foundation, which supports Black and brown women entrepreneurs with accessing social and financial capital needed to grow their businesses. Before founding Black Girl Ventures in 2016, she had cycled through a series of eclectic careers — performance poet, computer science teacher, T-shirt maker and marketer, and even an Airbnb host who put up guests in a tent in her living room. Bell, who holds a computer science degree from North Carolina A&T State University, says her success at Black Girl Ventures finally proved “everybody” wrong.
Digitalundivided, a New Jersey-based nonprofit booster for Black and Latina women entrepreneurs, conducted a study that found that Black women business founders received just 0.27% of available venture capital investment during 2018. Black Girl Ventures is determined to upend that dismal statistic by helping Black women entrepreneurs learn how to access resources to build their businesses.
Black Girl Ventures has hosted “Shark Tank”-style pitch presentations that have resulted in 275 woman-owned startups receiving crowdfunding, resulting in enterprises that have gone on to generate more than $10 million in revenue. Black Girl Ventures’ empowerment efforts also include leadership training and outreach for students at historically Black colleges and universities.
Along the way, Black Girl Ventures’ mission has caught the
eye of big corporate sponsors such as Nike Inc., which has donated $1 million to BGV for grants and mentorship programs, and Visa Inc., which partnered with BGV to help “digitally enable” 50,000 small businesses.
Outside office hours, Bell gives back by sitting on the board of Malikah, a New York-based global nonprofit that helps women of color develop skills such as self-defense and financial literacy. She also sits on the board of Color of Crohn’s & Chronic Illness, a Maryland-based nonprofit assisting minority people affected by inflammatory bowel disease, digestive disorders and chronic illnesses.
Bell teaches other women of color “to hustle, expand, commit and harmonize,” she says. To get ahead when the odds are so stacked against you, she says, you need be “diplomatically radical.”
CEO, Cobbs Consulting; President, Black BRAND-Dan River Region
“Just being helpful can carry you a long way,” says Cobbs, who has made a career out of advising businesses and organizations on ways to grow and thrive. Her Danville firm, Cobbs Consulting, assists clients with essential skills such as social media marketing, drafting business plans and the formation of the legal structures to allow access to critical resources. “I help them not make the same mistakes that I made,”
Through her business, she has volunteered her time to assist and educate community members with learning how to negotiate various licensing processes so that they can tap into the opportunities arriving with the projected 2023 opening of the $500 million Caesars Virginia resort casino in Danville. And in July 2021, Cobbs started Black BRAND-Dan River Region. A chapter of Black BRAND, the Hampton Roads Black chamber of commerce, the nonprofit assists minority business owners with services such as business education and sponsoring vendor fairs.
Cobbs remembers summers as a child, when she would accompany her grandmother as she walked to her job cleaning a school. Now, Cobbs chairs the Danville School Board. “I think about the people who paved the way for me, and the privilege I have now,” she says. “I want to be an example.”
President and CEO, West Cary Group
“Nobody is successful by themselves. That’s just what being human is, and I’ve got to return that,” says Foster, who started his advertising, marketing and data analytics firm in 2007 and has turned it into one of the country’s largest African American-run agencies.
Foster, who grew up in Farmville, knows that “most things that matter aren’t easy,” but he believes in the power of networking to overcome what he sees as a stark contrast in opportunities for Black children versus white children. That’s why he serves on the board of NextUp RVA, a free nonprofit partnership offering out-of-classroom learning experiences for public middle school students in Richmond. NextUp provides opportunities for kids to learn everything from coding to culinary skills, Foster says, and his West Cary Group donates employee time and resources to support NextUp’s mission.
Foster further fulfills his “strong desire to give back” by sitting on the University of Richmond Robins School of Business’ Executive Advisory Council. He also serves on ChamberRVA’s board and chairs its diversity, equity and inclusion advisory council.
“I love being in business in this region,” Foster says. “We have each other’s backs.”
Founder and CEO, Body Complete Rx
In 2014, after the birth of her fourth child, Gore says she “picked up some weight,” so she “set out on a journey to do something about it.”
She soon saw that the wellness industry didn’t offer many weight-management products that catered to Black women, and her response to that was Body Complete Rx (BCRX).
Turns out Gore wasn’t the only Black woman who felt that neglect.
Since founding her plant-based supplements and nutritional powder company in 2017, the brand has grossed more than $10 million in sales.
