The seed for Columbus native Jabari O. Edwards’ success was planted in a local courtroom. As a young supervisor at the local juvenile detention center, he stood in for the bailiff one day and observed two hearings. “For the first hearing, a young Black teen appeared before the court for tussling on the football field with an opposing team member,” Edwards tells. “The judge confined the young Black teen to the juvenile detention center because he was a foster child and he had no other place to go.”
The same day, a white male teen appeared before the judge for a hit-and-run and possession of drugs. “The young white male happened to be the grandson of a wealthy white business owner and the young white male was released without any recourse,” he continued. “It was at that moment that I realized the difference between position and power.”
Now 20 years later, Edwards is the CEO and owner of Mississippi-based J5 GBL, consisting of more than a half-dozen entities. His company provides a wide range of project management services for both commercial and government organizations.
Being motivated by the stark difference of those with resources and those with little to nothing, Edwards desired to build a company large enough to become a resource for people in need. He started his first company with no credit and no access to capital.
He nearly gave up in the months before landing an insurance contract with Severstal. “Because of that deal, my partner and I were able to buy out our local Wells Fargo book and take that firm across the country,” he said, adding that he soon met Terry Lanni at a National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) conference and hit it off with him. As chairman of the board and chief executive officer of MGM Mirage, Lanni connected Edwards with MGM Senior Vice President of Insurance Paula Gentile.
“That call changed my life,” Edwards said, adding that the deal eventually led him to AON Cornerstone Innovative Solutions, a network of Black entrepreneurs. He has since built several thriving companies, each generating independent revenue streams and employing over two hundred staff members combined. His family of companies now includes:
• J5 Solutions- a holding company for acquisitions and investing in Black communities
• J5 Trustee, LLC- an environmental trustee organization
• Bridge Group Insurance- a global insurance company
• J5 GBL, LLC- a full-service environmental firm with projects across the country
• North Atlantic Security- a security firm with operations in several states
• BH Properties- a property management and development firm that invests in building affordable homes
• Build Development Group- a construction firm
• Bubba’s Hope- a non-profit named for his late father, focused on improving Black communities
Over the years, the entrepreneur has built a reputation of being honest, philanthropic, and the kind of businessman who puts others first. He has served on a variety of prestigious boards, including Mississippi Health Trust (appointed by Governor Haley Barbour), Board of Commissioners for the Columbus Utility Board, The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (appointed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in Dec 2017), the U.S. Chapter of the Royal Commonwealth, Mississippi Business Finance Corporation (appointed by Governor Phil Bryant), Mississippi Development Bank (appointed by Governor Bryant), and Mississippi’s Covid-19 Economic Recovery Task Force (appointed by Governor Tate Reeves).
For Edwards though, it hasn’t always big breaks and major contracts. “One of the first things I learned as a new entrepreneur, was that my social network—or lack thereof—was the biggest hurdle. In business, your social network can not only prevent you from getting into many doors but not having those deep business connections can prevent you from even knowing what doors exist,” he said.
“For months on end, I would attend functions and brazenly introduce myself to people with whom I wanted to work, even though I had no ties to anyone in those industries. The next biggest challenge was not having enough access to capital at the beginning. Often, even if I purchased tickets to business functions, I wouldn’t even have the resources to either attend the full conference or stay overnight in any hotels. These alone are challenges many new business owners face, but as a Black business owner, these issues were exacerbated. So, the final hurdle I had to overcome and am still trying to overcome is my race and debunking the negative stereotypes about Black men in business.”
Edwards credits his parents for instilling in him a sense of entrepreneurship and deep faith in God, with a belief that he could achieve anything in the world if he is willing to make the sacrifices and work hard. His father Joe Edwards fought to become the first Black elected official in Columbus, and his mother Shirley was an entrepreneur herself, running her own business as a beautician for many years. “I made a promise to God, that if he blesses me then I will be a blessing to others. My promise to God was to build something bigger than myself,” he said. “As an entrepreneur, I have lots of dark days and sleepless nights but in all of that, I try to be a tool for others. For me, it was about building an organization that will be able to bless those who need it most.”
