A Martyr for the People – Thomas Moss

Kroger and Publix, Wal-Mart and Target, every successful business has its competition. There’s inspired competition – the kind that motivates you, challenges you, and makes you chase after success. And then there’s competition that only wants to see you lose and drive you out of business. The story of Thomas Moss is one that undeniably captures the trauma of competition that black entrepreneurs faced while working to acquire wealth post-slavery.

In 1889, Thomas Moss and 11 prominent black investors, opened The People’s Grocery. The store was located just outside Memphis in a neighborhood called the “Curve.” News of this black owned business spread quickly and black people in the community began to feel empowered. 

Moss was motivated to attain wealth and invest into his community. A postman by day, he used earnings delivering mail to invest in his start-up idea of a community grocery store. He delivered mail by day and ran People’s Grocery by night. And, as family man in the community, his popularity lent great success to his entrepreneurial pursuits. 

With this cooperative venture for the store, a unique structure of its kind in those days, he ran along corporate lines and made his store the 5th largest wholesale grocery market in the country. Moss was an instant success. His store brought capital to the black community while also instilling a sense of pride. 

Sadly, his social nor economic status was able to save him from the racial hostility of the South. Across from Moss’ store was another store owned by a white man, and many white people in the community were not pleased. Many felt as if they shouldn’t compete for the black dollar and the People’s Grocery quickly became an enemy of their white competitors. Moss was confident. He ignored the animosity and persisted to thrive in business. He knew the blacks in the community loved him and would support his grocery store.

In March 1892, a series of racially charged fights broke out outside of the store. Two of Moss’ workers went outside to ease the tension. Moss along with his two workers were arrested and later dragged out of jail by an angry mob of 75 white men. They all were publicly lynched while in police custody. ⁠

Moss was asked if he had any last words and he stated, “Tell my people to go west. There is no justice here.” This lynching became known as the Lynchings at the Curve. ⁠Ida B. Wells, a famed anti-lynching journalist and a dear friend to Moss, was set to show through media that lynching had become a tool of economic terrorism and disenfranchisement and became a vocal champion to broadcast the lynchings as they spread especially among black male business owners.

Many black entrepreneurs lynched across the South were people who dared to be their own boss or were perceived as having too much ambition, property or talent. Moss’ lynching, like many others, was framed as an organized act of extralegal violence and a punishment for becoming an economic competitor to whites.

The success and sacrifice of Thomas Moss has major takeaways for us today. The idea that discrimination is alive and well is true but the promise that opportunities are endless for those who fearlessly pursue entrepreneurship is even greater.

For that, we have martyrs like Thomas Moss to thank.


This post is the part of The Bag Collector series – a spotlight posts that feature serial entrepreneurs of color each recognized for their ability to diversify in business, wealth and investments. These individuals exemplify what it means to be creative and unapologetic in pursuit of entrepreneurial excellence, and ultimately collect the “bag” then use it to make greater community impact. 

The Magical Annie Malone – Madame C.J. Walker’s First Mentor

Many have heard of hair/beauty pioneer Madame CJ Walker, but not many people know about the woman she credits a great deal of her knowledge to; a woman that influenced her path of success—Annie Malone.

Annie Malone - Aerial Ellis Blog SeriesBefore Shea Moisture, Miss Jessie’s or The Mane Choice, Poro Beauty Products was one of the first haircare and beauty lines developed in the 1890s for black women. Recognized as an African American business woman, inventor, and philanthropist, Annie created products not only for straightening black hair, but she wanted to ensure that her product would not damage it in the process.

Her school Poro College was the first educational institution in the United States dedicated to the study and teaching of black cosmetology. By 1926, the college employed 175 people, and franchised outlets in North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines employing some 75,000 women.

Annie developed a network of franchised agent-operators who operated salons under Malone’s guidelines using Poro products while also becoming the first to patent a hot comb.

A star student she helped and became rather fond of was Madame C.J. Walker. Although much of Annie’s success has been overshadowed by her, it is a known fact that Madame C.J. Walker got her start by selling Annie’s hair care products.

