Darklight caught up earlier this week with Akil Benjamin, Founder of Mentor Black Business; a ground-breaking mentorship scheme in the UK which seeks to provide resources to Black entrepreneurs. In the below interview, Akil tells us all about his personal journey & how a single dandelion became a symbol of resistance against systemic racism.
Through his platform, Akil gives businesses the power to connect with industry professionals, leaders & change makers spanning industries across Art, Creative, Photography, Advertising, Finance, Music & Tech. He began this programme “to provide Black business the foundation to unlock their own value and realise their own potential.” Darklight Art co-Founder Mimi Gray has been working with Akil since the early days of the project, and interviewed him to shine a spotlight on this brilliant initiative.
Darklight Art is helping to support Mentor Black Business through sales of “Seeds of Change” [Rankin, 2020], 100% of which go back into Mentor Black Business to fund the important work they are doing to fight systemic racism in industry.
Akil! We’d love to start from the beginning, because you’re a man with fingers in many pies. What’s your story? How did you get to where you are today & what’s your link to Saatchi & Somerset House?
I run a design studio called Comuzi that’s been named the best in British standard for design, which is amazing. I’m a Somerset House artist, but that’s mainly because the rent was cheap [I think that’s because they have bursary programs and stuff that we were eligible for].
M&C Saatchi, well that’s a story of persistence because I wanted to work with them ever since the first day I got brought in. The organisation is so big you can get lost in tiers of management, which means sometimes those conversations don’t go very far very fast. So I started taking the opportunity into my own hands and going straight to speak to the people who cut the cheques. They saw something in me; that I added value and what I was bringing to the table with this social work [Mentor Black Business]. We decided to partner and now we endeavour to make each other shine from it.
But my story is a long one – I’ve been at this for around eight years. How I’ve got here today was persistence.
Tell us about Mentor Black Business. When & how did it begin? What are your hopes for the future?
Mentor Black Business is an extension of a dream. I started M&C Saatchi Saturday School a year ago, asking the question; what happens when we teach communities the basics of business? What happens if we lift the foundation? Everyone makes more money. Everyone gains in that system.
But I think the true reason, why I really do it is because now no one can say it can’t be done.
How can people reading this get involved?
People can get involved by becoming mentors and signing up to the programme, attending our events… there’s a lot of stuff they can do. But first and foremost, engage. Tell our story, share our posts, come and join us. You don’t have to be anyone from anywhere. As long as you’re working a job, your professional work can be your activism. We’ll train you in all the rest, I just need bodies.
Come and join us, get in contact. Let’s deliver a Masterclass session or a workshop. If you’re a leader at work, we’ve got some training coming for your workforce in January.
“I’m just trying to plant a really solid idea: what does systemic anti-racism look like?”
What’s the message behind Seeds of Change? [How does the image make you feel?]
Well, that phrase “Seeds of Change” there is really interesting. Everyone gets blown away by the potential of what we’re doing but you need to plant many seeds, it’s not just one person that can go out and say okay cool, we’re gonna wake up tomorrow and be different, you need to show someone what that difference looks like. You can only plant the seed of ideas. I’m just trying to plant a really solid idea: what does anti-racism look like? What does systemic anti-racism look like? Because if we can pull that off with its own money-generating machine, it will live forever.
What will the money raised from “Seeds of Change” go towards?
Money goes towards running the programme. I’ve got a team of eight amazing people doing this job and I would love for their time to be respected and remunerated.
What do you do when you’re having a bad mental health day / one piece of advice for better mental health?
One piece of advice. Um, alright cool so, think of it like a parachute. I wrote down what my ripcord was any time I was having a really bad day. I wrote what that bad day looked like: when you can’t get out of bed, when you don’t care anymore, when you feel like shit, when you feel like it’s too difficult, when you feel like it’s just not worth it today, you stop and pull your parachute cord.
I listed out what my safety net was, and for me, that was praying, going to church, seeing my family and going to therapy if I really need it. Those things were really a safety net and so I always have like 50/60 quid stashed for an emergency therapy session. It’s not much but sometimes in the midst of hell it’s helpful. Okay, going to church because. Sometimes when you’re really deep in the hole of your problems it just shows you something that’s bigger than you.
I think the last thing is prayer, but prayer could be replaced with journaling, depending on who you are. The articulation of prayer for me is the fact that usually when I pray, it’s the first time I’ve really articulated what I’m struggling with and what I need.
Final Q. Dark or light? 😈
BLUE! This year is wild, dark or light, the sky is blue and that’s reliable.