Last year, BCRX partnered with The Vitamin Shoppe, a national retailer with more than 700 outlets, making BCRX the first Black, woman-owned weight management brand ever sold by the chain. Gore is now the only Black woman serving on the company’s wellness council.
By being forthcoming about her own experiences, Gore says that she has been able to “help people really change their lives,” and she regularly shares her “lessons learned” with aspiring entrepreneurs through presentations at conferences and business forums.
“My life,” she says, “is an open book.”
DELCENO C. MILES
President and CEO, The Miles Agency
“No one is going to give you anything. You have to earn it. You have to have a plan,”
says Miles, who definitely had one from an early age.
In 1989, before she turned 30, she founded The Miles Agency, a minority- and woman-owned marketing and public relations firm that specializes in community outreach and multicultural marketing. In 2002, Miles’ business acumen was recognized when she became the first African American chair of
the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce regional board.
A self-described people person, Miles says that PR “is the perfect industry for me.” Her love for communications isn’t confined to business, though. Miles serves on the boards of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council and Tidewater Community College, where she also chairs the college’s educational foundation. Miles also is a supporter of the proposed Virginia African American Cultural Center.
Last year, she and her siblings started The Miles Foundation to honor their mother. The foundation’s goals include supporting education, financial literacy and reducing the digital divide. Its inaugural gift was a $5,000 grant to Norfolk State University Foundation Inc.’s scholarship fund.
Miles’ efforts are inspired by her awareness of the importance of giving back to those who are so supportive of her business. Reciprocity, she says, “is part of our culture.”
SHAWN N. PURVIS
Corporate vice president, Northrop Grumman Corp.; President, Northrop Grumman Enterprise Services
Purvis has gone dramatically far in the federal contracting and technology worlds, rising through her 20-plus-year career to direct Northrop Grumman’s internal information technology strategy and its IT relationship with partners, customers and suppliers. “There are like about five of us,” she says of high-ranking African American women in the tech world, “and we all know each other.”
Purvis credits her success to three bedrock principles: forging a character that is consistent “in the daylight and behind closed doors”; possessing a drive to deliver at the highest level; and having the courage to “take a blank slate and create something that doesn’t exist.” But she’s also cognizant that she didn’t get to where she is on her own.
“I have been able to stand on the shoulders of those who went before me,” Purvis says. “My parents were some of the first Black IBMers in Virginia, and I grew up with a mindset of creating a culture that would be better for the next person coming in.”
Purvis has served on the boards of George Mason University, Northern Virginia Family Service and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington’s Prince William County club.
From where she sits, she says, “There’s an opportunity to share your talent, your treasure and your time.”
Virginia regional president, Truist Financial Corp.
Ransom’s mantra is “know, show and grow.”
The banker, who last September became Virginia regional president of one of the nation’s largest banks, was the first person in his family to go to college and the first “to get dressed up to go to work.” His subsequent career in finance has continued to be a series of “first experiences,” he says.
During his 20-plus-year career at BB&T and now Truist, the Hampden-Sydney College alumni has made narrowing the “economic chasm between Black and white home ownership” a priority.
“He has been a champion for diversity, equity and inclusion,” says David Weaver, Truist’s chief commercial community banking officer, noting Ransom’s crucial role in setting up Truist’s partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund Inc. to launch a scholarship program for students at historically Black colleges and universities.
“A gap scholarship of as little as $900 can make a difference,” Ransom says.
Outside his job, Ransom sits on the board of INROADS College Links, a nonprofit career readiness program for ethnically diverse high school and college students. “One hundred percent of the students we touch in high school go to college,” he says proudly. Additionally, he serves as a corporate adviser to U.S. Black Chambers Inc., a national association for African American chambers of commerce and business organizations.
“I want to motivate and inspire people to reach their potential, to do the impossible,” he says. “That’s important to me, because that is my story.”
President and CEO, First Genesis of Virginia; Co-founder and wealth consultant, Heritage Financial Partners
Luke 12:48 reads, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Royster believes in that biblical maxim.
“Nothing is greater in the world than if I contributed to someone’s else’s success,” he says, adding that, “I’m going to look out for African Americans because our opportunities are limited.”
Through his financial planning firm, Royster focuses on the transfer of multigenerational wealth that he says is essential to closing the racial wealth gap. It’s a mission built on honesty and integrity, he says: “There’s no substitute for these things. I put people first, profits second.”
