The Chicago Journal

Top 20 African-American Entrepreneurs to Watch Out for in 2020

Running a business, growing it, and making it thrive is a difficult task to execute. In the Minority Business world, entrepreneurs not only have to be hardworking, but they also need to innovate, pivot, and scale. Particular to individuals of color, this has been a huge hurdle. Our collective history as human beings has not been, at all, kind to the African-American community. But after years of taking small steps toward racial equality, the African-American communities have inserted themselves in every field. True enough, in the business world, they are succeeding tremendously. Here are the top 20 African-American entrepreneurs to watch out for this year:

  1. Dr. Velma Trayham

Dr. Velma Trayham is recognized nationally as an award-winning entrepreneur, and founder of multiple high-performing businesses. She is the owner and CEO of Thinkzilla Consulting Group, which is an innovative branding and marketing transformation agency with offices in Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles. Over the years, Thinkzilla has driven measurable growth for top organizations that range from startups to Fortune 500 companies, including the Atlanta Business League, Atlanta Airlines Terminal Company, NASCAR, and the University of Phoenix to name a few. She has devoted herself to helping other women achieve success, prosperity and freedom. She motivates and educates them through her non-profit organization, Millionaire Mastermind Academy, Inc. 

Instagram: @velma_trayham

Facebook: DrVelmaTrayham


  1. Nicole Michelle Durio

Nicole Michelle Durio, CPA is the Managing Principal of Madison Brothers Consulting Group. Nicole is a proven leader in the consulting industry. The Summa Cum Laude graduate of Dillard University has more than 25 years of experience in accounting, financial reporting, advisory services, business consulting, CFO services, and internal and external auditing. She has a breadth of knowledge in mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, merger integration, financial planning and analysis, strategic planning, effective treasury management, and the development, implementation, and ongoing monitoring of control systems.  

Durio also has cross-border transactional experience in Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Spain, and the United Kingdom. She is also an Independently Certified Speaker, Coach, and Teacher with John Maxwell Team.


  1. Ryan D. Akers

Ryan D. Akers is an entrepreneur and tax guru who is passionate about helping those who have a desire to be great and make a change in their circumstances. The author of the newly released book Getting Things Done said his mission is to help motivate and empower people who don’t think that they can to see that they can.

Akers, the founder of Sky’s the Limit National CDC, Royalty R Enterprises LLC, Akers Consulting LLC, RYDA Ent. and more, decided to create a book for those people who have a desire to be great, be an entrepreneur, or those that just want to change their lives but are held back by procrastination.


  1. Jacques Posey

Jacques Posey has worked in the accounting and finance industry for over 25 years and been in executive financial leadership for over 11 years. He is well-experienced in acquisitions, budget reduction, financial operations, and financial modeling for organizational alignment. Posey has managed $500 million in budgets with major corporations such as Humana, Universal Health Services, Florida Hospital, WellStar Health System, American Health Imaging, HCA Healthcare, Bank of America, and Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities during his career, and is currently the chief financial officer and managing partner for U.S. Diversity Group.

He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the Stetson-Hatcher School of Business at Mercer University and a master’s in leadership from Liberty University. Posey is a proud member of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) and the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers (NABHOOD), and is a certified hotel owner through AAHOA. 

  1. Tamala Justin

Tamala Austin is the Founder of J.I.V.E., the first African-American owner of a juice company represented at Whole FoodsJuice, an author of “Love My Body Again,” and a certified health coach by the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute. J.I.V.E. Juice offers organic cold-pressed juices and smoothies for delivery and retail. With a focus on making juicing fun and “greening your life with juice.” The company provides vegetarian and vegan products with concentrated enzymes and nutrients.

Currently, J.I.V.E Juice is available at six Whole Foods locations in Houston and surrounding areas. Customers can enjoy top-sellers such as Green Delight, Morning Glory, Energy Blast, Apple Berry Fiber, and Sweet Beats. With vegetarian and vegan options, the goal is to help people “learn how to transition to and maintain a healthy lifestyle that is both pleasurable and sustainable.”


  1. Valarie Benning-Thompson

Valarie Benning Thompson is a producer from the Olympic Games to television and from Digital Content Creation to Live Entertainment, producer and entertainment industry veteran. Valarie Benning Thompson has launched careers and supported considerable talent in a variety of entertainment endeavors over the past 30 years.

