Editor’s note: KCultivators is a lighthearted profile series to highlight people who are meaningfully enriching Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The KCultivator Series is sponsored by WeWork Corrigan Station, a modern twist on Kansas City office space.
He’s left his “Magic Man” persona behind, but Reggie Gray can’t quite shake the performer inside him, he said.
“Whenever I step outside of my house, I’m on,” said Gray, executive director of Black Privilege, a nonprofit movement rooted in a mobile app that connects black businesspeople and encourages spending within the black community.
In what feels like a former life, Gray previously entertained crowds large and small as “Reggie Regg The Magic Man” — performing as many as 300 shows a year, he said.
He originally built a business around the character back at home in Baltimore, Maryland, before moving to Kansas City in the early 2000s. Gray thought he’d retired the Magic Man — until the housing crash of 2008 changed his plans as a successful real estate investor, he said.
“I went from grossing $30,000 to $50,000 a month to making $9 an hour … with a college degree, mind you,” he said. “I learned early on that all a college degree means is you can finish what you start. Without experience, you’re stuck at the bottom.”
Reviving Magic Man, however, led him to a five-year stint as co-founder of H3 Enterprises, also known as Healthy Hip Hop, a startup that mixed ed tech with live performances by Gray and rapper Roy Scott. Gray left the business in February, shifting his focus to launch Black Privilege in Kansas City, he said.
“I’m rebranding myself,” Gray said, flashing a wide grin from a stool inside Ruby Jean’s Kitchen & Juicery at 30th and Troost.
His style is toned down, his voice more calm. But the performance — the quest to engage and inspire an audience of sorts — continues. With Black Privilege, Gray sees an opportunity to apply his talents and experience toward elevating his fellow entrepreneurs, he said.
Black business professionals like Chris Goode, founder of Ruby Jean’s, deserve the spotlight, but also dollars from within the the black community, Gray said.
“Not only is this an amazing business that hires all people and is for all people — it’s in our community. It’s from one of our own,” he said. “And Chris believes in doing business with excellence — not at just a high level for a black business, but for any business. Period.”
Gray frequently cites startling statistics: While a dollar earned by members of other races might stay within their respective communities for days or even weeks, dollars earned by blacks reportedly only stay six hours in the black community.
“I’d never been one of those people who say, ‘We gotta spend black dollars in support.’ I’ve been focused on hustling, just getting it done — but now I’m more woke,” Gray said. “It’s not about spending all your money in the black community; it’s not ‘Only buy black.’ It’s about changing the way you think, save and spend your money. If you’re spending 2 percent now, spend 7 percent. Just make a conscious effort.”
The movement has grown rapidly this spring, thanks in large part to an aggressive social media strategy and Gray’s pop-up video profiles on black entrepreneurs, businesses and organizations across the city.
The free Black Privilege app helps to take it a step further, he said.
“Not only can users setup their own profiles, but they can also research resources and job opportunities. I like to call it a mixture of Yelp, Facebook and LinkedIn, but for black-owned businesses and the community,” Gray said. “And you’d be amazed: 10 percent of our users right now are non-black. We’ve got white families putting up their profile pics, and I’m like, ‘I love this.’”
“A lot of people say this is racist — that we’re only talking about black folk,” he added. “They don’t realize that blacks spend $1.2 trillion annually and 98 percent is spent outside of our communities. We are the only demographic that is lost.”
Gray was connected to Black Privilege through its founder, a real estate investor in Los Angeles who nearly 20 years before sent Gray to Kansas City to manage 30-plus apartment units — kickstarting Gray’s early investment career, he said.
“It comes down to having access to a founder who not only believed in me, but believed in his own vision and believed in this city,” Gray said. “The only way this will work is if it’s a movement. I’ve done the research. We’re not the first ones to come out with an app that tries to get black folks to re-invest. They all failed because they weren’t serious. But if we can get it to work in Kansas City, we can make it work anywhere.”
Gray’s adopted home is a proving ground because it’s known for its less-than-progressive black community, he said. Black business professionals have a responsibility to their community to speak out, motivate others and show them success is possible, he said.
“We’re like crabs in a barrel. When one of us starts getting up, we pull ‘em down,” Gray said. “The only reason this movement could fail is because of us. No one will hate on Black Privilege more than people who look like me.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t already faced criticism from outside the community, he said.
“Some white people will ask, “Well, why isn’t there a white privilege app?’” Gray said. “You don’t need one. You’re already getting all of our money — not that you’re trying to do anything wrong. That’s just how it is.”
“We love everyone, but it’s our community that has to do better,” he continued. “This a movement where we’re not blaming anyone. We’re not giving excuses. We’re not going back into slavery. … And if we do better, what does that do to everyone else? It lifts them up.”
