#123, Kerry Bowie, Managing Partner of Msaada Partners and the Majira Project

Kerry Bowie is the Managing Partner of Msaada Partners and the Majira Project. Msaada is Swahili for “service”, and the strategy firm empowers social impact through consulting, coaching, and connecting. Majira is Swahili for “summer’’, so in a nod to the growing season the nonprofit accelerator program and innovator support organization helps small businesses and startups grow with a mission of community development through entrepreneurship. 

Kerry also launched the Browning the Green Space Initiative which is a group of cross-sector leaders striving to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in clean energy and beyond. Kerry works at the nexus of social, economic, and environmental justice and has more than 20 years of experience in private, public, and nonprofit management. In addition to holding leadership positions at his church, Kerry is a Food Solutions New England Trailblazer, mentors and teaches start-up firms as part of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service and the New England Regional Innovation Node, and serves on the Black Innovation Alliance Leadership Team, Boston Ujima Project Investment Committee, MIT Graduate Alumni Council, MIT Sloan Affinity Groups Alumni Advisory Council, SI Ventures Advisory Board, and the Board of Museum Advisors of the Museum of Science. Kerry holds bachelors and masters degrees in environmental engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Michigan, respectively, as well as an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Kerry lives in Somerville, MA with his wife, Sherri-Ann, and two young daughters, Alexis and Sophia.

Bigger Than Us Episode 123

This transcription has been edited for readability.

Host Raj Daniels 02:18

If you were out share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Kerry Bowie 02:34

I think I’ve always played at a number of different you know, spaces. So in the public sector, the private sector, the nongovernmental sector. And that goes back to even when I first started college, I started on a Navy ROTC scholarship at MIT. Maybe this is an interesting piece of that. Not exactly where I ended up, but this was around the time of Top Gun. So I thought I was going to be a fighter pilot or reo. So back in the Maverick and Goose days.

Host Raj Daniels

Can you give the audience an overview of Msaada Partners and your role at the organization?

Kerry Bowie 07:26

Msaada Partners is the strategy consulting firm that I started coming out of state government. Masada is Swahili for service. And so the thought was that we empower social impact through consulting, coaching, and connecting, and really just trying to make sure that the target is on organizations led by founders of color, organizations that are targeting underserved are under-resourced communities. 

I was doing a lot of work with MIT’s mentor mentoring service. I was helping a lot of startups and companies to do work on sort of a volunteer basis. They just didn’t look like me. They were mostly young, white guys, and Asian students. And so did not see a lot of African Americans or Latinx. And then also not a lot of women, per se. I was trying to see how we can help there. And so that’s how we started. Unfortunately, startups and small businesses don’t typically have the money to pay for consulting fees. And so we had to pivot a little bit. So we got other people to pay us to work with the company. So had a contract with the city of Boston, actually just now about applied to re-up on that. I started doing work formally with MIT, where I am a core instructor with the National Science Foundation. So I am an instructor for the innovation core or, or I-Corps program. And we started to work with some nonprofits who had a little more funds to work on strategic plans or to think about earned income or revenue. 

The only problem with that Raj is, you know, doing the I-Corps work, still didn’t see a lot of black or brown people in that program. Even some of the work with the city of Boston wasn’t necessarily working with black or brown founders or owners. Did do a lot of that with some of the nonprofits, but it wasn’t in the for-profit space where I was targeting. And so that really led to starting a pro bono program with one of my classmates from MIT Sloan, who was at the time a partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group. And out of that came the Madeira project. 

So, similarly, in Swahili, Madeira is Swahili for summer. And so in a nod to the growing season, what we do is we tried to help those small businesses, and I was talking about in the for-profit space to grow. 

So similar to a seed or seedling, it needs sunlight, water, nutrients, you know, a pot to grow in or place to take root. Startups and small businesses need the same thing. But in the form of, you know, consulting, coaching, connections, capital, access to capital. So that’s what we do. And we formally turn that into a nonprofit earlier this year, actually, on Juneteenth. I purposely did it on Juneteenth, in terms of the significance of that day.

…oftentimes, unfortunately, you see when people talk diversity, they’ll point to the gender lens…it can’t just be that we’ve got to do more if we’re really talking about diversity in this country.

Host Raj Daniels 11:22

Well, congratulations on that. Let’s double click here on one of your initiatives regarding or called Browning the Green Space. Can you share with the audience what that is and what you’re trying to accomplish?

