Meet Divine, Founder and CEO of BLAK Fintech. BLAK, which stands for “Building Leverage Acquiring Knowledge,” is an online and mobile financial services company. Its mission is to build affordable and tech-driven personal financial and banking products with a focus on the financially excluded and disadvantaged who are “Unbanked and Underbanked.”
So Divine, tell us who you are?
I’m a visionary, leader, Hip-Hop/Rap recording artist, entrepreneur, disruptor and inspirational speaker. The tagline to my life is “from crack, to rap, to tech”. I’m a former substantial drug dealer with a decade of incarceration, an eighth grade formal education, and no tech background.
I was born and raised in Newport, RI and then re-established myself in Brooklyn. Newport and Providence, RI would shape my young childhood. I started traveling to Philly and NYC in my pre-teen and teenage years. I always had a strong affinity for and connected with NYC since I was younger via Hip-Hop, and later via the drug trade and illegal activity as NYC was where I sourced my drugs from. Eventually it would deepen and become more personal, emotional, mental, and spiritual. After a while in prison, I obtained knowledge-of-self and further connected with NYC, particularly the borough of Brooklyn, as that’s where the individual who sparked my spiritual development hailed from. So NYC is really like home and strongly shaped my development as an individual in many ways. As Rakim rapped, “It ain’t where ya from, it’s where ya at.”
Can you talk to us about your childhood?
I was initially raised middle-class, but my Moms always worked and provided me with the best. Eventually she fell victim to the mid 80’s crack epidemic when I was about 10-years-old and my life was abruptly thrust into poverty. Despite that, my Moms raised me very well and taught me to be respectful as well as to have principles and morals, as it was instilled in her as a child due to being a ward of the state and being raised in a home by nuns. Overall, I had a great young childhood, but at 13 I started hustling drugs to survive as my family structure collapsed due to my mother’s addiction to crack cocaine. Though I knew who he was, my father wasn’t in my life and I had no male role models. I was always independent and mature for my age so I raised myself from there.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
Looking back I’ve always been entrepreneurial since I was a young child. For me it was innate. At an early age I understood the dynamic of the value of someone else’s need and the ability to provide that need for them to profit. I understood the power of convenience and being able to provide that convenience for a price. My father was entrepreneurial, so I inherited that DNA intelligence. I would really go on to leverage all of this at thirteen when I became a drug dealer. I was an informal entrepreneur, just in the wrong space of illegal and criminal activity. However, what sparked me into really deciding to become a formal entrepreneur and legal entrepreneurship was my last incarceration.
I knew I was much wiser than criminal activity and being incarcerated.
Not long after that, I would meet famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, we became friends, and that would be what accelerated my pathway to me officially becoming an entrepreneur. I already planted the seed for and had the determined idea, but he would spark my official startup career.
What problem are you trying to solve with BLAK?
BLAK is trying to solve the financial exclusion problem that exists in the U.S. Our initial focus is on the African-American demographic, as that group is in the worst condition financially and economically relative to their spending power compared to any other group. When I realized the large gap between the rich annual spending power of African-Americans in comparison to their poor financial and economic condition I was compelled and determined to build a tech-driven solution to solve that problem and shift the paradigm of them being consumers to becoming producers.
So far, what has been your biggest hurdle as an entrepreneur?
My biggest hurdle has been the learning curve. Although I only have an eighth grade formal education, I have a very strong comprehension and a keen intuition. I’m largely an intuitive thinker. Nevertheless, just being able to think through all the fundamentals, aspects and elements of being an entrepreneur and building a startup has been challenging. All of this is new to me, so I had that learning curve of just uploading all the knowledge and information and understanding the framework. From ideation, value proposition, building an MVP (Minimal Viable Product) to fundraising, etc.
What compelled you to take a risk to start BLAK?
I started BLAK as I was 100% dissatisfied with my condition and wanted to change it. I then immediately wanted to change it for others.
