In a recent forum at the Brookings Institution on the wealth gap in America, Thomas Shapiro, professor of law and social policy at Brandeis University stated that, “The median average white family in the U.S. has approximately $171,000 in net wealth, while the median African American family has approximately $17,000.” Though these types of data points and figures are not new and no less alarming, the struggle has been how to design and expand solutions to combat the grave economic disparities in America.
Rob Gray and Derek Rush believe that a new reality must be built. To do this, they have joined together to create the Conscious Capitalist Group (CCG). The mission of CCG is to ‘equip culturally informed future leaders with social entrepreneurship skills that foster ownership over their lives and communities through the creation of passion driven businesses designed to leave a positive impact on the world.’
Rob and Derek are seeking to transform the economic landscape of Central Virginia and beyond within the framework of capitalism—but with an emphasis on work that contributes to social good.
Rob plainly states that, “We are fighting to break generational curses.” It is the idea that failure gives birth to failure, and success gives birth to success—generationally. Rob goes on to say that, “The bulk of our problems are due to the lack of resources, businesses, and systemic racism,” and CCG is positioning itself to be a disruptor of all things that are in the way of success, particularly in African American and other marginalized communities.
In conversing with these two gentleman, it was obvious that they have thought long and deep about the subject. We delved into a discussion about how much talent America has wasted by excluding certain populations from fully participating in the economic enterprise. Rob lifts up the point that America loses when only certain people are allowed to participate in “bettering the society as a whole.” It is to say that America could be so much greater if she took an authentic collaborative approach to building communities.
Derek Rush and Robert Gray pictured here as childhood friends and are now working on building a new reality for young people in the Central Virginia region through the Conscious Capitalist Group.
In the timing of a Jazz soloist, Derek seamlessly interrupts the conversation and says, “We are trying to implement an entrepreneurial mindset in the youth.” The idea that CCG is bringing to life is one intended to equip young people to participate in the innovation economy—en masse.
Derek adds a comment that had me like, ‘Yo, say that again so I can make sure I write it down correctly.” Derek laughs a kind of deep chested laugh and says, “Survival and morality don’t go hand and hand.” This I found so fascinating, though so simple and true. It is to say that, it can sometimes be a difficult task to ask people to be moral when they are in a society that systematically prevents them the ability to thrive. They are only left to survive—a just society be damned.The work we do “is important because the black male is targeted for incarceration. Our work is combating the school-to-prison pipeline,” Derek wanted to make clear. The school-to-prison pipeline, for those who don’t know, is when unwarranted and harsh school and municipal policies target minors and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds. The 2015 NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet states that, “Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people.” Many believe that these disproportionate numbers have their origins in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Derek somewhat reluctantly let me in on the fact that he had spent some time incarcerated and that the experience is what gives this work more meaning for him. “Once you get out, it’s very difficult for people to get hired. Starting a business provides a way for people to overcome recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend),” he states. He doubles down and says, “We are doing our part to confront the issue.”
CCG has agreements to work with youth in the community at-large but also with incarcerated youth to help these young people develop life-skills such as financial literacy and an entrepreneurial plan for themselves.
CCG currently has a cohort of young social entrepreneurs and is assisting them in embodying the values of CCG which are: Entrepreneurship, Financial Literacy, Learning, Leadership, Mentorship, Innovation, Stewardship, Collaboration, and Passion.
So the question for many is what led these young men to this point. “We grew up together in Esmont,” Rob said. “We grew up on Chestnut Grove Road. We played basketball together in the recreational league, and played sports together at Monticello High School. Esmont made me,” said Rob. Derek and Rob also lift up how Esmont is a historically very close-knit Black community in South Albemarle. They also talked about how Yancey Elementary school which is now closed was a critical institution for the Black Community in Esmont for generations.
Rob and Derek were always connected even though Derek finished up his high school career at Western Albemarle High School. Rob went away to St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, VA and Derek went off to play Lacrosse at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista. Rob played baseball for St. Paul’s for a while but dropped out briefly and came home and worked at the Cherry Avenue Boys & Girls Club. Rob inevitably went back to school, but at St. Augustine University in Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Political Science and Public Policy. While there, Rob also went deep into grass roots organizing on issues such as student loans and environmental policy. At St. Augustine University, Rob also served as a legislative assistant to Don Davis who serves in the North Carolina state senate.
In 2016, Rob and two other friends, William Isabelle and Nicholas “Bug” Feggans, launch 89’Till, a high-end sneaker boutique and urban fashion clothing store in Charlottesville. “This is where I really learned about marketing, branding, and sales. We were first generation business owners and grossed more than $300,000 in our first year,” said Rob.
Robert Gray and Jamar Pierre-Louis pass out supplies to kids on August 12, 2017 when the Alt-Right and Neo-Nazis marched just blocks away in Downtown Charlottesville. Robert, Jamar (CEO of D.R.E.A.M. clothing and other community leaders continue this tradition every year in addition to a an annual holiday giveaway for youth in the community. (Robert also serves as CEO for clothing company Dreamin’ Diamonds).
The success of 89’Till even though it has since closed, gave Rob he stripes they needed to prove that he could be successful in business. What is more, this experience puts him and his childhood friend, Derek, in a great position to show other young aspiring entrepreneurs how do it—successfully. What they are doing is taking all the things that they have learned collectively about business and those values they learned out in Esmont and are taking them to scale with young people.
After all of these years, Derek and Rob are still together and still connected but this time they want to build a new reality for the young people in Central Virginia and beyond. When asked about what they expect the work of CCG will accomplish in next 20 years Rob says, “One of these kids will take these skills and create something that will change society.” Derek simply says, “I want to see black people thriving. I want that to be the norm in our community. I want success to be the norm.”
The hope of the CCG’s founders is that they will build a new reality where success is the norm for people and communities that aren’t expected to succeed. Visit www.consciouscapitalistgroup.org for more information on CCG.
by Sarad Davenport and original photos by Jess Gabbay