Colorados only Black-led community foundation launches to spark change

Colorado welcomed its only Black-led community foundation with the launch of the AYA Foundation on Monday.

Spearheaded by the Black Business Initiative as its philanthropic branch, the foundation aims to offer both programming and funds to entrepreneurs and organizations that support the Black community. “Aya” is a West African symbol for endurance and resourcefulness.

“The entire Colorado community thrives when we have choices,” said Executive Director Benny Samuels. “Why shouldn’t we all be able to choose to do business with a Black-owned tech company, shop at a Black-owned cannabis business or put donor funds and family philanthropy in a Black-serving foundation? AYA will help provide us all with the gift of choice.”

The foundation’s programs include “Jumpstart My Biz,” a four-week course for business beginners; “NAV to Connect,” a coaching and advisory service for entrepreneurs; and “Black Capital,” which teaches entrepreneurs how to build capital.

“Economic opportunity, access to resources, and social agency are the foundation for true equity,” said Jice Johnson, founder and chief visionary officer of BBI.

Samuels’ vision for the AYA Foundation as a “programmatic community foundation” differs from similar philanthropic organizations that traditionally rely on grant-making. “To serve our community well, we need to get close to them” through programs, events and relationships with entrepreneurs, she said.

One future goal, which she expects to be a “heavy lift,” is to build an endowment, Samuels added in a phone interview.

The AYA Foundation initially received its Section 501(c)(3) designation as a nonprofit organization in 2020, but the process to formally set it up by erecting its board of directors, raising money and other steps has taken two years, Samuels said, describing it as “a typical hurdle.”

A number of local groups have already pledged financial backing to the foundation, including the Colorado Health Foundation, health care company Kaiser Permanente, nonprofit lending institution Colorado Enterprise Fund and Denver-based Rose Community Foundation.

Meanwhile, BBI was established in 2015 “out of the need to close the wealth gap,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “The Black community is not going to program itself out of disparities, and, so, what we really needed was institutions.”

Looking forward, she hopes the AYA Foundation will serve as “a strong pillar in the community.”

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