During her career, Valarie has produced or managed over 25 stadiums, arenas, and theatrical tours nationally and internationally; for artists such as Luther Vandross, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, NWA, Guy, Bow Wow, DaBrat, The Wiz, 42nd Street, Sounds of Blackness, The World Cup Opening Ceremony, The Centennial Olympics, Prince, Kevin Hart, Mike Epps, DeRay Davis, The Shaquille O’Neal All-Star Comedy Jam and Nick Cannon’s Wild N’Out Live Tour.

She is a sought-after television producer, having created TV specials for Kevin Hart, Mike Epps, Eddie Griffin, and eight installments of The Shaquille O’Neal All-Star Comedy Jam. Valarie is the Executive Producer of An Intimate Portrait of R&B, an eight-part documentary exploring the creation and development of R&B Music. She served as Supervising Producer of the 2019 Trumpet Awards, and Ms. Thompson is currently Supervising producer for Kevin Hart’s LOL Network.

  1. Shantella “Michelle” Pleasant

Shantella “Michelle” Pleasant has been in the Real Estate Industry for over 15 years as a Realtor and Broker Associate. After returning to Atlanta after living in Arizona, she wasn’t really sure if real estate was what she really wanted to do. In 2015, Michelle decided to change real estate firms and work on rebuilding her own real estate business and doing what she has a passion for, which is coaching and developing newly licensed and seasoned real estate agents. 

Michelle is involved with the Atlanta Realtor Association and has served on the Training and Development Community, New Agent Sub-Committee, and was chosen out of 200 Realtors for the ARA Leadership Program for 2018. Michelle was among the top 50 of more than 1800 real estate professionals at her previous company, PalmerHouse Properties.

Michelle launched a real estate training program in October of 2016 after her previous broker saw a need for Michelle’s coaching and training skills to help strengthen and increase agent’s productivity within the market center. Since that time, Michelle has mentored and developed over 80 agents, and it is growing by the day. In 2019, these agents closed over $40 Million in closed volume and over 209 transactions. 


  1. Brandon Wheeless

Brandon Wheeless is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Alux Properties, a company he founded in 2017 with a mission to “enhance the quality of everybody’s life – one person at a time.” Since then, Alux Properties has made a name for itself that is synonymous with Innovative, Tech-centric, and Exquisite characteristics. The Company is vertically integrated with subsidiaries and partnerships in community development, commercial real estate, investment management, property management, and program management fields.

Today, Alux offers design, build, and construction management services, both locally and internationally. Through its team of industry veterans and associate firms, Alux has demonstrated full capacity and expertise in various scopes of engineering, procurement, and construction works, including water and wastewater, energy, civil-site, mechanical plant retrofit, and building facility renovations and new construction.


  1. Jasper Hagan

Jasper Hagan is a marketing trailblazer, a cancer survivor, and the founder and CEO of Full Court Marketing, a creative marketing agency that thrives on telling authentic stories of multicultural consumers that have yet to be heard. FCM focuses on providing fresh perspectives and delivering high-impact, culturally relevant solutions that go beyond what’s expected. This Morehouse College graduate started his media career at iHeartmedia where he successfully created and executed local, regional, and national media campaigns. 

His love for music and working with artists across musical genres aided in his success while at iHeartMedia. After seven years, leaving a mark in the industry, his passion for connecting brands and artists led to him creating and founding his company, which has successfully secured strategic partnerships with iconic global brands. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated and The 100 Black Men of American. 

Instagram: @iamjhagan; @fullcourtmktg

  1. Valencia Curnell

CEO Valencia has a niche for creating unique market needs. From her six-week running music showcases to her live events and business assessment curriculum, it is safe to say that Valencia is a force to be reckoned with. She is currently the CEO and founder of Cocktails & Corkscrews, LLC, a wine brand, creating signature wines, vineyards, and wineries with Business Partners William Higgs and Shanteer Brown. Also, Valencia’s brand creations reach new levels with the forming of Kulture Design Inc, a design and art-based company when she partners with fiancé and designer Duane Andrews of Miami, Fl. Valencia has partnered with and created many successful brands, and there is no stopping her now.

