Black History Month Startup Profile: Jason Hilliard and The Village Initiative

Black History Month was created and is observed annually for remembrance and appreciation of notable people and events in the history of descendants of the African diaspora or people of African ancestry. This month gives us a chance to highlight what these notable people and events not only mean to Black history but to general history at large. Within the startup and entrepreneurial community, black men and women are increasing their contributions but are still behind other racial groups in owning their own business or creating a product. Less than 1 percent of Black Americans receive the venture capital necessary to get their business or product off the ground. Despite those setbacks, there are Black men and women, especially in North Texas, who have been successful. Here are some of their stories.

Could you give a summary of what your company does and the idea or inspiration behind it?

The company [Village Initiative] is an early-stage startup that was originally aimed at assisting people with raising money for their student loan debt. We’ve revamped it, and it’s going to be a platform that opens up the ability to raise funds for any type of education-related debt: student loans, high school students with organization fees, high school trips, or college students that want to raise money for their tuition. We’re also going to create financial education software that we are going to try to get into school districts to teach high school students about financial literacy, student loans, interest rates, home loans and mortgages.                                                        

What got you into entrepreneurship?

I left corporate America after 10 years, [I was doing] insurance and management, things like that. I’m actually a teacher now, I teach entrepreneurship and business courses. This is my second year teaching and actually, getting into education and speaking to the kids, I noticed that many districts would say ‘go to college,’ but they don’t tell the kids how to go to college or a way to raise money for college.

I’ve always been an idea person and I was at home one day and had gone to open a student loan bill. As I walking through my house, towards my bedroom, the idea just hit me like a ton of bricks. I started jotting down in my journal then got in contact with my friend and now business partner, Randon Knighten in Tennessee. We just kind of started spitballing and putting information on paper, Skyping and FaceTiming and other things to try and get some ideas together about how we can go about doing this.

We called it the Village Initiative because we looked at it like it takes a village to solve a problem. It would be a disservice to potential clients or customers, given the foundation of what this company is built on, if I packaged up and sold it off or giving a piece away for an amount of money. We really want to stay grassroots. Once the website is done, we want to, of course, take advantage of social media and hit local college campuses, whether it be UNT, Dallas Baptist or SMU, and start building up our client base and possibly doing courses or information sessions on what we do and how people can take advantage of what we’re offering.

As an entrepreneur who is Black and a man, how have those intersections affected how you do business or how you approach your market?

As a Black man, what I’ve seen getting out into the tech world, since this is sort of a tech company, I’ve noticed that there aren’t a lot of Blacks in the tech world. On the flip side of that, the non-Black people I meet, they’re so inviting and welcoming. I know being the owner of the business [Village Initiative], me being black, the foundation isn’t just to attract a certain demographic or customer. Educational fees and student loans affect everybody across any socioeconomic status, race, gender, or ethnicity; that crosses over. Me being a Black business owner or attempting to be a Black business owner, I think I could definitely be the face for young Black children that may not see a lot of people that look like them being entrepreneurs but also, being open and diverse because the foundation of everything is the village initiative, it an initiative for a village of people, and as you know, everybody’s village is different, whether it be color, height, weight or socioeconomic status.

Do you feel that it’s important to have people of color, especially Black people, in the entrepreneurial/startup field?

Oh definitely. I think like I’ve said before, it helps out as far as diversifying the entrepreneurial realm. Me being a teacher and also being an entrepreneur, those young Black males or females students have someone to look up to and can have someone to they feel comfortable with talking with someone that looks like them about possibly starting a business or obstacles that they think may run into or actually have run into getting where they want to in life, whether it’s finishing college or starting a business.

What advice would you give anyone about becoming an entrepreneur?

I would say go full steam ahead, yet, surround yourself with people that are going to motivate you. Also, don’t listen to that little voice that is in everybody’s head that says ‘you can’t do it’ or ‘you’re not good enough.’

Ateanna Uriri

Ateanna Uriri is a journalism major at UNT and currently an editorial intern for Launch DFW. When she is not at school or interning, she works as a library associate for the Dallas Public Library and is an active blerd (Black nerd) with a love for books, particularly the graphic variety, old films and documentaries.