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I contacted Kenrya initially while researching entrepreneurship education books for an upcoming class project, and I was impressed by Start It Up and the message it sends. It’s not just a “business plan book” - it features students from all backgrounds starting business in their teenage years. It’s an easy read and perfect for one’s classroom. However, I was more excited when I learned Kenrya has an extensive repertoire of anti-racist advocacy works, and this connections between the two are fascinating. Listen in and enjoy!
In this episode, we discuss Start It Up: The Complete Teen Business Guide to Turning Your Passions into Pay and How We Fight White Supremacy with author Kenrya Rankin. A graduate of Howard University and New York University, Kenrya is an award winning author and speaker whose work has been featured in Fast Company, Ebony, and Glamour. She’s the editorial director for Colorlines. Further, she’s host of the new podcast,The Turn On (NSFW.)
Chris McNutt: Hello everyone and welcome to season 3 episode 10 of Things Fall Apart at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris and I'm a digital art and media instructor in Springfield, Ohio. Before we get started, I want to give a brief shout out to three of our Patreon supporters who keep this show going, Michael Hyde, Mary Walls, and Jeremiah Henderson. Thank you for your support. If you'd like to learn more about the Human Restoration Project or would like to support us further, please visit us at humanrestorationproject.org and follow us on Twitter at @HumResPro. Today, we're joined by Kenrya Rankin. Kenrya has an extensive CV. She is a graduate of Howard University and New York University. She's an award-winning author, journalist, and speaker. She's the editorial director at Color Lines and has been published in Fast Company, Ebony, and Glamour. Her books include Started Up, The Complete Teen Business Guide to Turning Your Passions into Pay, Bet on Black, African American Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age of Barack Obama, and her recently released How We Fight White Supremacy, A Field Guide to Black Resistance, which is co-authored with Akiba Solomon. I contacted Kenrya after reading Started Up when researching entrepreneurial books for an upcoming class project, and it's awesome that she can join us to speak on the current state of entrepreneurial education as well as greater issues of the education system. So starting off, Kenrya, could you talk a little bit about what brought you to write Started Up?
Kenya Rankin: The short answer is that somebody asked me to. So the long answer is that I came into this project in a bit of an unusual way, typically in book publishing. You have an idea, you pitch it to a publisher, they buy your idea and then you're under contract. But the way that this came about is that I was drafted into the writers' pool of an imprint called Zest Books, which is now housed under Lerner Books. And so they had a pool, and whenever the editors there had an idea of something that they felt like needed to be in their list, they would reach out to everyone in the pool and say, hey, we want to do a book on entrepreneurship, send us your proposal. And then they would pick the proposal that they thought was most closely aligned with what they wanted to do. And at first I didn't really want to do it. I was kind of scared. I felt like, what do I have to say about entrepreneurship? I didn't think of myself as an entrepreneur, which is crazy because I was literally building my freelance business at the time that that happened. But it kind of kept gnawing at me, like the way that when you have an idea for something creative, the way that it tends to do where it won't leave you alone. And I was sitting at the hair salon. I was like, okay, sure, fine, I'll do it. Like it just kept going through my head. And so I remember it was a Saturday and the proposal was due Monday. And I went home and started writing, like it just kind of poured out. And by the end of that day, I had the bulk of the proposal, it was kind of crazy. And so I submitted it and they picked my book and that's where it came from. But ultimately what really, I think the reason that it was gnawing on me was because I wanted to do something that was different from what I've seen. I didn't really want to just give folks the nuts and the bolts of creating a business, but I really wanted to get them started from the beginning about filling, not just an external need, which is what we're always taught, right? I was a business administration minor. We were taught that if you start something, it needs to be because somebody needs it. And that's true and great, but I also think it's important to fulfill an internal need. And that's why the sub head on the book is the complete team business guide to turning your passions into pay. I wanted to help everyone who read the book figure out what they're passionate about and connect that with the need that exists out in the world. And I also wanted to take the view of doing it not just to make money, but to use your business to do good, which is why there's a whole chapter that's about giving back in the book.
CM: Yeah. And to kind of give even more detail, like in the book, it's really cool. The thing I appreciated the most at least was that there's all these different examples of teenage entrepreneurs and it's not just people that made like a million dollars. It's just people that are doing small businesses and just doing things that they enjoy doing. There's a lot of times when you check these books out, it's like stories of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or…
KR: Yeah, it's the gurus and the people who you can't necessarily see yourself in. And it was really important to me that when people picked the book up, that they would be able to see themselves somewhere in there and that it would inspire them to be able to try to do the same thing.
