Jill Johnson is the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL), based in Newark, New Jersey. IFEL is an independent nonprofit organization that supports economic development through entrepreneurship. IFEL recently acquired Pipeline Angels, founded by Natalia Oberti Noguera, who is a member of the iRelaunch Advisory Board.
As a 30 year champion for black businesses, Jill is a pioneering voice for inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems and access to capital. She's the driving force behind the Black Angels initiative to drive diversity and inclusion within the investor ecosystem. In 2022, Jill was named one of Crane's New York Business Whole Health Heroes for her work creating pathways for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs and small business owners to have entrepreneurial success. Hear Jill discuss how her personal and professional experiences formed her passion to create initiatives within the D&I investment space, and the importance of strategic volunteering for people returning to work after a career break.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. Before we get started, I want to remind our listeners who are actively relaunching to make sure to register and upload your resume to our iRelaunch Job Board for candidates who are looking to relaunch their careers, and employers come specifically to look for people who are on career breaks, to recruit them for their career reentry roles and programs.
So let's move on now to our podcast conversation. I'm really excited today to be speaking with Jill Johnson. Jill is the Co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership, IFEL for as an abbreviation based in Newark, New Jersey. IFEL is founded in 2002, it's an independent nonprofit organization that supports economic development through entrepreneurship.
As a 30 year champion for black businesses, Jill is a pioneering voice for inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems and creating a new paradigm for access to capital conversation. She's the driving force behind a new initiative, the making of Black Angels to drive diversity and inclusion within the investor ecosystem.
Jill is a member of the Women's Forum of New York, the Women Business Collaborative and Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs. In 2022, Jill was named one of Crane's New York Business Whole Health Heroes for her work, creating pathways for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs and small business owners to have entrepreneurial success.
Jill has a BA in Economics from Harvard and is married with four amazing sons. Jill, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.
Jill Johnson: Oh, thank you so much. I'm really glad to be here.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, we're excited to have this conversation and you and I were just talking before we started recording here, and I wanted to know if you could tell us a little bit about the early days of your career and what happened when you started having kids and what your, how your career evolved at that time.
Jill Johnson: Yeah, well, the early days of my career, I'll actually go back to Goldman Sachs. That's where I started in the investment banking, financial analyst program in mergers and acquisitions. And I knew very early on that I wanted to have a family and a larger family. I come from a family of three of us.
I have a sister and a brother, and I always felt weird that it was a, an odd number to me. So I decided early on that it was either gonna be two or four and I was leaning toward the four. And my parents, I was, my parents were young when I was born, and so I thought that I would follow the same path.
And at Goldman, one of the things that was interesting, it was back during, in the early nineties, during a time when you just worked all the time. I literally was saw the light of day, a handful of days in a year. And I did not feel that that was conducive. I did not feel that there was a path to being successful in a career there and having a family.
And I chose family and I have four sons today. You know, when I look at kind of the Goldman earning trajectory, maybe that would've been nice, but probably at the expense of three of the four. So, I would choose the four any day over any amount of money.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, you know, I also, I am the mother of four and I had that same discussion with myself, the two or the four and the, an odd number 'cause I'm one of three and I worked in investment banking, so I'm feeling a lot of parallels there.
All right, so you are having your kids what's happening on the career side while you're growing your family? Are you taking. A complete time off or is there something you're doing on the side? So how did that evolve?
Jill Johnson: Well, I come from a family of entrepreneurs, meaning that people are used to working all the time. And when we had our first son, I was supposed to be on a hiatus from the business that I was working with my parents. And my husband was transitioning to a dot com startup at the time. So while I was home with our first son. I was supposed to be sort of winding down the company that he had and just tying up a few loose ends to help him out.
Well, I had a friend who ended up asking me for help writing a business plan. She figured, oh, you're home with a baby, not doing anything, right? Yeah.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Not doing anything. That's right.
Jill Johnson: You know, and she said, can you help with a business plan? I said, sure. I thought it would be interesting to work on. And that then morphed into several years of working on business plan.
This was during the dot com boom. So it was, it is flexible. While he was sleeping, I would do work while he was, just kind of up gurgling I might be patting him on the back and reading something. So, It was great, and I guess you could say it was multitasking. Some people would say, oh, you're taking your attention away from your son.
But I view it as I was doing something that was also keeping me stimulated, fulfilled, using my expertise that I had developed. So, I was still feeling like a whole person. And again, that's not at all to suggest that people who leave the workforce altogether are not whole and fulfilled in some way.
