A cup of coffee in the morning is a daily ritual for millions of America, but for University of Northern Iowa alumnus Pernell Cezar, it’s something more.
For Cezar, that cup of coffee is a vessel to fulfill his ambition to support underserved communities, equip youths to succeed and blaze a trail for the next generation of Black business owners. In just two years, he’s gone from a first-generation college student at UNI to the co-owner of the first nationally-accessible, Black-owned retail coffee brand. His company received national media attention, shelf space in more than 350 Target stores nationwide and celebrity social media shout-outs, including from a member of Destiny’s Child.
Cezar and his childhood friend, Rod Johnson, recently celebrated the two-year anniversary of their company, BLK & Bold Coffee, a specialty coffee roastery in Des Moines that is the culmination of Cezar and Johnson’s desire to make a social impact from something people enjoy every day - a cup of coffee or tea. It’s a vision that started when they were growing up amid vacant lots and abandoned homes in Gary, Indiana, a decaying former steel town that for years had the nation’s highest murder rates.
“The ideation of this has been more than the greater half of our lives,” Cezar said. “We lived on the same street, and as we continued to grow over different life milestones - being first-generation college students and Black entrepreneurs - the conversations around those journeys began to supersede the professional things. We had this focus on the urgency of now and what we were doing and the impact we wanted to make in our lives and the impact we wanted to see in the world.”
Cezar’s remarkable branding skills, honed while working for Target’s merchandising division, has helped fuel the company’s exponential growth. He credits his experience serving as president of the Northern Iowa Student Government from 2008-09 with helping him land the Target position straight out of college.
He brought the lessons he learned in that office and campus into his career. They include an aversion to complacency and a desire to be a part of a larger solution.
“UNI has a campus that allows for being involved in the pursuit of something bigger than you, regardless of what you’re interested in,” Cezar said. “Once you do that, it normalizes that as a way of being, personally and professionally.”
Blk & Bold opened its doors on June 1, 2018, but Cezar’s love of coffee stretches back years. He started roasting his own coffee years before as a hobby, before launching the company with Johnson,from his garage.
The concept was simple: Bring the organic, fair-trade coffee roasts usually reserved for coffee shops to grocery stores at affordable prices.
“Those who haven’t had experiences with coffee shops are left out of a tier of experience with coffee,” Cezar said. “There’s a massive industry that exists in specialty coffee, but there’s not been a bridge to that level of quality with grocery stores without making the prices unattainable.”
Using his prior experience working in the merchandising division of the Target corporation, Cezar, who graduated from UNI in 2010 with a degree in finance and marketing, was able to find retail partners to bring their products to a wider audience. BLK & Bold Coffee is now found in Target locations nationwide and is sold on Amazon.
The company quickly outgrew Cezar’s garage, and now it's poised for another major upgrade. With demand surging, the company is moving into a 10,000 square foot roastery space in Des Moines to keep pace with national distribution.
His former professors and network of UNI friends have watched with awe.
“Pernell’s success is a testament to both his talent and determination,” said Leslie Wilson, dean of the College of Business Administration. “He took advantage of the professional-readiness opportunities available at UNI to develop the foundational skills that have allowed him to flourish as an entrepreneur.”
But BLK & Bold Coffee is more than just a profitable coffee roastery. Cezar and Johnson wanted to make sure it gave back to their customers’ communities.
“We had a domestic impact model mission that we wanted to fuel through something we could bring to people and enjoy,” Cezar said. “That came back to coffee. Coffee became the uniter of individual and local impacts. We took the concept and ran from there.”
Challenging social systems is not new for Cezar. While serving as president of the Northern Iowa Student Government in 2008-09, one of his main goals was to develop a campus climate at UNI that supported traditionally underserved student populations.
As president, Cezar was on the search committee that resulted in the hiring of former Provost Gloria Gibson, who, at the time, was the first Black provost in the state. Promoting diverse voices at the senior leadership level was part of Cezar’s strategy to better serve underrepresented students.
The experience helped cement his leadership style.
“Challenging a university that was complacent on underrepresented students during my time impacted the experiences I could bring when entering into a profession,” Cezar said.
It’s a message that has struck home. UNI leaders, including President Mark Nook, have said making the university a more welcoming place for everyone is a top priority.
Pernell brought that same focus to BLK & Bold Coffee, which donates 5% of its profits to initiatives aligned to sustaining youth programming, enhancing workforce development, and eradicating youth homelessness.
Called the “5% for Our Youth Pledge,” the initiative has partners across the U.S. from Washington D.C. to Chicago to Oakland, all leading unique programs focused on eradicating youth hunger, creating school-based programs to help kids succeed, challenging oppressive dynamics and environments through urban farming and much more.
The business model synergized with the growing awareness of systemic racism in the wake of police killings, including the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and led to a meteoric rise in Cezar and Johnson’s business.
A growing awareness of how systemic racism has warped American society - most notably in the massive social-change movement that arose after the police slayings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor - has led to a meteoric rise in Cezar and Johnson’s business.
“We’ve continued to scale because the country wants to be a part of the positive side of the narrative, supporting the protest of human rights in America with the cash they spend on business,” Cezar said. “We have to engage more people to be a part of the solution to how we rebuild and support Black inclusion and Black-owned business.”