One of the first African American millionaires to be a serial entrepreneur, Annie owned her hair care college and company, a secretarial school, a hotel, and a number a real estate properties (she even owned a whole entire city block in Chicago). She became one of the wealthiest women in the world accumulating a worth $14 million during the 1920s.

However, despite her wealth, Malone lived conservatively and gave away much of her fortune to help other African Americans. Malone donated large sums to countless charities including giving thousands of dollars to HBCUs counting record-breaking gifts in large amounts to Howard University and Tuskegee Institute.

Throughout the years, Annie perfected her craft, continued building her brand, and created many opportunities for other black entrepreneurs.  Her manufactured line of beauty products for black women created a unique distribution system that helped tens of thousands of black women become entrepreneurial while gaining self-respect and economic independence, and birthed the legendary career of our beloved Madame C.J. Walker.

This post is the part of The Bag Collector series – a spotlight posts that feature serial entrepreneurs of color each recognized for their ability to diversify in business, wealth and investments. These individuals exemplify what it means to be creative and unapologetic in pursuit of entrepreneurial excellence, and ultimately collect the “bag” then use it to make greater community impact. 


Introducing My New Blog Series: The Bag Collector

This year, I celebrate 15 years of entrepreneurship, and after starting several ventures with a few more planned to launch soon, I want to share the stories of entrepreneurs of color who’ve done the same thing in the most impactful and profound ways.

The Bag Collector is a spotlight series that features 15 serial entrepreneurs of color each recognized for their ability to diversify in business, wealth and investments. These individuals exemplify what it means to be creative and unapologetic in pursuit of entrepreneurial excellence, and ultimately collect the “bag” then use it to make greater community impact and establish a cultural legacy.

I will be featuring present-day game changers alongside a few unsung giants in black history whose shoulders the rest of us stand upon.

You are going to love their stories, and I’ll even share mine with you too.

Subscribe to my blog here to get notifications when each post goes live, and share, please share this awesome profiles with your network.

More to come…

How Inmate Cyntoia Brown Became a Scholar

At this time of year, most college students have completed final exams and term papers in anticipation of a nice winter break. As I read the senior capstone paper of one student, I am profoundly impressed by her scholarly work. The paper’s empirical research, theoretical context, and succinct flow – all elements are brilliantly done. I am soon reminded though that the chance to come home from college at the end of a semester or the hope of entering the world of work after obtaining a degree does not belong to her.

I’m reading a paper by Cyntoia Brown – an inmate in the Tennessee State Prison for Women whose case has been the center of attention lately reemerging from a news story and leading to the social media outcry insisting her freedom. She’s serving life in prison after being tried as an adult for killing her 43 year-old abuser at the age of 16.

Amid the demands for sexual predators to be called out and the persistent push for systemic change, Cyntoia’s 2004 case as a teen sentenced to 60 years has reappeared in news feeds and caught the eye of celebs like Rihanna, Lebron James and Kim Kardashian West. With a history of being trafficked into sex slavery, many are questioning why Cyntoia wasn’t seen as the victim in this case.

Despite her circumstances, Cyntoia has dedicated her time in prison to scholarly inquiry and intellectual rigor as a student in the Lipscomb University Initiative for Education (LIFE) program – one of only a handful of programs in the U.S. to offer a college degree to prison inmates. She was selected by the Tennessee Department of Correction to be admitted as a student at Lipscomb University, a private Christian university in Nashville, Tennessee, and took courses from the university curriculum alongside fellow inmates and other traditional students onsite at the prison. A rich, life-changing educational experience, it led her to earn an associate’s degree in 2015.


Photo Credit: Associated Press

In May 2019, she will complete her bachelor’s degree.

Cyntoia has been studying literature on domestic minor sex trafficking and researching the correlation between societal perceptions of trafficked and exploited teens, and the effectiveness of eradication efforts. Her research explores the maturity factor of minors having the competence to distinguish consent from sexual abuse. She combats the notion that minors welcome exploitation by voluntarily prostituting themselves and challenges the social phenomena of shunning and shaming exploited teenagers.