But I think that there are people, people that I have conversations with who do end up feeling like I'm giving all of myself to my baby and I'm losing myself. And so that's a piece of it for me. And having this component that I could work on when I wanted to do it, and during the hours it made sense for me, I really felt like I was again, doing something that was very stimulating and enjoyable and worthwhile for myself.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, I mean, I'm hearing schedule control, there being a key piece of it and work that is really interesting and engaging that you were able to do on your own terms and somewhat flexibly, while you're growing your family, so that's pretty great that you were able to do that kind of work during that period in your life.
Jill Johnson: Yeah, and I'm glad that I had that experience because it has given me a different mindset about people who have family obligations in that way and being able to manage work and the family obligations. It was very difficult finding childcare that I thought was suitable even when the kids got a little bit older and it was the daycare time. We never really went the daycare route, we identified preschools that we thought were amazing opportunities, which required a drive 30 minutes from our house, but they all went to this one school that I thought was an amazing opportunity for them to be in a stimulating learning environment. Again, it was having the flexibility of working for myself that enabled me to do that. It's something that as an employer, we try to do with our team members, but we've had many people who start here when their children are young, and they might even start part-time on a consulting basis because I do believe that we are losing a tremendous amount of value by not being able to tap into people who need more flexibility because they might be raising families or caring for loved ones.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Absolutely. And we're going to talk about IFEL in just a minute, I wanna ask you many more questions about that. Before we get there, can you fast forward a little bit and tell us what happened next career-wise, and I guess it coincides with family-wise and what did you end up doing after your four children were born and maybe in preschool?
Jill Johnson: Yeah, So, when I think about the early days of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership, what I'm thinking now, and you're reminding me of, is that I had two more children since launching the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership. So my children were really young. It somewhat feels like a bit of a blur, and at the time I probably didn't think too much of it. But, I knew that there was something that I wanted to do and I had children, so there wasn't a, but I have children, therefore, I cannot move forward. I just had to move forward at a pace that made sense for me as a mom that had young children. My husband traveled a lot. He was a, he's been a consultant for the majority of his career.
He was traveling a bunch at the time, and so I had to do what I had to do to manage, and I think that, One of the things that is a challenge for so many parents that have these multiple responsibilities is the external pressure of what you should be doing. And so it is you, in order to stay on the career path, you must hire a nanny and have all these, outsource the raising of your children.
For me, that wouldn't work. It, that just was not something that I was interested in. And so I had to move at a pace that was comfortable for me. I'll will tell you that through that time, there were times that I was taking calls in the bathroom because, maybe the baby had woken up and was crying a bit.
I was not one of those moms that felt the need to every second make sure that the baby was quiet and not crying. And as a result, my children did learn how to self-soothe. They were very pleasant as babies, as children. And so I think it was a very, there was a very healthy balance. My kids all played sports and all played sports and continue to play sports. Times when I'm driving to the game, I drop them off 'cause you have to be there early and then I'm out in the parking lot taking a call or doing work.
So it really is about finding what works for you.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And I was struck by your comments earlier where you said you were working with your parents in an entrepreneurial venture. Your husband was winding down an entrepreneurial venture, and you start IFEL and there's such a strong theme of entrepreneurship here and I wanted to know if you could give us a little background on, did you grow up around entrepreneurship or is that something that happened later in your parents' lives when you helped them? And how do you think it became such a central theme in your life and in terms of what you developed professionally?
Jill Johnson: Yeah, my parents were entrepreneurs. They had a newspaper publishing business for about 20 years, so my parents were in business together. God bless them, working together for that period of time. They did not come from a family of entrepreneurs, although growing up in segregation, they did have the benefit, especially my mother in Kansas City in a major metropolitan area of seeing black businesses. So it was not something with which she was unfamiliar.
But she didn't necessarily neither of them necessarily had people in their families that were entrepreneurs. I will say that now, looking back, there was a history and a pattern of being willing to take some risks, risk of moving from Kansas and Missouri where they grew up to Iowa where my father had his first job out of graduate school, moved the two of them moving together to Michigan. And I was born in Iowa, moving to Michigan to pursue higher education and then moving to New Jersey, to even take those steps to be willing to move to a new place where you don't know anyone that's taking risks.
And my parents came together with the newspaper where my mother's background is communications. My father's background is higher education, and they saw a need and they have always been activists where they saw a need. My mother especially was part of a different protest and very active during the civil rights movement.
And so when they saw a need in the community where we lived, they brought their talents and their energies together. My father's a great networker and builder of relationships, so between that and her talent in communication, they came together and did a newspaper where both of those are those, all those skill sets are essential.
So yeah, they started the newspaper. I was young, I don't know, maybe middle school or so when they started the newspaper. And so I grew up in that small business household. Seeing what that was like, seeing when things were good, seeing when advertisers didn't pay on time and so they were scrambling to make ends meet.