Kerry Bowie 11:41

A couple of things we learned with the Madeira project over the last four years that we’ve been working on it, we’ve learned that these small businesses, the startups, need technical assistance. They need a sense of community or space, but also just connections. 

But what we really found out is at access to capital, and the numbers are sort of staggering, as you look at, you know, the amount of funding that goes to black and brown entrepreneurs. The number is something like 3–4% of funding goes to women, and like 1% goes to African Americans. So if you happen to be an African American woman, and I think it’s something like point 0003, or I don’t even know what it is. 

But it’s so small, that it’s in a sense, laughable, or maybe scrabble. In doing this work, I started to talk to a lot of angel investors and VCs across the country, especially VC funds being led by black and brown people. 

I remember being at that conference in DC, I think there were at least 1,000 people in the room. And I could count the Black and Brown people on two hands. And I didn’t need all my fingers.

And so one of those guys, our friend, John Louis, who’s actually from Somerville, interestingly enough, and is now in California. He had a carve-out for a company and not a lot, but maybe like 100 K. And he reached out to me and said, Hey, are you interested in investing in this black founder out of Greentown Labs in Somerville, you know where I am? And I said, Hey, I’m starting all these things. I don’t have the dry powder right now. But I’m happy to reach out to some people in my network. And that’s what I did. And I reached out to them and specifically said, Hey, would you be interested? And actually, I’ll just call his name. Joshua Aviv. Joshua is one of the founders of Spark Charge. And so they do battery packs for cars. And what I was able to do is I reached out to a whole bunch of people and got them a little bit of money, maybe about 25 K to go in this round. That was my specific request. 

But my general request is, Hey, I love to talk about Browning the Green Space. I think I had gotten away from that. Because there’s a, at least in Massachusetts, where I am, there’s a one-year cooling-off period where you’re not supposed to, if you leave work in those areas, and I was an Associate Commissioner of operations, I touched a lot of stuff. You know, I was doing brownfields clean up contaminated properties. I was doing environmental justice where I was doing food policy were and I probably took it too far. But that is a little bit of that tax of being a black man in America, I think I was dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s. I wanted to be ultra-safe or ultra-conservative. In that, I probably could have been a little more relaxed. But I didn’t want to do that. 

And the problem was that one year turned into like three and a half, almost four years. And I didn’t do work. And in sort of the green space where I’m trained, I did environmental engineering yet, MIT undergrad and got a Master’s at the University of Michigan and actually got into the Ph. D. program in Georgia Tech and worked in semiconductor manufacturing, doing facilities and environmental and safety. I hadn’t really been doing that. And I think all of this sort of coming back full circle, I realized I was in a few meetings on this topic and going wow, I feel like I still know more than most of the people in this meeting. And I haven’t done this work in like four or five years. And so that, that was sort of an aha moment that said, Hey, I really know this stuff. I should be doing work in the green space.

I think the other piece, the reason I left the government was a little bit about this, you know when I was doing work and environmental injustice, talking about climate change, and greenhouse gases, going around the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to what we call gateway cities. And for your listeners who aren’t in Massachusetts, a gateway city is a city where there’s, you know, not Boston, you know, Boston’s the big, the big nut. But those other big cities that, maybe there’s been disinvestment, they probably have high immigrant populations, manufacturing has moved away, there are gonna be, you know, lower-income communities. There’s probably high English isolation in these communities. And so in going around and talking in those communities about climate change, and greenhouse gases, a lot of those folks will look at me, like, Hey, we’re not climate change deniers we get it is important. 

But for us, it’s not as important as jobs is not as important as, you know, affordable housing is not as important as education and affordable transportation and access to healthy food and the police harassing us, and I got it, you know, as a black man, I got it. But as an environmental engineer and a public servant, I was like, hey, these things are not mutually exclusive. 

It’s unfortunate that the Black, Brown, low, moderate-income communities, are getting more than their fair share of what I call the “environmental bads”—the brown fields, asthma, the pollution. But we’re missing out on the environmental goods. So missing out on the cleantech, the energy efficiency, the renewable energy, jobs. This has to change. Because this is, this is big.

So one of my friends, David Danielson, who helped to start the MIT energy club, he’s now a breakthrough energy venture out in California. But at a time he was at ARPA E. And I think he was maybe an assistant secretary at the Department of Energy. I remember going down and this will be it. Governor Schwarzenegger was Governor Schwarzenegger at the time I went to a conference. And I remember being at that conference in DC, I think there were at least 1000 people in the room. And I could count the black and brown people on two hands. And I didn’t need all my fingers. There probably seven people there. And I was going, Hey, these people are not and I’m not knocking tree huggers. And environmentalist and I, I love them. But this is not who was in a room. These were people who are, you know, business people making money. They saw the business opportunity in this in this space. And I was going man, we are about to be left out. 