In her capstone paper, she proposes a grassroots community based approach that reshapes the cultural norms surrounding the teen sex epidemic. She names it The GLITTER Project (Grassroots, Learning Initiative on Teen Trafficking, Exploitation and Rape) – an online awareness campaign with blogs, narratives, hashtags and photos aimed at fostering dialogue among community members through education and empowerment.

More often than not, young women struggle with histories of substance abuse, rape, violence, childhood trauma, domestic violence, mental illness, and poverty. Often times, these traumas span back generations in families, as they do with Cyntoia. However, she has gained the self-esteem to invest in her own education and the confidence to transcend the systemic ills that have haunted her.

Cyntoia now embodies the qualities of a scholar.

Her intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, communication skills, thought leadership and commitment to community all reveal the academic professionalism of any high-achieving student.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Though Cyntoia will graduate with a bachelor’s degree, she will not enter the real world and the job market like most college students. That’s what many are fighting for – a chance to win clemency from the Tennessee Board of Parole and Governor Bill Haslam granting her a new life.

Cyntoia was sexually exploited and lured into a lifestyle of abuse, and now her education has become an outlet for halting the spiral of shame, low self-esteem, and hopelessness. Not only is she battling her life sentence, she’s fighting the lack of awareness and acceptance around this problem. Through education, she has used her academic experience to highlight the domestic minor sex trafficking that she’s witnessed firsthand and is ready to devote her future life to creating solutions.

Becoming a scholar is a worthy pursuit. Cyntoia can now look beyond prison walls to see what could be and to know that her life is forever transformed. Full of promise, she’s now an agent for change and an influential voice in the fight for exploited teens.

Her story is a testament of proof that making an investment the best minds of our society can create cultural change and set them on the road to redemption.

Why Your Diversity Training Won’t Work

Earlier this year, Starbucks paused it operations of 8,000 stores for unconscious bias training. Soon after the announcement, I landed three new clients desiring to facilitate conversations and launch initiatives around issues of diversity and inclusion for their organization. The majority of my work, like others who work in this area, is spent customizing content for the trainings and crafting a strategy to support them. I predict more of these trainings will be a priority for organizations, and recommend that consumers hold them accountable for doing the work.

But there’s a major issue with diversity trainings. Many of them won’t work.

Even if you offer multiple trainings, or a series of events and workshops, the experience will have no impact if you have overlooked the most important element any organization must implement – a strategy.

Aerial Ellis Training Diversity Inclusion Intergenerational

Any training or learning event should be tactic inside a larger diversity strategy because most times when training is treated like an activity, the learning experience is much less effective and not seen as a deliberate part of the organizational culture. Without a strategic plan to support your diversity and inclusion initiatives, your trainings are merely an exercise.

Because corporate America has historically struggled to communicate the value of employees and consumers who represent cultural differences, the atmosphere or climate of an organization can have varying effects on employee outcomes and organizational effectiveness. In order for your trainings to work, they must be supported by a strategic plan that advances a dedication to diversity and internalizes a culture of inclusion.

A plan establishes diversity and inclusion as a strategic imperative. It means your organization is committed to the practice of diversity and inclusion and is not simply having a conversation. If your trainings are an attempt to develop core competencies for your employees that will enable them to work more effectively inside a diverse workforce and approach consumer audiences with greater cultural awareness, then a strategic plan should include a focus to examine trainings to determine their effectiveness.

Developing a plan can be based on a competency-based framework for practicing diversity and inclusion. A few proven models that can support your plan include Darla Deardorff’s Process Model of Intercultural Competence (2006), The Conference Board’s Report on Global Competencies (2008) and UNC’s Diversity Competencies for Leadership Development (2016). These examples offer competencies that organizations can strategically use as metrics for regular analysis and data collection.

