"I know what good mentorship can do. It changed my life."
Improving accessibility has always been at the heart of what Akil Benjamin does but, this year, he’s pushing these values farther than ever before. After founding design agency and studio Comuzi in 2012, in 2019 he set up the M&C Saatchi Saturday School to teach Black women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups the basics of business. To date, the Saturday School has helped over three thousand people kickstart their career. Then, high profile instances of US police brutality earlier this year motivated Akil to more directly address the systemic racism he saw in the business world and beyond. In June, he launched an initiative to mentor 300 Black Businesses, which grew into an initiative to mentor 500 Black Businesses, then 1000. With over twenty thousand pounds in successful fundraising, the programme now exists as a resource to help Black businesses thrive with masterclasses, personal mentors and a library of resources.
It’s a pleasure to speak with you today, what you have been up to?
I run a design studio called Comuzi. We won a job last week, so we’ve been busy. We’ve actually been winning jobs since COVID-19 and I see that as a blessing. The fact that we can still deliver value to our clients is number one because if you focus on doing that then maybe you can survive until Christmas.
Why did you start your Saturday School?
It started because I needed to pay rent, I needed a second stream of income. I was working at Comuzi and it was almost enough but I had friends coming to me for help with their businesses and I found that process fun. Then I asked myself how I might make money from this fun. I love that I’ve found a spot where I can add value to a significant amount of people and now it’s about whether I can continue delivering that.
So, can you tell me a bit about your mentoring program grew out of this?
They started killing Black people again, I was tired. And I had this infrastructure to make a difference [via the Saturday School], so I said; “Okay cool, I’ll mentor people.” In three months, we’ve launched a programme and set up a platform. We are trying to make a really good environment for people to get the support and help that they need. It’s an environment for people to hang out as well as get a mentor, a masterclass session and access to resources.
How important was it to you to react the events of BLM 2.0?
It wasn’t. I’m not the reactive person, I’m the stand up and speak person. I’m not the type to pontificate. Seeing Back people dead in America wasn’t new, so doing Saturday school was just me doing Saturday school. If I want to support my community let me just show up, there doesn’t have to be a reason.
What are you trying to achieve with your mentorship programme?
I’m trying to educate. It’s about putting two communities in a space together to productively work together not just to face-off or showdown. How do I put systemic something behind the systemic racism? How do I give you systemic anti-racism? I’m doing this for the community.
I know what good mentorship can do. It changed my life. There are so many brands that don’t know what to say right now. And I’m like; okay, just teach us what you know. Don’t say anything crazy, don’t say anything Black Lives Matter. Just teach us how you make money. Let’s do a value exchange, show us that and maybe we’ll like your product again.
What’s your favourite thing about the communities you’ve created with Mentor Black Business and your Saturday School?
It’s about making pigs fly. In all of this, it’s about creating a space for people to thrive. Think about how many times the Black community has been stolen from, robbed from and exploited. I’m trying to give you a safe space to do what you need to do for yourself, not for me.
What do you want the future look like?
I want to create deep foundations for Black Businesses to grow from. Imagine if everyone could pay their mortgage with their side hustle? If we can get everyone’s business to make £2000 a month alongside their other job, we just paid everyone’s mortgages. If you can do that then that’s a real vision.
Sign up to Mentor Black Business here.
16 September 2020