I am still feeling the powerful combination of innovation, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial zeal that happens every year when hundreds of business owners and entrepreneurs gather for the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference. The 2014 edition, held in Columbus, Ohio, for the second consecutive year last week and hosted by Nationwide Insurance for the third straight year, is no exception.
Every session, beginning with my conversation with Kingonomics author and Shark Tank diversity exec Rodney Sampson to kick off the conference on Wednesday, was jam packed with enthusiastic attendees eager to soak up practical knowledge to grow their businesses. Both our annual Elevator Pitch Competition as well as the casting call for Shark Tank attracted outstanding entrepreneurs with exciting business concepts. And the daily one-on-one keynote conversations with V&J Holdings CEO Valerie Daniels-Carter, TDJ Enterprise CEO Bishop T.D. Jakes and Rev. Jesse Jackson—conducted by Black Enterprise Business Report host Caroline Clarke, yours truly and Black Enterprise CEO Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., respectively—set a standard of excellence that was sustained throughout the event. (You can see recaps of the conference at BlackEnterprise.com/ec as well as in the July/August 2014 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.)
However, for me, the most fulfilling and rewarding aspect of the conference is the chance to connect with, build and strengthen the network of outstanding young business owners and leaders I’ve come to know and admire, and to be a catalyst in helping them to meet, engage with, support and collaborate with one another. It is accurate, but in many ways inadequate, to say that I am mentor to these people, as I learn as much from them as they could ever learn from me. I’m fond of thinking of myself as another well-known, bald-headed mentor/teacher/leader who identifies and brings together individuals with exceptional talents and abilities to help them become their best and serve the greater good: Professor Charles Xavier. Carrying that analogy forward, I was privileged see more than a dozen of my “X Men” in Columbus last week. Allow me to introduce you to just four of them, including a couple of new recruits: James Caldwell-Acha-Ngwodo, Andrea Polk, Jay Barnett and Gwen Jimmere.
I met James Caldwell-Acha-Ngwodo, owner of Indianapolis-based menswear company American Armadillo, at the 2012 Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference in Chicago, where I first saw and purchased one of his gorgeous bow ties. (Yes, I have my own line of limited edition bow ties with Windsor Neckwear, another outstanding menswear company, but style game always recognizes style game.) Every year since then, I’ve counted on seeing James and purchasing a few new bow ties from him at the conference. Moreover, I’ve come to admire and respect him as a person, as well as an entrepreneur. (And not just because he gifted me a fly pair of Johnson & Murphy shoes after I openly coveted them when I saw a pic he posted on Instagram!)
And speaking of Windsor Neckwear, owners Michael McPherson Jr. and Mace Neal III first brought Andrea Polk and her Solo Noir for Men skin care and grooming line to my attention. Mike and Mace share my enthusiasm for uplifting other entrepreneurs—a major reason I chose to partner with them for my bow tie line—and actively promoted both Andrea and her products. Since then, I’ve become just as big a fan of her and her Chicago-based company as they are. Let me just say this: Andrea Polk is the real deal—a great person and exceptional businesswoman.
Jay Barnett is a new addition to my network, referred to me by my friend and award-winning social entrepreneur, TwitChange CEO Shelton Mercer III. Shelton felt strongly that I needed to carve out some time to speak to his protégé during last week’s Entrepreneurs Conference, and I can see why. Jay transformed his experience with disappointment and depression as a result of a still-born NFL career into a passion for social enterprise and youth empowerment, via The Men of Excellence (ME) Project, which creates programs that teach success principles to pre-teens, teens and young adults. Jay’s programs are currently serving high schools in Houston, and he’s also an author, speaker and seminar leader. I don’t know what we’ll do together yet, but I consider him to be a strong, new asset to the collective.
Before last week, my only knowledge of Gwen Jimmere was limited to her promotion of her Detroit-based company Naturalicious on InstaGram. (I’ve become familiar with many of the players in the natural hair game over the last several years, especially since my business and life partner Zara Green went natural a couple of years ago.) That changed last week when Gwen emerged from the strongest class of Black Enterprise Elevator Pitch finalists in recent memory to win the $10,000 grand prize and—even better—a half-dozen small business mentoring sessions from me. I can’t wait to learn more about Naturalicious, a line of all-natural hair and beauty products, and to see how I can help her be more successful. But I’m even more interested in getting to know her better and connecting her with other outstanding people who are making good things happen for themselves and others.
In fact, that’s my bottom line goal: To meet outstanding people doing innovative things, connect them to other amazing people also doing interesting things, and watch what happens—because great things always do and always will. I find few things in life and business that are more exciting and satisfying.
Success is the result of achieving your potential. Greatness is the result of helping others to achieve theirs. Why not be great?
Black Enterprise Executive Editor-At-Large Alfred Edmond Jr. is an award-winning business and financial journalist, media executive, entrepreneurship expert, personal growth/relationships coach, and co-founder of Grown Zone, a multimedia initiative focused on personal growth and healthy decision-making. This blog is dedicated to his thoughts about money, entrepreneurship, leadership and mentorship. Follow him on Twitter at @AlfredEdmondJr.