Implementing a strategic plan ensures that diversity and inclusion will be:

• embedded throughout the organization

• engaged across functions and departments

• executed through communication with consumers and communities

• evaluated for effectiveness through business outcomes.

Aerial Ellis Training Diversity Inclusion Intergenerational

To value diversity is to be expected but to have measurable knowledge and skills on how cultural differences can work best inside the organization, and how to communicate effectively about those similarities and differences, is to be strategic.

Your employees may be relieved to know that your organization is attempting to have a conversation around issues of diversity and inclusion – trainings increase one’s cultural knowledge, ability to empathize, understanding of cultural differences and willingness to face challenges.

Unfortunately, if treated like an exercise, your employees can suffer from pressure to participate, resentment of false commitment and the likelihood of losing interest. Trainings should be not a “check the box” exercise.

Organizations cannot trade tactics for strategies. Conducting trainings for diversity is a wasted effort without a strategic plan in place to activate inclusion.

One of Nashville’s 40 Under 40

My 40 Under 40 interview was released in the Nashville Business Journal earlier this month. The content was exclusive so here’s a sneak peek of the feature. Enjoy!

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received, and what did you learn from it? 

Most recently, the worst advice I received was not to pursue a doctoral degree. Last spring, I enrolled in the University of Southern California’s Global Executive Doctor of Education program, and since, I believe its one the best decisions I’ve ever made. Initially, there were many people who highly endorsed the idea as a possible waste of time and money. With a master’s degree, a few businesses and a job as a professor, they felt the credentials I had were enough to carry me as far I wanted to go. I see some merit in that notion but I also saw this as a chance to deepen the connection between my entrepreneurial background and my role as an educator. I relish the opportunity to tackle intellectual problems and explore new areas of knowledge through global trends from around the world. Making this decision gave greater affirmation in knowing that not everyone will understand your vision. I have come to learn with this and past situations that the more you love your decisions, the less you will need others to love them.

What is the greatest potential that comes from Nashville’s growth?

I am both optimistic and concerned about the growth this city is experiencing. While we’ve seen amazing progress in significant areas, we’ve also seen issues like crime, gentrification, housing and transit become more prevalent as a result of our rising population. I believe that the greatest potential from this expansion is the opportunity to make Nashville an exemplar for diverse communities – a place where resources are allocated and room is made for residents of various socioeconomic levels to thrive.

What fictional character do you most relate to or empathize with, and why?

Not a fictional character but a biblical character, Lydia – a woman from the Bible whose story found in Acts 16 – is one with which I identify. Lydia was an intelligent entrepreneur who loved community and understood the value of relationships. She was humble, perceptive, assertive and generous.

What is your least favorite assumption about millennials?

I write in detail about millennials in my book, The Original Millennial: Lessons in Leadership, and address the many stereotypes and assumptions of my generation. I think there’s enough conversation about what millennials are and are not in contrast to other generations so I don’t speak to the stereotypes or assumption that could support common issues. I think those are rehearsed and, quite frankly, rather old. I believe the driving force behind the potential greatness within the millennial generation is our originality. Millennials always look for ways to make things greater, bigger, better, stronger and more practical. The best parts of millennials are found in the choice to change and evolve. The original qualities of past generations use commonly understood behavior patterns, which make them far easier to define, whereas millennials have the ability to defy category. We, and other generations, have to accept that and embrace it to overcome issues that could create barriers to leadership and collaboration.

What is your favorite social media platform, and why? 

I love YouTube. I am a creative at heart so I love the storytelling aspect of videos as well as the ability to research, find information, and be informed and entertained. I also love Instagram and WhatsApp.

What 4:44 means for black millennial leaders

What Jay-Z’s 4:44 Means For Black Millennial Leaders

In 1997, Jay-Z, a Brooklyn MC emerging in popularity and ambition, released his second studio album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Still perfecting his sound and his persona, Jay was at his hungriest then yet seemingly stuck between the rap game and the dope game, and the streets and the boardroom. Also in 1997, the African American community emerged as the fastest growing consumer base worldwide with a total purchasing power of $469.4 billion. As our influence climbed so did our access to education and entrepreneurship setting the stage for the youngest in our community – the millennials – to witness this growth and progression firsthand.