CM: And do you think that's a skill that every student should be learning, that entrepreneurship is something that is homogenous across our whole culture?
KR: I mean, I do. I think that it can teach really important lessons and I think that when you learn about entrepreneurship, my goal at least is that they can pick up three major things, right? So the first is that they are able to discover their passion and I say passion for a reason as opposed to saying purpose, which is what I think is often used in this area. And that's because I deeply believe that we have got to rethink this capitalist idea of connecting our self worth with what we can produce. I am not put on this earth to write books. I enjoy it. I love it. I love the people I write them for, but that's not my ultimate purpose. And I don't think that that's what we should be teaching our kids. But I do think that we have to make money to survive and so I want them to figure out how they can be autonomous while doing something that also-that they enjoy. The second thing is that I want them to learn the skills that make a great entrepreneur and not just for the sake of being able to run a successful business, but because I think that those skills are super transferable. You can use them all over the place, whether it's at school or in your relationships, learning things like creating a workable plan and seeing it through, managing your money, communicating well, treating people with respect, which you talk a lot about in the chapter on dealing with customers and asking for help will take you really far. And then the third thing is that I want them to not only learn how to tap into the creativity, but I want them to hold on to this sense that I think we're all born with, but that a lot of times gets beaten out of us along the way, which is that you can do literally everything. My daughter is eight and if you asked her today or yesterday or tomorrow, she's got about what she wants to be when she grows up. She has this long list and it's always changing, but there's like some things that are always on there. Like she wants to be a singer. She wants to be a top chef. She wants to be a YouTube star, a magician, a veterinarian, and an artist. Those things are pretty much mainstays on the list, but I never told her that she couldn't do any of those things or all of those things. We actually have lots of conversations about how at different phases of your life you can do different things and how you don't have to be locked into one career. With all of those things, when she talks about them, they are from an entrepreneurial mindset. She's thinking about how she can do those things to make money on her own. I guess it's because it's modeled. She's never seen me go to work. I always have worked from home since she's been alive. I want other young entrepreneurs to be able to hold up that spirit of creativity and innovation, even if they don't know that word yet.
CM: Yeah. I mean, you've already hinted at this, but could you elaborate a little bit more on – The counterpoint would be that a lot of times, entrepreneurship education gets a bad rap in one regard because it is focused around making money. A lot of times, money can be a very corrupting force. Well, a lot of times, almost all of the time, it can be a corrupting force. What would you say to people that are looking at the book about teenage entrepreneurship and they're saying, well, you're basically going to train kids to be Donald Trump. You're going to train them to be a money-seeking sleazeball of sorts.
KR: I would say that they haven't actually read Start It Up because while I think that there are a lot of books that are super focused on the money aspect of it, it really is about connecting with your passion and about how you can use that to make the world better. Capitalism sucks. We all know that as we're living in it, but as I said earlier, we do have to – unfortunately, this is a system that we live in. We do not barter services and we do not live in a utopia where we get to use our talents to directly impact the folks who we live in close connection with. You do have to be able to make money, but my goal is not so much to teach kids how to make money as to connect with what it is that they love to do. That's all I got.
CM: No. I think that's perfect. I mean, that sells the book to me. I hope you're enjoying the podcast thus far. I sincerely appreciate you listening in. And if you enjoy the work, please head over to humanrestorationproject.org to find our free resources and wealth of writings. And then if you think we should keep going, take a gander at our Patreon page. For $1 a month, you'll receive a professional print-ready electronic magazine of our work every two months. But as always, all of that work is available free online. Kind of building into a grander scheme of questions. To be honest, before I read this book, I didn't know who you were. And then I googled you and I was like, wow, this is not what I expected. Like your other work has absolutely really nothing to do with like teenage entrepreneurship. You know, you're an editor of Color Lines. You've co-written or collected together this book, How We Fight White Supremacy, as well as many other works that I'll put in the show notes. So I have to connect together the thoughts of your book with, I mean, the rest of your background and things that you've written about. And the question that I pose to you is surrounding the education market. Sadly, when I think of entrepreneurship education, to be frank, I think of a bunch of people a bunch of old white guys talking to people about, you know, exactly what we were just talking about.
KR: And talking down to them about it, too.
CM: Yeah, those books tend to never get political. They never talk about anything that might prevent them from selling a book, quote unquote, as in, you know, they're scared that, you know, if they say anything that might be out of line, that might be a bad thing. What are your thoughts just in general about the current state of entrepreneurship education and maybe just the education market when it comes to professional development?