Valencia Curnell is a Business and Event Manager specializing in brand creations and marketing strategies. Valencia knows that by partnering with other CEOs, business owners, and solopreneurs can change the world of business as she inspires others to be bold, confident, and extraordinary. Growing up in poverty gave Valencia the drive to be bigger and better. That drive resulted in Valencia leaving Edisto Island, SC, her hometown to pursue her dreams.


  1. Nurse Chioma Okeke

Nurse Chioma Okeke is coaching and empowering nurses around the globe. She is the founder of Choosing Nursing at and is a seasoned Registered Nurse who works with Graduate Nurses to help them pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Chioma has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from San Diego State University.


  1. Dedrick Hideoki Hagiwara Thomas

Dedrick Hideoki Hagiwara Thomas, the owner and creative designer of MAISON HIDEOKI, a lifestyle and luxury brand that specializes in custom clothing and accessories for men and women.

Being an executive and business owner in an arena where the image is everything, he found himself purchasing custom clothing as the result of the limited options and inadequate customer service of upscale and premium department stores. When even the experience of using a tailor did not live up to its promise, he went a step beyond and started designing clothes for himself. This was the birth of Hideoki Bespoke.

He has worked with many celebrities, professional athletes, and influencers, including Steve Harvey, Clifford “TIP” Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Rick Ross, Steve Smith, Gucci Mane, Jerry Stackhouse, Penny Hardaway, Paul Millsap, Ja Morant, and many more. MAISON HIDEOKI is where traditional elegance meets modern sophistication with confidence, precision, and unexpected. It’s a lifestyle!


  1. James Jordan

James Jordan is a world-renowned credit guru who has helped over 10,000 consumers to take control of their creditworthiness and obtain financial empowerment since 2012. Jordan’s clients have included professional athletes, music artists, & reality tv celebrities.  He has held countless seminars and workshops teaching financial literacy, wealth building, and self-empowerment. Jorda is also known as “The G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) name given to him by his long-standing clients. 

Through his credit repair and business development firm “Goat Financial Services Inc” located in Atlanta, Jordan has passionately and effectively empowered and added value to all of his clients through his life-changing credit expertise. Early this year, Jordan decided to pursue another passion of his and created the new edgy and Hyper-Trendy fashion line named Fache. However, the clothing line is still in production slated for November 2020. 


  1. Alan Powell

Alan “AP” Powell is a Gulf-war veteran, serial entrepreneur, and a renowned strategic consultant developing strategic relationships for Fortune 500 companies. AP’s business philosophy has been “turning contacts into contracts.” It has since become the standard for all of his companies and investments. After pursuing his bachelor’s degree from Missouri Valley College, AP has become one of the nation’s foremost authorities on multicultural content and leveraging brand connections with multicultural audiences. AP exited the military to start a career in the independent film and music business. Later, AP became Vice President at The Firm – a premier entertainment management company in Beverly Hills. AP went on to create AP & Associates, LLC in 2004 to find a diverse approach between entertainment and corporate America.

  1. Anthony Murray

As the founder of the Oasis Church in Greater Atlanta, Anthony Murray has built a thriving social ecosystem based on faith, justice, and the belief that greatness is always possible. As a spiritual leader, his unparalleled commitment to elevating those most in need has brought him much deserved recognition from peers, politicians, and philanthropists. His message of self-belief has quickly transcended the church and catapulted him to highly sought-after speaker, engaging thousands through various platforms. His bestselling book, What Happened to your Dreams, has allowed Anthony the privilege of traveling the world to share his experiences and expand his audience.

With over 20 of experience in ministry and public speaking, Anthony continues to expand his platform and incorporate innovative teaching tools. In addition to successfully serving as Senior Pastor and leading two congregations, Anthony Murray also leads a group of pastors across the nation through his Pastor’s network – The Nekses – where he models effective ministry strategies and shares insights into how he has experienced such explosive growth. 

Instagram: @_anthonymurray

Facebook: Anthony Murray


  1. Gia Rutledge

Gia E. Rutledge is the CEO of ProEval Insights. ProEval Insights’ mission is to provide small businesses and nonprofit organizations with the capacity to gain a deeper understanding of their organization’s impact and provide insights on how to use their data for program improvement, expansion, and sustainability. Core services provided by ProEval Insights include program development and evaluation, data collection, analysis and reporting; proposal development; and conducting workshops & training. 