20 years later, Jay-Z is known as the legendary rapper holding the number one slot on just about everyone’s top five list. From beats to business – then Beyonce and Blue Ivy – he’s been able transcend all aspects of entertainment, leverage philanthropy for the cause and master entrepreneurship with the best of black excellence. His latest album 4:44 is proof, and most black millennials will agree. With themes like financial freedom, generational wealth, ownership and entrepreneurship all woven into dope, soulful beats, and not to mention, the slick short movies as videos for songs like Moonlight and Story of O.J., and an inside scoop from the Rap Radar podcast on TIDAL, 4:44 is a blueprint for black millennials who are poised to lead.

Yet, we still have a reality to face. In the Black community, money circulates zero to one time and one dollar circulates between us for only six hours, according to Nielsen, making us the least wealthy U.S demographic. However, Nielsen also tells us that the overall Black spending power is projected to reach $1.4 trillion by 2020. And with millennials representing 50 percent of the global workplace by 2020 making us huge influencers on how business works, the projected $162 billion that Black Millennials have in buying power along with undisputed cultural influence, means we as leaders must get serious about avoiding “living rich and dying broke” as Jay-Z said.

With new wind of inspiration from Jay and a major cultural shift at hand, here are four things 4:44 should inspire black millennial leaders to do:

black millennials aerial ellis jay-z 4:44

We must own.

“You walkin’ around like you invincible/You dropped outta school, you lost your principles” – ‘Kill Jay Z’

Millennials are only interested in purposeful work. School may teach you how to get jobs but there’s no guarantee school will teach you how to create jobs. Ownership is a priority because for black millennials the future of business depends on our ability to be employers. With all our smarts gained from school or otherwise, we must maintain the vision to be owners – own everything we can from property to businesses. Whether you run a startup in your basement or you jet set to make big deals, ownership is your key to financial freedom and generational wealth. For black millennial leaders to build legacy, we must apply compelling vision to own our own – whether it’s a website selling apparel or a food truck selling cupcakes. Without ownership, we jeopardize our progress. It’s about principle above all.

We must invest.

‘Please don’t die over the neighborhood/That your mama rentin’/Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood/That’s how you rinse it’ – ‘Story of O.J.’

Millennials are magnets for creativity and community. Whether you buy the block in your old neighborhood or cut a check to a local nonprofit, directing your resources to your own community curates and preserves its cultural originality. When you invest in the black community, you generate profits in pursuit of social goals. Use your profit to invest in your purpose in leadership. Remember, your profit is not just your money. You can invest your profits in form of time, advice and raw talents. Not only does investing foster loyalty to your community, it introduces a culture of openness so that solutions can be explored to help solve the problems we want solved and ensure a legacy for future generations for follow.

We must innovate.

“Y’all think small, I think Biggie” – ‘Family Feud’

Millennials are vocal about what we want for our lives. We think big. We create lifestyles that support innovation which means we keep an open mind about the way the world works. As black millennials, we have a legitimate role to play in the innovation of leadership. We must lead with incremental steps that make old ideas new again and repurpose the familiar into the unexpected. The cultural shift of innovation forces us to the frontline of leadership. When black millennials embrace innovation and build a culture to support it, we demonstrate intentionality in our leadership. When we deliberately and routinely think big, we show that innovation is a way of life. And when boundaries appear, we use innovation to push them by facing the fast-paced world head-on with no fear.

We must build.

“We’re supposed to vacay ’til our backs burn / We’re supposed to laugh ’til our hearts stops” – ‘4:44’

Millennials love life. We do not want to put our passions on hold – travel, food, love, technology, etc. Meanwhile, we are still building. Its part of the black millennial experience. We are building ideas that successfully raise awareness of issues facing the Black community and influence decisions shaping our world. We must use our collective power to build the future together —we must focus on outcomes, not hours, and results, not hype. We must have a challenge to continuously learn and do better. Though our ambition and zest for life may get us labeled as self-centered, what we really want is to get better at what we are doing, take care of our families and have an impact on the world. As we build, we must empower each other to eliminate the “me” mentality. When we do so, and do it together, we earn the power and privilege to lead lives of unlimited potential. Besides, “what’s better than one billionaire? Two,
especially if they’re from the same hue as you.”

