Celebrating Black entrepreneurs who are helping to make sure each industry ‘looks like America’
When Gilbert Campbell graduated from Howard University, he had a burning desire to be an entrepreneur in an industry that fit with his values. He was drawn to solar energy, and in 2009 he and a college friend founded a company that finances and develops solar panels for rooftops and carports.
A reality Campbell had always been aware of quickly grew tangible as he worked: Black and African American communities were suffering the most environmental harm — more often located near landfills, coal mines and industrial plants, for example — yet seemed to be last in line for cleanups and renewable-energy projects. It wasn’t something the small business owner had the capacity to tackle, but for more than a decade he made it his mission to engage with political leaders and trade partners about clean energy and racial equity, while living what he described as a “lonely” existence in which he was often the only Black man in the room. That all began changing two years ago.
In 2020, amid social unrest in the U.S. after the murder of George Floyd, Campbell began receiving calls from “companies wanting to make serious and real commitments” to racial equity as they fulfilled their environmental pledges, he says. These corporations needed large-scale solar farms to meet aggressive decarbonization goals but had become concerned about the lack of diversity among their options. A Microsoft executive reached out with a “bold” idea to break down barriers, Campbell says, and with the company as his first customer, he founded a new venture, Volt Energy Utility, and a new foundation, Sharing the Power, working to advance environmental justice.
“Clean energy is transforming all aspects of our society, from the decarbonization of our nation’s electrical grid with renewables and of our transportation infrastructure with electric vehicles, to the electrification of the building sector with smart thermostats and the like,” Campbell says. “Trillions of dollars are going into these efforts. We need to make sure the industry looks like America and make sure the communities that have had most of the environmental burdens are now at the front of the line receiving environmental benefits.”
His endeavor is one of hundreds of minority-led businesses and community-service organizations so far that have aligned with Microsoft’s Racial Equity Initiative, launched two years ago to address racial injustice and work toward more inclusion both inside and outside the company.
The tech company’s three-pillared effort is having a broad-based impact on communities around the U.S. It’s providing entrepreneurs and nonprofits in cities such as Los Angeles and Atlanta with contracts, grants, technology, training and networking. It’s diversifying Microsoft’s banking and supplier ecosystem. And it’s working to double the number of Black and African American, Hispanic and Latinx leaders at the company, among other actions to support systemic change.
The 250-megawatt power purchase agreement between Volt and Microsoft was the first solar farm contract between a Fortune 500 corporation and a Black or African American developer, Campbell says. It not only provides Microsoft with renewable energy, but the proceeds are being reinvested to help clean up communities that have suffered environmental harm as well as to fund internships in the industry for Black and African American students.
“I’m walking in my purpose, where I’m able to combine my business offering in a way that’s impacting communities in innovative and transformative ways,” Campbell says. “You can do good and be successful at the same time. It’s not mutually exclusive.”
Campbell is crisscrossing the country this year, meeting with business and government leaders, speaking at conferences and recruiting student interns from historically Black colleges and universities.
When you’re doing the right thing, others need to be able to see that and hopefully emulate it, and that’s how change comes about.
One such recruit grew up near a landfill in Durham, North Carolina, Campbell says, in a family plagued by health challenges. Communities made up of racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be near toxic sites, causing much higher rates of severe asthma, hospitalization and death for Black and African American children — ailments that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We paid this student as an intern to help build out the internship program for the summer, and she hops on the calls with Microsoft and tells the story in a way better way than I can,” drawing from her lived experience to eloquently share these communities’ needs, Campbell says. “If you have a seat at the table, you should responsibly use it to give a different perspective.”
Along with developing large-scale solar farms for corporations, Volt is investing in community solar projects to encourage developers and banks to participate and is helping low- to moderate-income households get loans for solar panels.
Campbell hopes his partnership with Microsoft will serve as inspiration for others.
“When you’re doing the right thing, others need to be able to see that and hopefully emulate it, and that’s how change comes about,” he says. “This is a great opportunity to reimagine the role corporations can play. To make underserved communities vibrant in a new clean-energy world they can play a vital part in would be a beautiful outcome.”
Building a gaming industry ‘reflective of our upbringing’
Like Campbell, Ryan Johnson and Christopher Peay graduated from historically Black universities and then found the business world to be a lonely place. The two friends wanted to start careers in esports.
“We went to a ton of video-game and esports-centric events across the country, and there was never anyone of color,” Johnson says.
Even though 83% of Black teens play video games — a higher rate than other ethnicities — only 4% of video game developers are Black or African American.
