Kerry Bowie of The Majira Project On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
Tackle poverty, access to affordable healthcare, food insecurity, and housing insecurity — Without a nest egg or safety net of some kind, it is almost impossible for aspiring entrepreneurs to step out and launch ventures as they have to make sure that they have access to care, food to eat, and a roof over their heads. There are too many stories of entrepreneurs living out of their cars, going without medical care, and struggling to gain business traction. This is not sustainable and results in many “would-be” entrepreneurs never actually entering the game and taking their shot.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Kerry Bowie.
Executive Director Kerry Bowie has 25 years of experience in private, public, and nonprofit management. Kerry previously served as Associate Commissioner and Director of Brownfields and Environmental Justice at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) in both the Patrick and Baker Administrations and worked as a manager in Facilities, Environmental, Safety, and Health at Texas Instruments (TI’s) Research & Development Fab in Texas (Dallas); and grew up in a fenceline community in Alabama (Anniston). Kerry co-founded the Majira Project to address the lack of diversity in the traditional entrepreneurial ecosystem and the disparity in resources available, which he observed while working in various entrepreneurship programs across Boston. Kerry holds an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, an MSE in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan, and an SB in environmental engineering science from MIT.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers want to ‘get to know you.’ Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a small city in Northeast Alabama called Anniston. It is the county seat of Calhoun County, and the population was about 35,000 at the time. We are right off Interstate 20 between Atlanta and Birmingham. We are not too far from NASCAR’s Talladega Superspeedway. Where I grew up, the mantra was God, Family, and Football, so I grew up in a Baptist Church, attended plenty of family reunions, and cheered for the Auburn Tigers. I played right guard for the Anniston Bulldogs when we won the 1989 state 6-A Football Championship and were ranked number 9 in the nation by US News & World Report. I also grew up on what would be called the other side of the tracks, not too far from a Monsanto Plant, so it would be what is considered a fenceline community today, as there was both hydrogen sulfide contamination in the air and polychlorinated biphenyls in the soil and water. However, it was mostly a good life, and I fondly remember working in my paternal grandfather’s candy store.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you?
Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire. It tells the story of a self-made millionaire in the insurance business in Alabama. The story of someone who looked like me and didn’t live too far from me, growing a wildly successful business empire and legacy, resonated with me.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or work?
The motto of the church where I grew up in Anniston, AL, the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, is “the church which seeks to serve rather than be served.” I have always felt like it is better to give than to receive. Many stories highlight this adage, and the Majira Project, being a no-fee, no-equity accelerator, aligns with this. The whole purpose is to support entrepreneurs.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I love the bus analogy in Jim Collins’s Good to Great book. The premise is that the job of a leader is three-fold: 1) to set the vision for the organization or the destination, 2) to get the right people on the bus in the right seats, and 3) to electrify the bus or get the energy to the bus to make the journey.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. In the summer of 2020, the United States faced a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is, of course, a vast topic. But briefly, can you share your view on what made the events of 2020 different from racial reckonings in the past?
We were all trapped at home due to the pandemic, and we watched it play out almost live on social media. It was part of a litany of heinous crimes most recognizably personified by the murder of George Floyd.
Please tell our readers about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion. Can you share a story with us?
I started my consulting practice, Msaada Partners, after reading the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s “Color of Wealth Report” in 2015. Msaada is Swahili for “service,” the report indicated that Boston had the largest wealth gap in the country at that time, with the average net worth of a White family being $247,500 and the average net worth of a Black family being $8. Unfortunately, the Black, Brown, and low to moderate-income people who needed my help the most didn’t have the funds to pay me the six-figure salary that I was accustomed to.