True to his promise, he spent more than $1M of his personal resources over the last five years alone, giving to Black families in need and redeveloping impoverished, Black communities that have been consistently left behind. He says life means nothing unless you are helping others, and that is why he has committed to using the success of his businesses as blessings for people in need.
In fact, he recently stepped away from the head of all of his organizations to focus even more solely on his life’s mission. “I am committed to improving the economic state of Black communities across the community by breaking the cycles of poverty and building Black wealth,” Edwards stated, adding that he created the Black Business Spotlight for Black entrepreneurs that don’t have funds for advertising. He has also hosted and sponsored the Black Business Expo. “I support Black businesses and mentor Black entrepreneurs wherever I can.”
He explains that there is a correlation between wealth and power. “We shouldn’t be dependent on other ethnicities when our people should have wealth,” he said. “Social network is just as important as having access to capital.”
Reflecting on his time in the courtroom, he saw way too often it was the Black teens who came through those doors at a disadvantage because they had no resources. “Despair comes in the form of crime, poor infrastructure, poor school districts, and such,” he said, noting that there are a lot of programs in place that require businesses to stay in a certain tax bracket and therefore encourages some to settle for less. “We are conditioned to not have enough, but my goal is to start here in Columbus and create a model for other cities around the state; I want us as African Americans to create our own network. We should support and buy from each other because unless you have your own money, you will never be free.”
Just as there is a link between wealth and power, he said the same is true for Black wealth and Black politics. “You need people that look like you to set policy and lead initiatives that help our communities with concerns such as blight removal and minority small business incubators,” Edwards said. “There is a need for corporate diversity but there needs to be someone with a social conscience. I am a product of corporate diversity. As a member of NMSDC, it helped me secure my first large client, MGM Grand.”
However, he said in Mississippi, there are Black politicians but not Black wealth. “We need people that look like us and think like us, but we also need access to capital,” he said, indicating the need to follow the example of Black historical leaders such as A.G. Gaston, the successful businessman who bailed civil rights activists out of jail and Herman J. Russell who brought meaningful change with his work and character.
As a current endeavor, Edwards is working on a program to get more Blacks in the environmental sector in an effort to improve the atrocities around brown and Black communities caused by environmental contaminations. “Historically these were near African American communities, and you can’t have environmental justice without economic justice,” he said. “We would like to see African American chemists, engineers, doctors, and lawyers enter this multibillion-dollar industry.”
Offering advice to budding entrepreneurs, Edwards says to pray first and foremost. He says he was rooted because he stepped out on God’s word. Next, he advises to examine what you are truly passionate about and then do some research and see if there is someone in that sector. “You may not be able to reach out to them, but you can still research them,” he encourages. “Are you willing to sacrifice and go without? MBAs can’t teach you how to survive. How are you going to market? What is your delivery method? You don’t have the freedom that you think you have.”
As a result of the pandemic, Edwards said he hopes it propels people forward. “Oftentimes, when our survival mode kicks in, our entrepreneurial spirit does too. At the height of the pandemic, many of our projects were brought to a screeching halt and we lost revenue, the businessman said. “We navigated these challenges by spending the time reconnecting with business leaders and training our team to meet the challenges COVID-19 brought and managed to keep all staff on payroll. Sometimes God will shake us up to get us out of our comfort zone. When you’re stuck in the valley, you can either stay there or go to the light.”
Edwards said he keeps a photo in his office of the Ali and Foreman fight as a reminder that he is always going to go against bigger and stronger opponents. “If I can survive the rounds then I’m going to survive the fight,” he said. “I have good days, but I have many more bad days. I am reminded that Dr. King was a flawed man just like me but if he could commit to make a change in this world, so can I. I don’t always have it together; sometimes I cry, sometimes I fall down, but I keep going.”
By Alison Faulk