KR: I mean, I think that at this point, any materials that claim to promote innovation but ignore the realities of how white supremacy, which is popped up by things like racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and classism, when they ignore those things, I think those books are ineffective at best and dangerous at their worst. You know, I wish I'd had a stronger lens when I really started up in 2010. But I do think, you know, one thing that I did do very intentionally was include primarily entrepreneurs of color who are from various socioeconomic backgrounds. It was important to me that there be a lot of different representation, as I was saying earlier. But I think, you know, and I can speak specifically to young people because that's the arena that I've worked in when it comes to this. I think very often we underestimate what they can process and what they can apply when it comes to topics that some adults label as difficult. If we're being honest, those are just topics that they don't really want to have an honorable – honorable, well, honorable too, but an honest, vulnerable conversation about because they don't want to be challenged and they don't want to have to examine how their privilege bolsters them and their work. And that's where those white men come in. But I think that we really need to have more than just the people who are at the top of the white supremacist hierarchy, and I'm talking wealthy, traditionally educated, white, straight, cisgender, Christian, able-bodied men out here doing the work of entrepreneurship education. Because at the point that you bring in folks who represent, you know, lots of different diverse backgrounds, that seeps in. Like, you know, you were saying you had to kind of, like, what's the through line of my work? The through line is that I'm a Black woman. And so that is my lens on everything that I do, and while my politics have definitely come through stronger – I mean, I wrote a book for God’s sake called How We Fight White Supremacy – that lens is always there. And I think that that's why it's important that they are not the only ones who are doing this work.
CM: And speaking of how we fight white supremacy, something you bring up multiple times is your work in schools as a parent and advocating for anti-bias training and bringing in that perspective. And, like, full disclosure, I work in a fairly rural school. It's very difficult to bring up that conversation in that community. And I hate to say that, but it's true. So did you run into any issues when you were trying to bring in anti-bias training as a parent? I'm expecting that's a yes. But then do you have any suggestions for someone who, you know, really wants that, but they're really just not sure of the route of doing that?
KR: Yeah. I mean, it's difficult because I don't think that there's one specific best course of action. I mean, I think that one of the most important things that you have to consider when you're organizing is where are you starting? So what are the local conditions? What's the, you know, the folks who want to do it, whether it be the entire administration or a couple of rogue teachers within the school, what's their true intention for doing this work and who's in place and able to carry the burden and what privilege are they willing to give up or use in order to support the folks within their system who don't have it? As you said, I have worked with educators and what I have encountered in some places is that they say that they want to make their schools welcoming, and I'm doing air quotes y'all, for folks of color, which doesn't really mean anything, but they thought that the one thing that they had to do was do like an anti-bias training and then that would be enough to move the needle, but they didn't really give any thought to the values that they wanted to establish and then live into. They didn't create any guidelines for policy or for implementing that policy. They didn't do any evaluation of how they're recruiting and also treating their employees of color. There was no real willingness to do any work beyond saying, Hey, y'all are welcome. They weren't doing anything that really created an environment where children of color weren't forced to give up little pieces of themselves every day just to keep the peace. That in my case resulted in me moving my child to another school because it was ultimately harmful for her, but that said, I think that many places and folks who wants to do this kind of work within their schools, a good way to start is by investing resources and bringing in a third party organization to come in within the environment where you work and thinking that you can do a massive overhaul of an inherently racist institution, which in a lot of ways we know that education is an institution that is steeped in white supremacy and anti-blackness in the same way that politics are and entertainment is and all of these things. I think it's folly often to think that we can do it from inside, but bringing in a third party, which involves investing actual resources, but oftentimes when we have to put our money into something, that's when we begin to take it seriously. It's not just a couple of folks having a meeting one day and saying, okay, we want to make everyone feel welcomed here, which is what I have experienced.
CM: Yeah. Yeah. I like the idea too of local organization as opposed to waiting for a nonprofit. In fact, one of your authors wrote about this in this book. Her name is Bianca…?
KR: Oh, yep, she's an artist.
CM: I liked what she had to say surrounding this idea of local coalitions as opposed to donating to a nonprofit or waiting for the nonprofit to come in, because that's a really good point. If nonprofits were doing fantastic everywhere, these problems are pervasive. I'm sure anyone listening to this would connect and relate that that's just the way things are. It's going to rely on people taking the reign and going rogue, use the terminology, but it's true in order to make that happen. Speaking of local organization, something that we talk a lot about on this podcast is it's one thing to say we can transform our classroom and be a more welcoming classroom and have an anti-bias education, et cetera, et cetera. All those things are really good things, but there are underlying inequities in the United States such as poverty, such as the community that one lives in, such as the money and how it's being distributed. Those have a huge place inside the classroom that makes it very difficult to teach. Do you think that there's a place for educators to enter that space of public policy? And do you have any suggestions for educators who maybe are hesitant to take that step into the political arena or to talk more openly about their beliefs on community activism?