But it was great to understand what that small business culture was all about. So I'm very blessed and thankful. And I think that the biggest benefit was really seeing someone start something from an idea, having a vision for something and implement it. And now I think that for me is something that carries through where I see a problem, something that needs to be addressed.
If I can come up with a vision, a way to solve it, then I have the confidence that I can actually implement it and I can do something about it.
Carol Fishman Cohen: All right, so that's a really great lead in to, this podcast is essentially about being an entrepreneur. You work with entrepreneurs, you advise them and help them, but you're also an entrepreneur while you're doing that. Can you take us back to the early days of when you were first founding IFEL and then, and tell us like what were some of the first things that you did and how did you evolve at the beginning actually, and then into what the organization is today?
Jill Johnson: Early days it was how do we help more business owners succeed, especially business owners from historically excluded populations that have limited access to resources, especially capital. You know, I think the real motivation there was that when my parents decided after 20 years that they wanted to retire and do some other things, they unfortunately had not built the business in a way that they could extract the value.
So they didn't have the wherewithal to sell the business, which would've created a different wealth trajectory for me and my siblings. That was not something that was due to any inadequacy on their part. It's not something that they knew. That concept hadn't, was just not one that was ever introduced.
I knew about that and had that introduction through my work at Goldman Sachs, right? There I had an opportunity to see the wealth that is created, the tremendous wealth that is created when people start businesses are able to grow the value in the company. The company can live outside of the founder, and they're able to have an exit.
That again, for many business owners, it's just not something that's, that is the focus. It is kind of their day-to-day existence, and it's a great form of self-employment and I think that's what a lot of people need to really think about. What is the end game for the business? And even if it is a dry cleaners, a consulting practice, there are people out there who would see value in taking over and acquiring what you have created. For me, that was unfortunate and I wanted to take my knowledge of how that works and how that can work and how it can create wealth to share that with more business owners in the Newark area to start, that was where we started.
We now have a national footprint. But or originally we started our work locally in Newark, New Jersey.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And then can you talk about what was the day to day like? What were you actually doing with the entrepreneurs?
Jill Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. So day to day I was doing hands on work, high touch, hands on work. That's what I believe was always missing.
So you have to remember back in 2002, there were not all of the entrepreneurial programs that exist today, right? Where it's now in every college, every, continuing education it's all over, right? There is just an abundance of support for small businesses. Back then, that didn't really exist.
There were some resources, especially resources that were S B A supported. However, in my view, It was not necessarily, it was helpful, but it wasn't necessarily the high touch that I felt was needed. It's great, you can tell me how to cook something unless you, Carol, are standing right there next to me, it likely is just not going to come out well because that is not my thing and it's not what I do. So, we take that same approach that you can tell entrepreneurs, small business owners, how to do a website. If that is not their thing, the website still is not gonna work so well. So we've always had a high touch, hands-on approach.
So that's what I was doing. I was spending my time and essentially providing consulting expertise, the same kind that I had done for people who were for whom I was writing the business plans, except those people had resources to pay. The people who we decided we wanted to help and support don't have the resources to pay.
Why don't they have the resources to pay due to the historical exclusion from access to capital? If you don't have capital, you cannot hire the experts that you need, which creates a vicious cycle of never being able to get your business on a path to growing.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So were you doing actual angel investing or you were arranging for capital to come in from other sources?
Jill Johnson: No, originally we weren't focused on the capital at all. Our initial belief was that there was plentiful capital, however, people needed to get their businesses in a capital ready state. And there wasn't the understanding of how to do that today. So fast forward today, I think that there is a lot of education that's needed.
Again, if you don't have entrepreneurs in your family, in your circle who can guide you through, Hey, this is how you set up your accounting. Here's a software you should think about using. Here's a platform you should use to maintain your customer records. If you don't have that, you're going to a lot of trial and error, trying to figure things out.
Yep. And so, we were again, very focused on everything outside of the capital itself. Over the years, what I then came to believe in and what caused the pivot in our work is that, again, while I think that education's always good, people can get more training, support, et cetera, that is not the fundamental cause of the access to capital problem that people are experiencing who are from historically excluded populations. Does not matter how much better they are, there is a systemic nature about the challenges with getting access to capital. So that is what caused a pivot in my personal work and in the work of our organization in 2018.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, we'll talk about that.
Jill Johnson: All of my work, all of the work of our organization has always been very high touch, hands-on. So we get that call when the business owner is saying, I just dunno if I can keep doing this anymore.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh, I see.