Startland sat down with Gray to learn more about what drives his work to connect entrepreneurs to each other, as well as their own greatest potential. The KCultivator Series is sponsored by WeWork Corrigan Station, which provides entrepreneurs and businesspeople a community and a workspace.
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
A historical figure you’d like to have coffee with and why: Paul Robeson. As a little boy, I remember reading books with my father, and him telling me what Paul Robeson meant for activists and actors during the Civil Rights movement. I even saw a play about him as a kid.
Weirdest thing you’ve eaten: Oh my goodness! Escargot.
The animal you’d want to become in your next life: A lion — No! A black panther.
You’re up to bat for the Royals, what’s your walk-up song: “We will, we will, rock you!” That gets me hype. That gets me pumped.
KC’s biggest area for improvement: I’m such an optimist, and I see change coming to this area already, but it’s our urban core. When I moved here, everybody said, “Stay away from Prospect. That’s called ‘Suspect.’” Now I’ve seen growth on Prospect, but I’ve also seen the stigma, especially as a real estate investor in my early days in Kansas City — I knew I could find easier deals on one side. But as far as resources and job opportunities are concerned, it’s not just the city’s problem. It has to do with those who live in the community as well — picking up trash, helping your neighbors, taking ownership.
Favorite food joint in KC: I love the Distrikt Biskuit Hous. It’s a startup concept out of Lufti’s Fried Fish on 63rd Street. They do biscuit sandwiches. I love how the owner didn’t trying to take over the world overnight. He’s testing the product and figuring it out. He has something special.
An influential book in your life: I know this one from college: “Rich Dad Poor Dad.” That book — and the village of entrepreneurs around me — changed my life. It had me looking at money and investing at an early age. My dad is a doctor, but he had the “poor man’s” mentality: Work 40 years and then retire. Those days are over.
What keeps you in Kansas City: Opportunity. And I’ve fallen in love with this city and its people.
New technology that you’re most excited about: Black Privilege mobile app. You knew that was coming. I’d be in trouble if I didn’t say it.
What you would do if you weren’t in your line of work: I’m a free spirit, so I’d be creating. And since I’m naturally a motivator and an optimist, I’d be spreading love and joy. So if I’m a trash man, I’m going to speak to everyone and I’m going to be motivating everyone I work with.
What’s the most underrated KC brand? Nile Valley Aquaponics. It’s a nonprofit organization doing such great things. The founder is a big thinker and visionary. It’s hard for any nonprofit to raise money, especially with a minority founder, but if any organization deserves it, that’s Nile Valley Aquaponics.
Biggest failure: Losing $3 million in assets in the real estate crash of 2008 — but I don’t look at that as a “failure” now. It was a part of my journey that needed to happen. I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it didn’t. … Let me tell you the worst thing: I have mentors! So I had multimillionaires around me saying, “Reggie! The market is fixin’ to crash. Why do you keep buying?” But I was young and dumb and I knew everything. That crash became my biggest learning experience. And you better believe that when I get back into real estate, I’m going to be taking it over.
An inspiration in your life: Seeing young people think and learn. Seeing other people win and do good. Seeing people turn their dreams in reality. This is part of my DNA. That’s my mother, father and grandparents in me. And it’s not color-specific. It’s everybody. We all need to do good and love ourselves.
You have a time machine and can travel anywhere in the past or future. Where and when do you go? I’m trying to stay in the present. I damn sure don’t want to go in the past. Hell, no. And I’m good on the future. I’m one of those guys who believes that I’m — to an extent — in control of my outcomes.
Favorite travel locale: Definitely back home. My mother is sick. Both my parents are older. I left home when I was 18, but there’s nothing more important than being close with your loved ones. I know a lot of people would say London or Africa, but not for me, not right now. Maybe I’ll say that in another 10 or 15 years.
Your mantra or motto: It’s not a mistake that I am the way I am. My father used to write little notes in my lunches when I was a kid. And one of them was a quote from Colin Powell — at the time, and he’s still legendary in our community, he was the most powerful black man in the country. He said: “If you prepare, you will be ready.” It was in my lunches, and I still use that quote today.
What keeps you awake at night? It doesn’t help that I’m a workaholic. I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. I chased the money until I lost it. Now I’m not chasing money, I’m chasing the journey. I get so passionate that when I get into something, I can’t do anything else, and I don’t come up for air.
What you hope you’re remembered for: I want my legacy to be inspiring the next generation of entertainers — performers who look like me. Why did I become a magician? I was from a very black city and for my sixth birthday there was a black magician. … And then I was the only black magician in Kansas City performing for children. That’s a big deal because it’s something other than rappers, other than doughboys on corners. We just have to show them what’s possible.