That was really what precipitated me leaving to say I want to brown the green space. The problem was like I said, I was being cautious, you know, trying to adhere to that one-year cooling-off period and I got somewhat distant from it. But this piece of doing the Madeira project, and meeting these VCs, and understand this capital piece, it brought me back to what is now Browning the Green Space. 

And so, as I said, I got money for Josh and Spark Charge. And interestingly enough, maybe a month or so ago, Josh and his partner, actually were on Shark Tank. They received some investment from Mark Cuban and Lori Grenier. But I knew Josh before that, and so like I said, we got the money. But I think more exciting. And more important than that, is I woke up some folks in the Boston area, who said, Hey, we would love to have this conversation with you about Browning the Green Space. And so people at the Northeast Clean Energy Council people at New England women and energy and environment, people at the Prime Coalition and Prime Impact Fund, people at the American Association of Blacks in Energy, and others. 

I probably got myself in trouble just naming a few. But there are a number of organizations, but we started having conversations. And those conversations, I think I sent that message I refer to back like the beginning of August and 2019. And I think I had a few conversations with some folks over that summer. And by that fall, we said hey, let’s open this up, let’s invite some more people. We did that. And this is pre-COVID. So we got to do those meetings in person. We did a meeting in October, came back and did another meeting in February, I think we were scheduled to meet, and then that’s when COVID in. And so everything from there went virtual. So we did everything online. But we had a few more meetings. And like I said we formally incorporated Browning the Green Space as a nonprofit in Massachusetts, at the end of September.

Host Raj Daniels 22:03

So let’s speak directly about Browning the Green Space. Earlier this year, quite a few cities in Texas, Dallas, and Houston being the big ones released climate action plans, you know, if you had the ear of let’s say government officials, establishment, etc. What are some of the steps they could take to start brown in the green space? You know, you mentioned funding, obviously, the first one, but what are some other steps they could take?

Kerry Bowie 22:28

That’s great. Let me explain what we’re doing. And maybe that will help. Because I think governments can be involved in not all of the pieces because I am. I grew up in Alabama and spent time in Texas, but I was schooled in Massachusetts and Michigan. So I’m about as purple as they come. I’m sort of right in, in the middle. And so I believe in sort of right-size government, I think government can’t fix everything. I think that the private sector has to play. And I think they need to play by the rules that they play by, which is, you know, I think there definitely is a profit motive. But I do believe in a triple bottom line. And I think that’s one of my biggest learnings being in, in the public sector is, man, it’s so much harder to me than the private sector. The private sector is very easy to identify who your customer is, you can actually fire customers, you can be really focused. 

You cannot do that in government. In government, everybody is a stakeholder and everybody you need to take care of to a certain extent. 

And so in a sense, it does not become a what is it a maximization, you know, in the private sector, you maximize profits in the public sector is an optimization or minimax deal where it’s interesting, where you sort of know you’ve done your job when nobody’s completely happy. And so it’s a weird sort of space to be in oftentimes, it’s pretty thankless because nobody is being truly ever completely fulfilled, except in a few cases. So, with that being said, the five pillars that we’re working on in Browning the Green Space are first around careers is really how are we sort of mapping out a pathway to employment for black and brown folk and low moderate-income for women. Our target is on race, not gender. One because you know, they’re, they’re women who are part of their Black women are Latinos. And so I think we get that, because oftentimes, unfortunately, you see when people talk diversity, they’ll point to the gender lens. And it’s about white women. It can’t just be that we’ve got to do more if we’re really talking about diversity in this country. 

So I think our first is around careers. And so how do we have a pathway? And so I guess there’s an education side to that, that’s elementary and Secondary Education. That’s about trade schools is about community colleges. So I think you’re right, from a government perspective, what our government’s doing, to make sure that the education that they’re providing is setting people up for the jobs that are in high demand and that are needed? Everybody doesn’t have to go to an Ivy League, most people don’t need to go. That’s not the training that people need. But how do we make sure people understand the training is necessary for this green economy? So that’s, that’s one is focusing on careers. 