Jill Johnson: We get the call when someone says, Oh my gosh, I have this contract opportunity and I don't know how to put together a proposal for this, can you take a look at this. Can I just talk through this? Hey, the world seems to be caving in. I feel suffocated, what do I do?
So there's a lot of it that is just that emotional support being that support system. We call it a support circle because many of the business owners that we support don't have that. As you know, being a business owner can be very, very, very lonely.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Right, can you give us some examples of the types of companies that entrepreneurs are running that, that you work with?
Jill Johnson: It is the range from tech companies, the people that are creating all kind of platforms from tech platforms, female health, menstruation care, FinTech platforms. Lots of different things on, on the tech side to businesses that are retail operations, operating very locally, gaming companies. A guy who is a gaming a truck where they do video games and have competitions and things like that. And where he's even looking at franchising that concept. Gymnastic studios, a business owner that serves meals to seniors and disabled adults paid for through Medicaid.
So we have the range. We're industry agnostic. We will work with businesses that are in any industry located anywhere. We do have a national footprint now, but the theme through the people that we support is generally that they have limited capital. And other resources. So hiring expertise, even identifying the expertise that they could hire.
They know that they have a business that they love and about which they're very passionate, but they're not sure of how to grow it, how to get it to that next level, and people who often just don't have a robust support system around them. That's really, those are the central themes and attributes tying together the community that we serve.
Carol Fishman Cohen: All right. So you had mentioned something happened, was going along until 2018. What happened in 2018?
Jill Johnson: Well, in 2018 we had a longtime strategic partnership that came to an end. And there were just some circumstances around that, that for the very first time, made me acknowledge and really think about the intersectionality of race and gender.
Before I had much more focused on issues related to race and the exclusion related to race. And in this particular instance, I felt that gender was a factor as well. And as I worked my way through that situation, I looked at how I did that, and it was mainly through my network of contacts, my relationships where I was able to make phone calls and ask for advice, ask for support, and I had people who were all too happy to provide support and whatever assistance they could. And I said, Oh my gosh. Wow, if x I didn't have Harvard and Goldman Sachs and live in the neighborhood where I live and have the network that I have, how would I have worked through that? And I said, that's the challenge for so many people. And even when you look to look at access to capital and angel investors, and I know we're gonna get to that conversation in a minute.
But when you look at angel investors, people have to know you. They have to like you and they have to trust you. That is the basis for people investing money, time, or any other resource in you. And so we really pivoted our work toward that and to engaging people who have tremendous networks.
And again, I know that I'm very blessed and privileged to have been able to develop the network that I have. And so I wanna use that and extend that to people who don't have that, and engage others who say that they value diversity, equity, inclusion, and want to see change. Our goal now is to engage all the people who are saying that let's do something about it.
Let's we want to activate those people to extend their networks to people who do not have that, they're able to meet through our connections.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I see. Yeah. Love that focus on action and execution. There's nothing that is a substitute for that. There are lots of ideas around, but the actual implementation of them is something that, that's much harder and more rare. I want to get into the acquisition. I just wa want to make one comment Natalia Oberti Nobuera is the founder of Pipeline Angels. She's a long time member of the iRelaunch Advisory Board. We've known her for many years. We've interviewed her on this podcast and IFEL just acquired Pipeline Angels.
And I wanna know if you can walk us through that, maybe bring us behind the scenes and tell us how did that deal happen?
Jill Johnson: It happened, I again go back to connections. There was someone who was a very early Pipeline Angels member who started her journey and became a Super angel and one became a VC, started with Pipeline Angels. And as we at Eiffel had gotten into the angel space and started learning about it and encouraging more people to learn about it. That's how we learned initially about Pipeline Angels. Natalia and I were supposed to be on a panel together. This was in 2020, and the panel never happened due to Covid, but it was through a mutual connection to be on that panel that she and I met. And then last year when Natalia announced that she was looking for a new steward for Pipeline Angels, this super Angel basically came to me and said, Jill, given what you're talking about related to access to capital and creating more diversity in the investor ecosystem, Pipeline Angels is, there's an opportunity there. I'd like to bring you and Natalia together. And I said, Sure, I've met Natalia, but we don't have a relationship as such, so yes, I would welcome that reconnection. And so they brought us together. We had a conversation. And then I will say we were talking multiple times a week a year plus. It first starting as conversations, and then it was discussion and then dialogue, which all moved into negotiations essentially. It was an interesting process. This now has made her an exited founder, so that's very exciting for her. For us, that's a proud moment, being able to create that opportunity for someone.
