We Talked to the Founders of the First Black-Owned Nationally Distributed Coffee Brand—Here’s Their Advice for Entrepreneurs

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Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson during their visit to the ONE37pm offices. / Sarah Jacobs/ONE37pm

Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson grew up on the same block in Gary, Indiana. Now in their 30s, their lasting friendship, experience in the corporate world and entrepreneurial wiring has lead them to create BLK & BOLD coffee and teas. Based out of Des Moines, the two have turned their side hustle into a viable business that has become the first nationally distributed, Black-owned coffee brand by Target. 

Launched in June 2018, the BLK & BOLD coffee line includes six lines of beans—from steeping bags with Ethiopia Yirgacheffe grounds to whole beans sourced from Finca La Guadalupe. The line's teas include earl grey, jasmine and more.

BLK & BOLD is also built on a domestic social impact model—5 percent of their profits go towards supporting at-risk youth locally and nationally. Nonprofit organizations such as Code Fever Miami, which teaches underprivileged youth the basics of coding and design, and Des Moines-based By Degrees, which helps at-risk youth graduate, have both benefited from BLK & BOLD.

We talked to Cezar and Johnson about their experience starting BLK & BOLD, what being a first-generation college graduate and corporate employee can be like, and what advice they’d give to entrepreneurs looking to start a business in 2020.

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ONE37pm: Tell us about your work experience before deciding to launch your own business.

Rod Johnson: I've worked in academic and health care fundraising over the last decade, connecting donors to institutions—and I'm still working at my 9-to-5. This opportunity with BLK & BOLD gives me flexibility in what initiatives we're able to impact. Since we have a domestic, social impact model embedded in what we do, we choose which nonprofits we partner with. That's my primary motivation with that transition, to have ownership in the communities that we impact.   

Pernell Cezar: My background is in retail merchandising and suppliers' sales of packaged goods brands. I started my career at Target Corp. in merchandising—which is funny, because now we're full circle with BLK & BOLD having national distribution with Target. I’m a first-generation corporate employee and first-generation college graduate as well—forging on that was eye-opening.

What was that like for you?

Cezar: [There’s a bit of] business culture shock. In every space I've occupied in my career, I've been by myself as a Black man in these roles. Being a young, high performer and allowing my career to take me to the places people want me to be on their behalf is great, but at the same time, it allows for [Rod and I] to look at [industry] spaces that we haven't had representation in and ask "Why not?"  

For me, it was a matter of "I don't see brands that actually focus on the communities that I came from,” and [with Rod] being my best friend, and living on the same street as me, we had those similar struggles and have overcome them. [We asked] how do we impact the kids that live on the same block and help them know that there's more light in life besides what they've been exposed to?

So, why coffee and tea?

Johnson: We describe ourselves as over-enthusiastic consumers. We spend a lot of time in coffee shops—Pernell is more of the coffee guy, and I drink tea. We wanted to have some representation on the other side of the counter, because that doesn't exist at scale. There certainly are other Black-owned, women-owned coffee brands, but not enough given how frequently we are consumers of said products. Considering its uncharted space, we saw that as an advantage going forward.

Cezar: When we looked at our [career] backgrounds and how they overlapped in the competitive business landscape, [we realized] there is uncharted territory. [We have become] the first Black-owned coffee brand that's nationally distributed and the first domestic-social impact model within coffee that has national distribution.

Even if you have a product that's poppin' you still have to figure out how to navigate these big corporate spaces. 

- Pernell Cezar

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In your opinion, why has there not been a Black-owned nationally distributed coffee brand before?

Cezar: This isn't just unique in coffee—when you look at Black representation in brands that have national awareness and national accessibility, we're crowded in very few industries, [which include] entertainment, beauty and fashion. 

But when you look at food and beverages—not so much. There's a lot of red tape that comes with getting started. There's tons of barriers of entry [including] financial resources, and even if you have [a product] that's poppin' you still have to figure out how to navigate these big corporate spaces, where you generationally have never had access to or understand how to talk the talk or walk the walk. [Rod and I] are exceptionally fortunate that our unique backgrounds in our perspective areas allow us to merge [our knowledge] together. 

Before you launched, what was an aspect of your job that you knew nothing about? 

Cezar and Johnson: Everything. 

Johnson: It's exciting, to embark on something that you don't necessarily have knowledge of visibility to—it puts you in a vulnerable state as well, because there's some ignorance that comes along with it. Because we are lifelong learners, we fully embraced the task of figuring out how to best roast beans.

Cezar: I've never gone skydiving, but I can imagine it's something like doing that for the first time. Entrepreneurship is an ongoing journey. Hustle is a verb that is never-ending. It doesn't have a period at the end of it.

Johnson: It's more of an ellipsis. 

Cezar: Add the question mark some days, exclamation point some days. Imposter syndrome is very real, but the more people you end up talking to, the more you realize they're still trying to figure out what they're doing as well.

Entrepreneurship is an on-going journey. Hustle is a verb that is never ending.

- Pernell Cezar

What piece of advice would you give to someone looking to launch a business in 2020?

Johnson: Be honest with yourself. What's emphasized often in entrepreneurship and startups is the glitz and the glamour and the end product. But there's a long road in order to get to that that isn't for everybody. You need to be introspective, very honestly, if you are going to embark on that type of journey. 

Cezar: Master your lane. Study whatever you pursue—you're going to have to continue to be the best at that. You can always have new competition, or your old competition can get better. 

How would you describe your coffee?

Cezar: It's a whole mood.

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