Business Builder

GaBiz Editor in Chief speaks with Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs President and CEO Jay Bailey about the organization’s strategies for—and successes in—building Black-led businesses.

When entrepreneur H.J. Russell founded his eponymous company in 1952, he laid the foundation for one of the largest minority enterprises in America, one that would come to include divisions in real estate development, construction, project management, and even airport concessions. Rather than simply enjoying his success and passing it along to his family, Russell had a vision to share the wealth, literally, by creating opportunities for other Black business owners. Today that vision is fulfilled in the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs (RICE), led by President and CEO Jay Bailey. The organization is a business-generator, offering curriculum, mentorship, access to capital, and ongoing support. Here, we chat with Bailey about finding opportunities and overcoming challenges.  

From a practical perspective, how does RICE help entrepreneurs connect with the capital they need? 
From a practical perspective, at RICE, we take a holistic approach to help entrepreneurs bridge the gap to access the capital they need, and it starts with our core principles, which revolve around ensuring access and readiness. We understand that being prepared is key to securing financing, whether it’s pursuing a line of credit, a loan, entering a seed round, seeking funding support from friends and family, or exploring investment opportunities. By focusing on those nuanced aspects that aspiring business owners might not have easy access to, or may not be aware of, we provide entrepreneurs with the essential knowledge, support, and resources they need to become “investment-ready.” Ultimately, our goal is to assist them in positioning themselves for success when seeking capital. 

Additionally, we have cultivated a robust network of partners within the financial sector, including venture capitalists and angel investors. This network allows us to make warm introductions between entrepreneurs and these financial entities and companies, providing invaluable support to help entrepreneurs realize their dreams. 

Can you share one or two success stories of the businesses and entrepreneurs you serve?
There are a number of remarkable success stories from our RICE Stakeholders that exemplify the impact we have on their success. One story that stands out is that of a local general contracting company. During the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, they received a dreaded phone call at 2 a.m., notifying them that over 80 percent of their business was going to dissolve because of the virus’s impact. Because of the relationships we had, as well as knowledge about their readiness to go to the next level, we were able to connect them with a Fortune 50 organization to help sustain their business. Within just six months, they successfully negotiated and secured a contract exceeding $28 million. This contract not only kept the company afloat, but also represented the significant achievement of securing such a partnership with a Fortune 50 company that would, typically, require six to eight years of cultivation. We achieved it in just six months, precisely when the company needed it most. 

Another inspiring story involves one of our youngest entrepreneurs, Zoe, who experienced Walt Disney World for the first time on a trip where we took 60 entrepreneurs to meet with and learn from their executives. Zoe didn’t go as an 11-year-old just to experience a theme park. She went as an 11-year-old CEO who had a unique opportunity to gain insights, best practices, and, most importantly, engage with top executives from one of the world’s largest companies. She had an opportunity to explore how she could infuse magic and “imagineering” into her own company. It was a powerful thing to see.  

These stories, from an 11-year-old with a dream to a seasoned company seeking a new way forward, showcase the diverse and impactful journey of entrepreneurship that we nurture at RICE. And this is just the beginning of our story. 

Why has Georgia, specifically Atlanta, been the ideal place to build and develop RICE?
At RICE, we’ve had a significant advantage from the outset. We have been building upon one of the most exceptional entrepreneurial legacies that Georgia, and indeed the nation, has ever witnessed—the legacy of the remarkable Herman J. Russell Sr. To have the opportunity to build upon this storied legacy, to continue fostering an environment where individuals are not only encouraged but are also equipped to grow and scale their enterprises is truly an honor. Mr. Russell initiated this legacy over 80 years ago when he founded a company that still thrives today, which is a true testament to his vision and determination.  

Atlanta has always stood as a beacon for forward-thinking entrepreneurship within the Black community. It has consistently set an example for other cities across the country and around the world. There are countless examples of entrepreneur success stories from luminaries like Alonzo Herndon to contemporary trailblazers like Pinky Cole, and when you look at the community, the culture, the covenant, the education system, the HBCUs that we have, Atlanta has all the tools. I believe that Atlanta could be the most consequential city of the next 100 years for that reason. 

I think this entrepreneurial spirit that undergirds our city has been the driving force behind its prominence. Atlanta’s unique entrepreneurial spirit has given rise to iconic businesses such as Chick-fil-A and Waffle House, both rooted in its fertile soil. Atlanta is also home to numerous Fortune 500 companies that have chosen to make their headquarters here. This blend of education, corporate presence, community support, and entrepreneurial culture positions Atlanta to potentially become one of the most influential cities of the next century. The foundation is set, and the heart of it all is this indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. 

RICE has been the recipient of multiple grants from large corporations recently (Walmart, UPS, Fiserv, and others). What does such a cash infusion mean for your mission? 
At RICE, our mission is to “Build. Black. Business.” Coupled with that, we hold an ambitious vision—building the world’s largest center dedicated to nurturing, scaling, and advancing Black businesses. Our commitment is to do this the right way, by creating a safe space for Black entrepreneurs to be able to fail and fly. A place where they can thrive, learn, grow, and see value in their own reflection. A place where they can have access to some of the most exceptional resources available globally. Naturally, realizing this vision requires substantial capital. 

Receiving grants from forward-thinking companies is an incredible gift. By being well-capitalized, we can execute our mission at the highest level, turning our vision into reality. The support from these remarkable companies signifies their recognition that empowering Black entrepreneurs in a city like Atlanta benefits everyone. 

For us, it’s not just about the financial investment; it’s also about the invaluable knowledge, the incredible content and sound counsel that these companies bring to our entrepreneurs. Beyond that, it’s about the transformative effect of our programs. We aim not only to inform but to profoundly change the lives of these entrepreneurs. When they sit at the table with the world’s best, they begin to see themselves differently. Our programs are designed to be not just informative but transformational, addressing the complete entrepreneur and paving the way for them to thrive in every aspect. 

We hear a lot about the challenges entrepreneurs and business owners face, but what are some of the positive elements they can enjoy from being based in Georgia? Why is it a great time to start a business here? 
Georgia consistently ranks as the number one state for business, holding its position for over a decade. This achievement is a testament to the remarkable environment that our state has cultivated. From our political strata to our corporate strata, and woven into the very fabric of our community, there’s a compelling notion that ideas belong here. 

Georgia offers a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs. It’s a state that champions business, an entrepreneurial hub that welcomes dreamers and doers alike. The foundation for business success is solidly laid here, and this legacy has been this way for many, many years. As we move forward, we’re committed to preserving this legacy and ensuring that Georgia remains a place where entrepreneurial dreams can thrive.