Gia has over 20 years of experience in public-private partnerships. She has experience working with federal, state, and local governments, communities, nonprofits, and national organizations. She also provides expertise on strategic planning, development of contracts and grants, program development, implementation, and evaluation. She received her Master’s Degree in Public Health (MPH) from the University of Arizona and a BS in Biology from the University of California at San Diego. Gia is currently working on her Doctorate in Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. 


  1. Tami LaTrell

Tami LaTrell is a multi-platinum, GRAMMY-nominated songwriter who’s written for artists such as Whitney Houston, Monica, Keyshia Cole, SWV, Rotimi, and country duo Love and Theft, to name a few. She inked her first music publishing deal in 2002 under the leadership of Big Jon Platt at EMI Music Publishing, which is now Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

Besides songwriting, she facilitates music publishing and copyright workshops online as a music and rights protection advocate and speaks at different universities and music programs in schools. She’s a Youtube partner with over 600,000 views.

In 2018, she transitioned to the business side of music and launched The Mezzo Agency, a publishing administration company that provides catalog management, royalty collection, and music licensing services for songwriters, artists, and producers. 

She also holds membership with The Recording Academy and is a founding member of Women In Music-Atlanta.

Instagram: @tamilatrell

Twitter: @tamilatrell

YouTube: Tami LaTrell


  1. Montra McKenzie

Philanthropist, advocate, community activist, and change agent Montra Mckenzie is a true example of a leader. With 20 years of experience in real estate and business, Mckenzie has excelled in both industries that are challenging for black women. In this capacity, she has made significant milestones in the nonprofit sector. In 2017, Montra launched a nonprofit serving underprivileged youth and families. 

Since its inception, The Investors Academy has served over 3,000 families in Atlanta, housed 500 homeless veterans, and provided 200 jobs to over 200 individuals each year. The mission of The Investors Academy is to support low-income individuals on their pathways to self-sufficiency. Montra is also a businesswoman. During a global pandemic, she opened an international logistics company that provided job opportunities in a vulnerable community. Montra has a goal of increasing the capacity of the investor’s academy and running for City Council to ensure that the people’s needs are met.  


  1. Markela Taylor

Kela Taylor is an award-winning, self-made entrepreneur. She is most known for the facility that she founded and built from the ground up, Universal Salon Suites, a 10,000-sq.-ft. state-of-the-art facility that provides quality workspace for beauty industry professionals along with a venue that was designed for training and grand openings. This had high demand for private, social, and corporate events, which led to significant revenue growth.

While her core mission is to develop individuals one entrepreneur at a time, Taylor has her hands in numerous venture capitalist opportunities. Kela says that her successes are derived from her “God-given gifts,” which are also her core values. Another motivation for her is tragedy. On her way to work one Monday morning in May 2011, Kela—a daddy’s girl—was made aware of her father having been arrested and facing a double-life sentence. 

Kela’s accomplishments also come from her laser-focused work ethic and knowledgeable business sense. She is also influential to aspiring entrepreneurs of all ages and ethnicities, but mostly disadvantaged individuals. Be sure to contact Kela for an overwhelming boast of greatness, from business development to acquisition strategy.


  1. Amy Reese

Amy Reese is the founder and CEO of ARC Business Solutions, a certified woman-owned and operated consulting firm that helps small businesses grow by accessing federal and corporate contracting opportunities.  ARC helps businesses acquire relevant certifications that will enable them to win contracts set aside specifically for them.  They also provide the foundational resources and instruction needed as clients begin to embark on starting and growing a business.

After spending over 20 years as a corporate executive collaborating with C-Suite and VP level leaders of Fortune 500 organizations and government agencies, Amy now leverages her experience in strategic sales, collaboration, and relationship development to benefit small and mid-sized businesses who are seeking opportunities to grow their bottom line.  The strategic techniques Amy uses have been instrumental in her success as demonstrated by the attainment of revenue growth for her clients in the millions. 


Opinions expressed by The Chicago Journal contributors are their own.