Kelyn D. Lanier - Alloi Progress Incubator
- Hosted September 24, 2020
- By Dustin Clendenen
“Go to college. Get a good job.”
This is often the mantra that parents and teachers recite to children as they prepare them for adulthood. Most discussions about education relate to how it readies graduates for the job market and increases their chances to excel as employees.
Kelyn D. Lanier was following this path, too.
But entrepreneurship called. And through a long series of trials and tribulations, he realized he felt most passionate about helping other entrepreneurs, especially those belonging to communities of color, build successful enterprises and create jobs. For all of the roadblocks to success that business owners encounter, there are even more for BIPOC entrepreneurs—implicit biases that make it difficult to close deals and even obtain startup capital, such as loans.
Lanier founded the Alloi Progress Incubator as a platform to support and mentor the entrepreneurs who most needed it in the business landscape—those who can create more opportunities for BIPOC communities.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit right when Lanier was getting Alloi off the ground. The need for guidance in navigating the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and other disaster relief applications was overwhelming. So Alloi pivoted to help its clients stay afloat. The crisis reemphasized how lack of capital affected the community he aimed to serve. Lanier got an idea for the incubator’s first initiative: The Black Futures Fund.
The Black Futures Fund
From hiring to buying inventory to leasing office space, starting a business costs money.
But there’s startup costs before getting to that point—barriers that might not even cross some folks’ minds until they encounter them. Some of those barriers include the costs of registering your business with federal, state, or local officials.
“We have established The Black Futures Fund as part of our ongoing commitment to our community,” Kelyn explains on the initiative’s website. “This fund was created to help eliminate the administrative barriers prospective minority business owners face when starting a business. This fund is also designed to help current business owners and employers get help creating policies and procedures that prevent systemic discrimination at the employment level.”
Kelyn wanted to create The Black Futures Fund for years, but the timing wasn’t right until 2020.
“The environment wasn’t very receptive, even to the name. But with the increased [awareness of systemic racism], it just kind of took off,” says Kelyn. Now people are approaching him wanting to get involved and do what they can to support the initiative.
The Black Future Fund is currently accepting applicants from entrepreneurs in need of resources but is also accepting donations from anyone willing to help.
The Azlo Moment
The Laniers were not a family who held typical 9-to-5 jobs.
Kelyn’s father was a professional football player, his work-life structured around a regimented training schedule, big game days, and the ebb and flow of seasons. His mother was a hairstylist, dividing her workdays between an in-home salon and client visits. From a very early age, Kelyn saw that you could do your own thing when it came to a career. But his parents still emphasized the importance of education and a traditional, safe career path.
“I did all right in college,” he says. “It just wasn't as compatible with me as I thought. Probably a very typical story that you hear. I had concerns about just entering the job market after that. So entrepreneurship seemed attractive because I would have more control over it. During that time, I had what I just describe as terrible bosses, [and that] didn't really leave a good impression. I realized I needed to figure something else out just in case this ‘go to college, get a job and be happy’ thing didn’t work out.”
Kelyn’s Azlo Moment arrived as a phone call from his brother, who was feeling the same way. The duo teamed up to start Praetorian RX, a medication therapy management company that helped low-income consumers access their much-needed prescriptions.
Praetorian launched in 2010. Within a few years, it was a runaway success. Kelyn was more than ready for it, however.
“I had odd jobs [before Praetorian], and it just never felt right,” he says. “It felt like I was faking it—just having a job because I'm supposed to, and then living my real life when I was doing something on the side related to a business. It took some time to actually be OK with being an entrepreneur—and not see it as something I had to hide.”
Kelyn describes his time with Praetorian as an introduction to entrepreneurship, solidifying his identity as a successful businessman. But even though he was much more suited to running his own company than he was to being an employee, there was still a dark side to his dreams, as well as the business world as a whole.
Just as most people are programmed to “go to college” and “get a good job,” entrepreneurship comes with its own destructive set of mantras.
Waking Up to the Grind
“We wanted Praetorian to be the end all be all, but I think that's every entrepreneur’s goal when they start their first company—for it to be the biggest-company-ever big,” says Kelyn. “But it got very stressful. And that was kind of a breakthrough moment, understanding how social messaging and all of that pressure was acting upon me. It cost me my health. I realized, ‘We can continue to be making all this money, but is it worth heart attacks?’”
The physical, mental, and emotional pressures of entrepreneurship weren’t the only obstacles Kelyn faced. He and his brother were two young Black men, running a business in an industry that often excluded them. They experienced microaggressions on a daily occasion and outright racism was almost as common.
On one particular occasion, Kelyn and his brother were on a call with the leadership at another company, talking about a possible merger and acquisition. All of a sudden, one of the executives at the other company said they needed to discuss something internally for a moment. He forgot to press the mute button.
Kelyn remembers the man telling his team, “Hey, we need to look these guys up on LinkedIn. They sound Black.” And with that, they began to discuss their doubts that Kelyn and his brother were actually the owners of Praetorian. “You never know with these guys,” he overheard them say.
Once they got back on the call, they acted as though nothing had happened. They then requested further proof of funds, though, by that time, the Laniers had already provided a bank letter and more than substantial documentation of their company’s finances.
Pivoting Into Impact
Eventually, Kelyn sold Praetorian and re-prioritized his professional life. After years of facing doubt and overcoming implicit biases, he found a new calling. This time centered around teaching financial literacy, business incubation and consulting, economic assistance, and worker advocacy.
On many occasions, Kelyn had mysterious trouble securing business credit, and knew other BIPOC entrepreneurs who ran into similar roadblocks during the application process. “You're fine submitting; you're fine doing your credit check, but then you get terrified when you have to get on the phone and could find out that you're Black,” Kelyn says. “Or if you do a really good job of code-switching, when you send in your ID, you can bet to a certain degree that [some problem with the loan] is going to pop up. But you can't really prove that’s the issue because they’re not going to say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you were Black.’”
A lot of Kelyn’s drive for creating Alloi was to address those roadblocks of implicit bias that BIPOC entrepreneurs are most likely to encounter. But there’s also the roadblocks of simply not knowing what is needed to start and run a business.
“Our biggest programming right now is business consulting for prospective entrepreneurs,” he says. “Sometimes people just jump into it and they don't really know what they're getting into. So we work with them in our launch program to provide the whole picture and encourage them to take the next or appropriate step.”
The financial literacy program is focused on foundational principles, such as the basics of cash flow and bookkeeping. But with this, there’s also more substantial mentorship on guidance through loan applications—emphasizing what records a business owner will need during the process and providing insight into why they’re important.
Kelyn emphasizes, however, that the Alloi Progress Incubator isn’t only for Black-owned businesses. There are employers of all backgrounds who help the BIPOC community. Alloi also consults on how businesses can address their own implicit biases and operate in more equitable ways.
“The major criteria we're looking for is how many jobs you’re going to create with your business,” he says. “Yes, we do still accept side hustles, but we do screen to make sure that you're going to be productive and actually push progress.”
Learn more about the incubator here.
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