Second is focusing on companies, which is sort of the backside of that is sort of a two-sided marketplace. So where those people who are looking for gainful employment go they go to companies? How are those companies finding them? And so we’re working with those companies to make sure that they don’t have unconscious bias, or I don’t have it there, they are going to have it, but they can get beyond it, that they can put some structure and systematic things in place to make sure that they’re not blinded by it, those biases, that they’re intentional about where they’re, they’re looking, you know, are they looking at the collegiate level, or you’re looking at historically black colleges and universities? Are they looking at Hispanic serving institutions? Are they looking at the National Society of Black Engineers, or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, or the indigenous population? And so really being able to do things like that and think about it. And also just having some of those tough conversations with in corporations, because a lot of stuff is still old boy network. People come in because it’s who you know, not what you know. And how do we change that? And not just for sort of white-collar jobs, also blue-collar jobs? You know, in the union shops in the union halls? Are you bringing in black people? Are you bringing in brown people? Are you bringing in women? I think there are some places for government and regulation in there. But a lot of them also on the market side. And I think our pieces looking at this is, you know, white-collar and blue-collar jobs. They both are green-collar jobs. And so that’s really our focus is on those green-collar jobs. 

So Raj, you know, started with careers, then there are companies, and then going back to what you said, you know, there was this whole funding piece, and we split that into two groups. And so one is, capital is what we’re calling it. And that capital is probably more venture capital. And so going back to like a Josh, at Spark Charge, or, you know, there are other companies, I can name a bunch of them, but, you know, how do we get them? The technical assistance, consulting, the accelerators and incubators because even, you know, you’re in, you’re in Dallas, but Greentown Labs is here in Somerville, they just opened up in Houston. They’re working on this, but, you know, not a lot of black and brown people there. And so I think they’re actively and being more intentional about how they do that. But how can we make that? 

That’s everywhere that we’re really thinking about that. So that’s on the capital side. So how can we support entrepreneurs? And then I think, similarly, capital, where we call it something different is, if you think about working capital and growth capital, more for small businesses or medium enterprises, how do we support them as well? Really more of the small businesses, and we’re calling that contracts. And so how can we focus on small businesses and make sure they’re getting the contracts? And this goes back to that government piece around procurement. And, you know, how are we making sure that the city of Houston or the city of Boston or other municipalities across the country, how are they making sure that, you know, vendors of color, especially in this green space, whether it’s around, you know, solar or wind or energy efficiency, or you know, LEED buildings or around water or some type of, you know, you know, food, something in green climate, tech or climate change space? How is that happening? 

I’m here in Massachusetts. It’s easy for me to pick on Massachusetts in Boston because I’m most privy to that information. But the city of Boston, you know, if you look back at their procurement, in you, you targeted black-owned companies, I mean, that number was like, you know, less than 1% or less than 2% as the last reporting, and it was going, Man, this is, you know, almost, you know, it’s kind of crazy. Like, that doesn’t make any sense. Because that makes a difference, if one of those vendors can get a $500,000, you know, contract, or a million-dollar contract, that’s a game-changer, because they can bring in some of that front office or back-office support that allows them also to go in and target other contracts. And there’s some interesting things and Massachusetts, you know, our massport organization is starting to do things where, you know, not just having people come in, as, you know, black and brown folk and subs, but, you know, having them come in and take equity stakes in some of these projects, and they’ve sort of built that into their the requisition, you know, their RFP process, and you and you can see how that starts to change how that starts to, you know, have people coming together and making joint ventures, and allows us to stand up some of these companies to do the work that they’ve been doing, they just haven’t been able to do at scale. Those are our four, so careers, companies, capital contracts. 

And then the last one is really the first one, if I think about it, is around communities. Because ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to get to is, yeah, if you look at it, you know, those folks in the gateway cities, talked about those black and brown and low moderate-income folks. Those are the folks who need the technologies and solutions of the green economy more than anybody because they don’t actually don’t have disposable cash flow, a lot of them are living, check the check. And so, you know, having your home buttoned up, having solar, having access to hybrid electric vehicles, that actually makes a difference. Having clean air is very different. 

If you go back to the tree huggers, there’s a piece where, hey, it is about the environment, we got to have trees to breathe, and we got to have the, you know, that the animals and all these things, but to me, this is all about people actually heard. You know, then-Senator Harris now, VP elect, Harris, as she was fundraising here, and one of the law firms. Actually, what Senator Moe Cohen, she was talking about this, California, and saying this stuff is real. We have forest fires, we’ve got flooding. We’ve got, you know, little children who have asthma. That’s what this is about to me. And so how do we change that. 