I pivoted to work with nonprofits, local government agencies, and academic institutions to keep my consulting firm afloat. However, I still wanted to work with entrepreneurs and small business owners. I shared this story with one of my friends and classmates from the MIT Sloan School of Management, and he said, “We’d love to help!” Roger Premo was a managing director and partner (MDP) at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) at the time, and that’s how we embarked upon the Majira Project journey. We started with a small pilot of six companies sourced from local accelerators and incubators in the Boston area. Over the next four years, we learned a great deal, providing pro bono consultants from BCG and business coaching from Msaada Partners. In 2020, there was an inflection point with COVID-19 forcing us to go virtual with the program. This removed the constraint of being tied to Boston, and on the heels of the pandemic was the racial reckoning associated with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace, Dante Wright, and I could go on and on. There was literally and figuratively White guilt associated with how to respond to these murders, and BCG was not immune. They leaned into the Majira Project, and we expanded to New York, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, and Dallas. We have refined the consulting projects around strategy, sales & marketing, and operations projects and have added executive leadership coaches over the past few years. At our peak last year, we had more than 40 companies in the cohort across the country working with more than 400 BCG consultants from 16 BCG offices.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diverse teams flat-out perform better. This is backed up by BCG, McKinsey, MIT, and the Harvard Business Review reports. Various team members bring different perspectives and resources to problems facing their enterprises.
Ok. Here is the central question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.
1 . Eradicate Racism — No stories are needed here. We all know of cases where race played a role in people or businesses not getting access to opportunities and resources available to others.
2 . Institute Equal Pay — President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. Lilly Ledbetter worked at the Goodyear Tire Plant in Gadsden, Alabama, right down the road from Anniston, AL, where I grew up. She was paid less than her male counterparts for the same work for 19 years. That’s not fair, and I have at least one late cousin who worked at a Uniroyal Plant in Opelika, AL. I can only imagine how many other women were and still are underpaid relative to their male colleagues, even with laws on the books.
3 . Close the Racial Wealth Gap — This gap is a product of redlining, Jim Crow, GI Bill, etc. And it still makes a difference today as there are not as many Black and Brown angel investors in our communities because of it. This, in turn, keeps Black and Brown entrepreneurs from receiving the early pre-seed money that helps them to establish their businesses. My friend Jessica Norwood calls this “Believe in You” or “BIY” money in her recent book. Many of our startups and small businesses still make it, but it takes them longer, and they often give away more equity to do so because of this initial absence of early funding caused by the racial wealth gap.
4 . Remove homophobia and transphobia — Discriminating against people because of their sexual identity is counterproductive and the exact opposite of being inclusive, representative, and equitable. The team at Revry from our Majira ’21 cohort is combatting this as “the LGBTQ-first streaming network with the latest in queer movies, series, and music, available anytime and anywhere.”
5 . Tackle poverty, access to affordable healthcare, food insecurity, and housing insecurity — Without a nest egg or safety net of some kind, it is almost impossible for aspiring entrepreneurs to step out and launch ventures as they have to make sure that they have access to care, food to eat, and a roof over their heads. There are too many stories of entrepreneurs living out of their cars, going without medical care, and struggling to gain business traction. This is not sustainable and results in many “would-be” entrepreneurs never actually entering the game and taking their shot.
We are going through a rough period now. What makes you optimistic about the future of the US? Can you please explain?
Today, more than ever, there are support programs to increase the outcomes of people of color across all verticals. Also, some of our problems are so big that they hurt more now than ever. This level of hurt leads to change and the recognition that we need all hands-on deck to solve these huge problems. We also lean into the adage of necessity being the mother of invention. This brings people from all walks of life to the fore and makes most spaces where innovation occurs more diverse and inclusive.
Is there a person in the world or the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? They might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Robert Smith of Vista Equity Partners. He understands the need for economic inclusion for Black and Brown people. We also have similar backgrounds as engineers who went on to B-School. He’s a decade ahead of me and has been amazingly successful in business, and he is now giving back to many social causes. He would resonate with our vision to close the racial wealth gap and our community development mission through entrepreneurship.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow us via our website at majiraproject.org or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/majira-project/.
This was very meaningful. Thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Kerry Bowie of The Majira Project On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.