KR: So I think there's room for educators in every space we need y'all. One thing that I think is really important, and Ella Baker, she was this black woman organizer who helped fund FOUND SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She always encouraged people to start fighting right where they are, and I think that's probably my best advice for folks. So to run with that idea of poverty, I'm not an educator, but I do know that there are lots of times where that rears its head right inside our schools. There's so many opportunities for us as for folks who are educators to start their fight right there. More than 20% of our kids in the United States are living in poverty, and another 20% are living in homes that are deemed low income. What can you do about things like unpaid lunch debt in your district that aren't just that you paid one debt, but what can you do to organize writ large across your district? How can you close the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots in your classroom? Do you have lesson plans that break down classism and food deserts and redlining? Do you keep snacks in an inconspicuous place for the kids who come to school who are too hungry to be able to concentrate? What programming can you implement that involves caregivers whose jobs are not flexible enough to let them be able to visit your classroom, but who want to be involved in the education of their kids? I think that there's often no need to reinvent the wheel. We're talking about local organizations. What's happening in your community? What organizations can you join forces with to address poverty in the populations that you're already working with? Getting into the arena doesn't have to look like becoming a lobbyist and coming to D.C. where I live. You can start right where you are. I sit on the board of this nonprofit called Parent Teacher Home Visits, and the whole thing is that we send educators into the homes of their students to meet with their guardians right where they are to form relationships that better address the needs of their kids. It's been proven to improve academic performance across the board. I think that we're doing ourselves a disservice if we underestimate the impact of partnering with like-minded educators right there.
CM: That nonprofit sounds really cool, even though we were just talking about a complete counterintuitive point. It does sound really interesting. I like that idea.
KR: Yeah, and it has local chapters. Perhaps that is how someone could decide that they want to partner with Parent Teacher Home Visits and bring that program into their district. Look, you've drawn on a pedagogy that is larger, but you're working with people who are right there where you are to work with your direct population to address the impacts of poverty on your students.
CM: The hardest question, at least for me to think about – I'm reading through this book, and this conversation after maybe the first two questions becomes rather bleak, to be honest. This discussion is not a happy discussion. Going on social media, there's always a new media craze surrounding something that's really sad going on in the United States. These things are hard to address. What hopes do you have surrounding? Do you see things improving on the horizon? Do you feel like people are starting to organize more? What keeps you going?
KR: This may be surprising, but I'm full of hope. As you mentioned, my latest book is called How We Fight White Supremacy, and it chronicles the ways that Black people resist in the face of cultural, political, and economic systems that thrive on the subjugation of people who are not white. That's how we define white supremacy. It came out in March. Since then, I've been traveling, doing book talks and meet-and-greets and all that kind of stuff all over the country. The moments that really stick with me are after we've done the reading and talked about the big themes and we're sitting at the table, my co-author Akiba Solomon and I, and people come up to the table and they have their book and it's like dog-eared and they've marked all over it and got sticky notes, and they're like, you know, this book really helped me figure out what I'm supposed to do. It helped me figure out what my purpose is. I'm a bit of a crybaby, but I can't say how many times that has made me cry as I'm hugging a virtual stranger, but who doesn't feel like a stranger anymore because they have read this book and felt a super duper connection with it. One of the things that we wanted folks to feel or to do by the time that they finished the final chapter, which is about freedom dreaming, you know, this idea of stepping outside of the confines that we find ourselves in right now and imagining what we want our society, a just society to actually look like, because I think that very often we get bogged down in the reaction, right? Like so much of what we're doing is a reaction to the latest crazy tweet or the unhinged and dangerous and violent policy, and when we get mired in that, it's hard for us to think about what we want this world to actually look like. And so that chapter asks people to just stop and close their eyes and envision what a society that does not have all of these things, and it actually looks like so that we're not putting ourselves at risk of perpetuating it, right? And I just find so much joy and so much hope in the people who tell me that they figured out the way that they can join the millions of people who are, you know, collectively working to advance the fight against this system that really means to do us harm. That brings me joy and hope.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. If you have time, I'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes, social media, or anywhere that you see fit. I mention iTunes specifically because the more ratings we have there, the higher we rank on the education podcast list, and the more listeners we have, the better we're going to do. We can't do this without you, and I'm humbled by the opportunity to help broadcast this message to as many people as we possibly can. So let's push forward together and restore humanity. Thank you.