Pharrell covers Town & Country's 2021 Philanthropy Issue
Williams’s educational nonprofit, Yellow, will open a micro-school this fall in Norfolk, Virginia; another location will be added in 2022. Before expanding to major cities across the country in the next five years, Yellow plans to open locations providing pre-K through workforce education throughout Virginia’s Hampton Roads region.
The epidemic of police violence is, Williams says, rooted in a four-century-old force of “gravity”—a weight, invisible to many white folks, that can manifest as a literal knee on the neck, though it is typically felt as a persistent and pernicious downward pull.
For years his philanthropic efforts mirrored this paradigm. He would speak softly but write a big check, making his mark primarily behind the scenes. (For example, he made the expansion of José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen possible through his unsolicited financial support. As Andrés says, “We wouldn’t be able to do without him.”) In the past year, however, Williams has taken center stage, piloting a pair of bold initiatives aimed at addressing disparities in entrepreneurship and the education system. As he puts it, “If it’s fixed and unfair, then it needs to be broken.”
His desire to nurture the same spirit led him to launch Black Ambition, a nonprofit initiative to support Black and Latinx entrepreneurs, in December.
The program provides mentorship and financial support for startups in tech, design, healthcare, and consumer products and services. Entrepreneurs pitch their launches to advance in a pair of competitions, each of which culminates in awards ranging from $15,000 to $1 million. One competition draws from students and recent graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which Williams calls “the most fertile ground” to search for entrepreneurs.
“As a Black person, when you’re born in this country, you immediately feel a much heavier gravity,” he says. “The gravity is one that we see in our rules and regulations and laws. We see it in the lack of options. We see it in what we’re fed, what is marketed to us. We see it in broken educational systems.” At times this force can be crushing. “Knowing that if Donovan had been white he wouldn’t have gotten shot multiple times and left in the street for an inhumane amount of time, ’til the next morning, no gun in hand—that’s gravity. The race of the officer doesn’t pertain to the conversation, because if Donovan had been white they would have never shot him like that.” Williams pulls his hands over his face, tears streaking from his glistening eyes. “So there is gravity. And there, too, is hope that things will change.”