And so if I bring that back to the northeast, where we are, I think this is also like another aha moment for me. I sit on the I’m a part of the MIT Sloan has a sustainability initiative where they bring in alarms, and they do a Renewable Energy Finance Roundtable. And people are talking about project finance and a bunch of different things in the space. And there are a handful of us who are thinking more at the community scale, and we do these challenge workshops. And so I did a challenge workshop probably four years ago. And in that challenge workshop, I talked about getting energy efficiency to low moderate income. One of the data points that really jumped out to me, and I can’t remember the exact figures but the gist of it was that the Latinx population in Providence, Rhode Island has the largest fraction of their wallet dollars go to energy.

I think, most important is, what is it that drives you? And what are you excited about?

Host Raj Daniels 35:15

That’s something that my wife and I were speaking about recently, is that what percent of our income goes toward, paying energy bills versus other people? So, continue with that.

Kerry Bowie 35:28

I can’t remember if it was like, what’s it like 9%, or I think it was, they may have been double-digit where everybody else across the counter was single digit. And it makes sense. They don’t have a large wallet in the first place. So they’re probably not salaried employees, they’re probably check-to-check hourly employees. So one, you got a smaller wallet size. 

Two, we’re in the northeast, where we have some of the higher energy costs in the country. Three we’re in the northeast, where we got some of the oldest housing stock in the country. Three or four, I can’t remember which number I’m on now which bullet, they’re probably not homeowners, so your tenants, so you got those tenant owner issues. So the landlord, he or she doesn’t care, or does not have the incentive to fix it. Because they’re not paying the bill. So the bill goes to the tenant. And, and so, in a sense, you don’t have a bunch of money, Oh, I know, the last piece, it gets pretty cold. And, and so think about it is like really cold, you’re paying the bills, you don’t have a lot of money. You know, you’re in a sense throwing money out the door, or out the window, and we go, that’s happening, like all across the country. 

And so in Dallas, it might not be about heating, it’s about cooling. And so you’re going to have a similar issue there, where if you’re throwing money out the house to have your air conditioning outside, because your, your, your places and isn’t buttoned up. What tends to happen, and this is going back to my conversation was the folk in the gateway cities, as a lot of black and brown and low moderate-income, people don’t see this as relating to them, they, they see that this green economy has a lot of it being for the rich, white, green, and vain. So just to recap, on Browning the Green Space, we’re focused on, careers, we’re focused on, on companies on Capitol, on contracts, and, and home communities.

Host Raj Daniels 38:42

I appreciate that in-depth explanation. You’ve taken on some really big initiatives. Magic wand, 10 years from now, what has Msaada Partners achieved?

Kerry Bowie 38:54

In terms of Msaada partners, I think this comes back to everything, maybes is sort of a good, you know, way to sort of frame it. I’m working at the intersection of sort of three areas. So I’m looking through the diversity, equity, and inclusion lens, I’m looking through an energy and environment lens, and I’m looking through entrepreneurship and innovation lens. And so I am happiest when I’m working at that intersection of all three of those things. So if I can be working with a black or brown founder, you know, in a for-profit, you know, startup that’s doing work in the green space and I’m excited. 

Because I’m getting to use sort of all of me, I and from a magic one perspective, and I think this gets back to like, why we’re really doing this work is, you know, how to say before sort of COVID. I think we got this on our website before COVID. And a lot of the racial and justices and things that we’ve seen a late, you know, here in 2020, I would say, arguably, the two biggest problems facing the country are climate change and the wealth gap. And that’s where we’re trying to work. So how can we tackle climate change both on the adaptation and mitigation side? And how can we tackle the wealth gap? How can we create jobs and create wealth? And I think there’s a way to do that by getting black and brown people more involved in the in the green space, because I don’t want us to miss this wave, and at least not here in Boston, not here in Massachusetts, in New England, and the Northeast, this is where we’re starting. But I think that there are, you know, similar opportunities all across the country to be doing this type of work.

Host Raj Daniels 41:12

I look forward to seeing your vision align for you. Last question, if you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, and it could be personal or professional, what would it be?

Kerry Bowie 41:25

I think when I when I talk to young people, or like career changers are different folks, you know, if I say this is free advice. So you know, might be worth what you, you pay for it, but I think, you know, making sure that you are following your passion is so important. I think oftentimes when I’m talking to young folk, they’re first looking for who will hire me? And then they’re sort of looking at their toolbox of like, what am I good at? But I think, most important is, what is it that drives you? And what are you excited about? And if you start with that, you really think outside of yourself, and how you can be of service to others and be of service to the country or be of service to some something bigger than you? How can you do that work? That I think those other things fall in line.



Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels

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