When I discovered particular facts about the demographic I hail from, I immediately knew there was a huge problem. That fact is that African-Americans wield over $1 trillion in annual spending power. To me, having this type of spending power, yet our people’s financial and economic condition is less than ideal, makes no sense to me. I was compelled and determined to create a solution and close the gap.
I knew there wasn’t a prime solution for the African-American demographic and the alternative solutions weren’t really trying to solve anything either. So I then looked at the problem closer as it affected myself as well, and I started ideating a solution. That’s when BLAK Fintech was born.
What lessons have you learned from your entrepreneurial journey?
Nothing is certain when building a startup. There will be failure and there will be change. You will be tested. You will be challenged. What you think your product to be in the early stages will shift in some way as you build and refine it. You really have to prepare yourself and be fortified spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally. You will think about giving up and you will want to give up. You have to really be resilient. Entrepreneurship is not for the weak. Deciding to be an entrepreneur takes courage and it takes perseverance. It’s not something you can do alone. You need a team that’s all in with you. You need the right individuals to make up that team. So entrepreneurship is all about growth, development and evolving both personally and with the startup you’re building. If you can endure to the end, and what you set out to accomplish comes to fruition, then the struggle and rewards that follow were well worth it. If it doesn’t come to fruition, the experience and life lessons are just that, and nevertheless bittersweet.
How have you evolved personally throughout your entrepreneurial journey?
My official entrepreneurial journey began once I met Ben Horowitz. It’s hard to speak of it without the mention of Ben. Since meeting him, a lot has changed for me personally especially how I think about life and go about things both personally and in business. I now have a long view, patience and a perfected perspective on how to move to that destination accordingly.
The transition from being a drug dealer all my life and relying upon that to sustain financially, to not doing that at all, was transformative. Meeting Ben, becoming his friend, and having him believe in me, is what empowered me to finally be strong enough to break that negative psychological cycle of criminal activity and recidivism. I’ve evolved and developed in many different areas of life spiritually, mentally and emotionally. The journey hasn’t been easy but it’s been rewarding and satisfying. It’s been empowering beyond material and monetary substance. Most times the greatest gifts we receive and experiences we have in life are intangible. We just have to open ourselves up to them.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Prepare for war! Be courageous and have a long view. It will not be an easy task and only the strong will survive. Entrepreneurship is no easy journey. You have to be laser focused and disciplined, resilient, determined and ambitious, but also practical. Also, think big, but start small and execute precisely. There will be failure, but it’s having the right mental attitude and emotional and spiritual fortitude to turn failure into triumph. Be flexible and adaptable, be prepared to pivot as things will change. And really do your diligence on the problem you want to solve. Thoroughly research the market, the customer and the competition. Prove your hypothesis first and foremost before investing a dollar or your time and energy. Be sure the opportunity is real and you have a solid business model. Build an MVP to prove your concept and build traction. Ideally create a revenue stream from early adopters of your product or service before seeking funding. Seek out mentors and others more experienced and knowledgeable about your particular space than you are. This is actionable advice I learned from experience and that I would impart to first time entrepreneurs.
What do you wish you could see/hear most from other entrepreneurs journeys?
I would love to hear the deeper spiritual, mental and emotional details. The doubt, the fear, the uncertainty. The real struggle. Those challenges and wars that are waged within that no one could really know or see from the surface. Ben’s book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things reveals a lot of that. What were those things and how did they best deal with them? How did those decisions affect the outcome? Those are the defining things that separate failure from success whether your startup fails or flourishes.
What’s next for BLAK?
Divine recently announced that BLAK and MoCaFi have become partners and will begin an In-Residence at Mobility Capital Finance, Inc effective immediately.
With the two brands working together as strategic partners, we’re becoming laser focused on addressing the challenges in helping communities reimagine their financial lives, creating more economic inclusion opportunities for the financially excluded and disadvantaged unbanked and underbanked.