In 4:44, Jay-Z masterfully proves the bond between cultural change and social entrepreneurship. Cultural change exposes problems by disrupting a system. This is a result of generations asking why. Social entrepreneurship solves problems by disrupting a system. This is a result of generations asking, why not? And, asking why not is what millennials do best.

Though Jay is a Gen-Xer and one of the most respected voices in pop culture, the so-called legends and power brokers from his generation aren’t the only ones responsible for creating the most exciting things impacting our culture these days. Increasingly, millennials are having the biggest impact on culture thanks to his influence along with others from Gen X.

If black millennials leaders intend to lead, and we are showing that we do, all the inspiration we need is in front of us.

My Workshop for Millennial Leaders

Many cities across the country are experiencing a major culture shift led by millennials born 1980-1995. Nashville is one of them.

Here’s an opportunity for millennials to participate in an action-oriented class in preparation for the next phase of leadership in business and in community on Saturday, August 5, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the Ezell Center at Lipscomb University. And, there’s an opportunity for me to come to your city. Dates are going fast!

I’ll tell my personal story as a young leader and facilitate an interactive six-step leadership development training session covering the following areas:

• Career, Entrepreneurship, Intrapraneurship
• Problem Solving, Disruption, Innovation
• Ambition, Decision Making, Goal-Setting
• Influence, Access, Creativity
• Profit, Passion, Purpose
• Faith, Mindfulness, Empowerment.

I’ll also lead a personal brand mapping session and we’ll have a little fun too.

Here’s my invitation!


Register at nashvillemillennialleadership.eventbrite.com for only $35 which includes lunch and a signed copy of the book.

For more about me and my book or to request a workshop in your city or at your company,


A look at Nashville’s 40 Under 40

Cranes in the sky. That’s all we saw when posing for this photo from high up on the rooftop of The Westin Hotel. Reflecting on the growth and expansion of the city, we gathered as a handful of this year’s Nashville Business Journal 40 Under 40 winners selected to appear on the cover of the paper. It was an honor to be one of the young leaders in the city chosen from nearly 600 nominations – a record number.

Take a look at this year’s winners.

Coaching Leaders of the Millennial Generation

At the top of the year, I started coaching millennials in the area of leadership development to kick off National Mentoring Month and…wow, what an experience!Aerial Ellis Millennial Coaching

I knew our generation was made of amazingly passionate innovators but the work I have been able to do with my millennials has been an absolute joy.

Because millennials will make up 75% of the workforce in America by 2025, a cultural shift is happening and I am working to encourage, prepare and coach our millennials for leadership. It is important that organizations are prepared for the shift that is quickly approaching, and I am here to help. With expertise in leadership communication and influence as a college professor, I am equipped with the knowledge and know-how to effectively train and ready your millennial team members. Based on curriculum from my book, The Original Millennial, I am helping millennials recognize their value and prepare them for unprecedented leadership.

If you’re a millennial, here’s a chance to get exclusive access to me as your champion! I learned the lessons, put them in a book and created a six-week curriculum to help you succeed. With my guidance and support, you become a change agent prepared to lead in business and community, and leave a legendary mark on the world. If you believe you need someone like me to groom, coach and mentor, sign up here.

If you are not a millennial…does your organization currently have professional development initiatives in place for your employees ages 20-35? Do you see a need to invest additional resources to develop your young emerging talent? I’d love an opportunity to work with your organization as a leadership development consultant to assess your generational diversity needs and counsel your millennial team members on best practices for fine-tuning the skills needed to take their professional careers, and your organization, to the next level. If you want more info, learn more here.