And it, it's just super exciting. And again, it goes back to my days at Goldman Sachs. This is not something I ever would've considered or thought was possible had I not had that early exposure to that world. So it's all about, again, exposure, connections and people knowing your intentions. The person who brought us together might not have even ever thought to bring us together had I not expressed my intentions about where I wanted to go and my vision. So I would say that that's something that is really important is for people to share their vision and where they're trying to go, so that as their network is out there, their network can look for opportunities.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes, so interesting because we tell people who are relaunching their careers, who are not going the entrepreneurial route, that they need to be very, very clear on exactly what they wanna do now that they're coming out of their career break, because they have to be able to tell other people in detail what that is in order for other people to help them.
And I'm hearing a direct parallel here about people having to be able to articulate this entrepreneurial vision to even have the conversation and have that lead to something else. So, wow, what a great illustration of exactly your point. Let's see here, so Jill, can you, you've told us a lot about IFEL, can you tell us how our listeners can find out more about IFEL? Is there a website? Are there other resources where they can learn more?
Jill Johnson: Absolutely. We have our website, which is We Are IFEL, W E A R E I F as in Frank, E L as in Larry dot org. weareifel.org. That has connections you can find out about the entire organization and the connections to our different programs and brands.
We have Small Businesses Need Us, which is skills based volunteerism, and that's a great opportunity actually for some of the listeners to this. If they think they want to dip a toe in the water and just use their skills, maybe they're not ready to fully relaunch just yet, but they want to keep their skills fresh and engage that's a great way to do it. We have our Women of Color Connecting Initiative, that's all about connecting and that's not connecting just women of color. It is really connecting all people for the purpose of driving inclusion. So it's bringing people together to those whose paths would never have crossed, to diverse, to create more diversity in their respective networks. We have The Making of Black Angels, which is around driving investor inclusion. And again, that is to help all people to learn and understand why getting involved in the investor ecosystem is so important, especially for people from historically excluded populations.
And then we now have Pipeline Angels. So, that is really about investor training and getting people involved who want to learn more about angel investing in an inclusive way and using their dollars to drive the change that they seek in the world.
Carol Fishman Cohen: All right, good, because I was gonna ask you to elaborate a little bit on Pipeline Angels and to spell your website, and you did both without me even asking you, so thank you.
One thing that I really appreciated you mentioning was this opportunity for relaunchers to do essentially what we call strategic volunteering, but it could also be exploratory to go in there and volunteer and work with different businesses if you're trying to even define what your relaunch is going to look like or you're picking between options. So thank you that's a great opportunity. Is it everything in person or does anything happen virtual?
Jill Johnson: No, it's actually all virtual, which is what makes it super easy that you can volunteer and participate from wherever you are. And what we see is that and I also wanna make clear, is that we have opportunities that are just two hours.
So it's not that you have to commit to these long-term assignments, it can be two hours with a business owner, helping them to do financial projections just, and, we provide the templates and materials, it could be helping to give them pointers on their website. It is amazing the difference that you can make by sharing the expertise that you have and that you're utilizing every day. Or, maybe you haven't utilized it in a while. This is an opportunity to do that. And we just hear from volunteers how gratifying it feels for them to be able to use their knowledge to make a difference for someone else.
That could really just unlock a whole lot of potential in that business.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes, relaunchers, I hope you're all listening, especially since this is virtual and the opportunities that Jill is talking about is something that you could realistically do. So please remember to check that out.
So, Jill, we need to wrap up now. This has been a great conversation. I want to ask you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?
Jill Johnson: My best advice for relaunchers is, to be open, to be open to the journey.
It's very easy for all of us, and I was one of those people that had life completely scripted from the time that I was a teenager. And you figure out that sometimes it just does not go the way that you plan. It's great to have a plan because that gives you a North Star, but you have to be open to what the opportunities are.
One of the things that I'm very proud of, and you know, I talked about the children early on, but all of our children have had not straight-road paths to where they are today. And I think for me, just watching that, observing that, I have taken away that lesson to really be open to where the opportunities are, that every time there's something that seems to be a roadblock or a barrier or something in your mind is negative, think about what is the opportunity in this and where could this lead me that I just wasn't thinking about before?
So, whether you're an entrepreneur or in a career or a large company, there are many paths to take that can lead you to where it is you're trying to go. Sometimes where you are trying to go may not even, may not be where you thought you wanted to go when you started.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Exactly. Great advice, a great way to wrap up our conversation. Jill, thank you so much for joining us today.
Jill Johnson: It has been my true pleasure to be here, so thank you.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host.
Be sure to check out all the tools and resources we have for people who are relaunching careers after a career break on iRelaunch.com, and sign up for our mailing list so you hear about return to work jobs and programs every single week. Thanks for joining us.