That holds true for his charitable endeavors as well. A few years ago, Royster chaired the cotillion committee of Portsmouth’s Eureka Club Inc., which awarded a $17,000 scholarship to an African American high school girl. He also works with the nonprofits Tidewater Metro Baptist Ministers Conference and the 200+ Men Foundation Inc., which supports initiatives to improve the lives of African Americans. First Genesis, which also has offices in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, also supports a number of youth activities and organizations.
“The more successful you are, the more impact you can have,” Royster says, “but I never felt obligated [to give back]. It’s in my DNA.”
Developer, Bruce Smith Enterprise LLC
On the gridiron, Smith was an impact player, one of the greatest defensive players of all time. Now, as a real estate developer, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and NFL all-time sack leader still seeks to make a big impact.
Smith has partnered with Armada Hoffler in the past and is responsible for developing the Hilton Garden Inn Blacksburg University and Smith’s Landing apartment complex in Blacksburg.
“I believe in Virginia,” Smith says, “but we fall short because of the way we do business.” Cronyism and a reluctance to move beyond the status quo are holding back women and minorities, he says, even though “where there is inclusion, there are more opportunities for everyone.”
Smith uses his star power to broadcast this message both in the boardroom and through speeches, mentoring and charitable activities.
“I struggled growing up,” he says. “I’ve seen both sides of the story.” That has led him to buy equipment for the sports teams at his alma mater, Norfolk’s Booker T. Washington High School, and to sponsor an annual scholarship for a Booker T. student to attend Virginia Tech, where the two-time All-American was known as “the Sack Man.” He also sponsors college scholarships in his parents’ names through his church, Norfolk’s Queen Street Baptist.
“We have to stop losing our brightest minds, which is our college kids, from going off to college and never returning home because there’s a lack of opportunity for good, high paying jobs” in Hampton Roads, says Smith, who advocates for inclusion and diversity in regional economic development efforts.
Additionally, Smith is a Norfolk International Airport commissioner and sits on the board of Operation Smile, a Virginia Beach-based medical nonprofit that provides free cleft lip and palate surgeries to needy children worldwide.
“It gives you inner peace when you know you are helping out, doing your part,” Smith says.
JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.
President and CEO, Society for Human Resource Management
Harriet Tubman got out of the South and could have kept right on going, but she didn’t. “She is such a heroine because she came back,” Taylor says of the brave abolitionist who risked her own freedom to rescue other people from enslavement. That type of giving back has become a cultural expectation in the Black community, he says. “Otherwise, your success is not celebrated.”
Taylor has given the Black community plenty of reasons to celebrate him. Holding a law degree from Iowa’s Drake University, he practiced at Richmond-based McGuireWoods and has held a variety of high-profile positions, including as general counsel and senior vice president of human relations for Paramount Pictures’ Live Entertainment Group and associate general counsel and vice president of human relations for Blockbuster Entertainment Group.
In 2010, Taylor left the corporate world to become president and CEO of the nonprofit Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which, since its establishment in 1987, has awarded more than $300 million in scholarships to HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions.
In 2017, he took over as head of the Society for Human Resource Management, the largest human resources professional association in the world, with more than 300,000 members in 165 countries.
President Donald Trump appointed Taylor chairman of the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs in 2018. Taylor currently serves on the American Red Cross’ board of governors, where he works to ensure that African Americans have an ample blood supply for the treatment of diseases such as sickle cell anemia.
Years ago, Taylor met an elderly Black man who told him, “Young man, only us can save us.” That bit of open-eyed wisdom, he says, “stuck forever.”
Chief operating officer, Negril Inc.; Co-owner, W&W Luxury Limousine Service
Wright-Warren is deeply embedded in her Danville community, where her businesses and her charitable efforts blend seamlessly.
As COO of Negril, a company co-founded by her father, Kirby Wright, she provides services that allow people with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses to remain in their homes or live in group homes. And as co-owner of W&W Luxury Limousine Service, which has a fleet of limos, buses and cars, she not only delivers people to special occasion destinations but provides free rides to nonprofit organizations such as the local chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
A minority investor in the Danville Caesars Virginia casino, Wright-Warren also was a committee member for Caesars for Danville, a group that helped campaign to bring the $500 million resort to the city. The entertainment conglomerate plans on hiring 1,300 workers and will employ 900 construction workers.
“Caesars has a strong record of lifting up small businesses in the areas where they operate, especially those owned by women and minorities,” Wright-Warren told the media software company Cision. “This is the kind of partner our area wants and deserves.”
See more of Virginia Business’ 2022 Black business leaders issue.