“We quickly realized the industry isn’t reflective of our upbringing, so we decided to try to provide equal opportunities for minorities,” says Peay.
In 2020 Johnson and Peay reached out on LinkedIn to Darrell Booker, who had just helped start Microsoft’s Nonprofit Tech Acceleration program as part of the Racial Equity Initiative. With cash and skilling grants from the company, they created an esports league for historically Black colleges and universities — 32 HBCUs now participate, and students earn prizes including scholarships — along with high school and college academic programs to teach digital literacy through the lens of gaming. They also provide funding to build on-campus computer labs with equipment strong enough to support esports, a placement program for internships with video-game development companies in California, and an esports summer camp for kids in Atlanta.
“Over our 22-week program last school year, we reached an audience of 15 million people, so we’re bringing a level of awareness to the HBCU community that didn’t exist before 2020,” Johnson says. “It’s huge for us. And having Microsoft’s name behind us to go in and talk to different partners established us and helped us get other corporate sponsorships to accelerate the growth of our organization.”
They named their venture Cxmmunity — with the X replacing the O as a nod to inclusive gaming, since X is a main functional button for lower-cost video-game consoles as well as gaming computers that cost thousands.
Providing communities with the support they actually need
As Microsoft enters the third year of its commitment to the Racial Equity Initiative, Booker says, company leaders are tearing down walls, banishing preconceived notions and partnering with other corporations and organizations to provide underrepresented communities with the support that’s actually needed.
Booker was recently talking with a small nonprofit in San Francisco that’s a beneficiary of the initiative, and they asked if he could offer graphic design training. They were trying to create a one-page flyer to hang in schools promoting their work with student athletes, but it kept bleeding onto a second page.
“It really hit home to me that these organizations have a huge need from a marketing standpoint, and that’s not something that we inherently provide,” Booker says. “But even if we can help them be the most advanced from a tech standpoint, if they’re missing that piece of it, they’ll never have the impact that they want. So I found another company who was able to come in and assist with some of those things, and that’s a lot of what I’m doing now as well.
“The less we all work in silos,” he says, “the more these organizations will benefit.”
That on-the-ground relationship is critical, says Charisse Bremond Weaver, who connected with Microsoft not long after she became CEO 16 years ago of the Brotherhood Crusade. It’s a nonprofit in South Los Angeles that her father founded in 1968 and at one point mortgaged the family home to keep open.
“It’s literally a labor of love,” says Bremond Weaver, who recalls growing up in a home full of Black and African American activists, entertainers and politicians — as well as friends in need of housing whom her parents invited in for months at a time. “I love my community, and if they’re in pain, I’m in pain, so I push to get as many resources as possible to love and care for the most vulnerable in south LA.”
A communications major, Bremond Weaver says she had to learn to be an entrepreneur as she followed in her father’s footsteps under the mentorship of Danny Bakewell Sr., who led the organization for 35 years. The most important thing she did, she says, was to create an advisory board of people who believed in the Brotherhood Crusade’s vision and had strengths different from her own. She also had a goal of meeting five new people every month, which was what connected her to leaders at Microsoft.
Cash and technology grants from the company have helped Bremond Weaver expand her organization to 45 full-time employees, from seven when she took over in 2006, and are helping the group provide and track wraparound services such as healthcare, sports and job training to more than 3,000 young people a year aged 10 to 24, 70% of whom are Black or African American. The Brotherhood Crusade’s services help kids who are growing up in neighborhoods without parks or green spaces to exercise in and without the technological infrastructure needed to study or work remotely, she says.
“That small investment we’re making in the lives of young Black students will pay dividends for life” — and for generations to come — Bremond Weaver says. “But it’s not just about the monetary support, but about seeing our students and hearing their stories. It’s not my story to tell. It’s different when you’re talking to a young person at a restaurant, and you have five young people and three executives at that table, it’s a real conversation. And the kids are learning that’s what happens when you go to the corporate world — you go out to lunch, you engage, you tell your story, you articulate who you are.”
Corporations have a responsibility to invest in the communities they do business in, and if they do, they’ll “reap the dividends of great results,” Bremond Weaver says, recalling the support she saw her father get from the community as well as the investments in her own leadership skills that gave her the confidence to succeed him.
“So many poured into me, and it’s now my responsibility to pour back into my community,” she says. “Everyone needs a door opened. It’s when those doors are opened that we get to do the great work we do.”
Top photo: Volt Energy Utility Founder and CEO Gilbert Campbell (Photo provided by Campbell)