Nick Black’s path to entrepreneurship included a few unlikely stops, places like Somalia, Zambia and Afghanistan.
Somalia and Zambia are among the places Black grew up as the son of parents who worked in the intelligence community for the U.S. government.
Afghanistan is where the former U.S. Army captain served two tours of duty, much of it on the Pakistani border.
Another pivotal stop on Black’s career path was an ordinary place at an extraordinary time. He was a senior in high school in northern Virginia on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers. “I knew (then) I wanted to go fight in Afghanistan,” he says.
It bears noting that at the time, his father, Cofer Black, was head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and would go on to lead the U.S. State Department’s counterterrorism efforts under President George W. Bush.
With service to country ingrained in him by his parents and reinforced by his military service, Black has settled in the Triangle and set his sights on serving his community. “My parents spent their whole lives serving the greater good. It’s personal for me. All Americans should serve in some capacity.”
Now 32, Black is combining the lessons he learned in conflict-torn countries with the MBA he earned at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill to launch a firm based jointly in Durham and Charleston, S.C.
Black is a principal founder and the CEO of inKind, which is a for-profit firm with the goal of changing the way cash-strapped charities seek donations.
“The intersection of for-profit and nonprofit … I think both sides can learn from each other. I think this can be revolutionary,” Black says.
Robert Connolly, associate professor of finance at Kenan-Flagler, describes inKind as just the sort of idea he would have expected from Black, who he says has a knack for identifying a problem and figuring out a “clever and thoughtful” solution. “You shake your head and say to yourself, ‘That’s a really good idea. I wish I had good ideas like that.’ ”
Idea born of frustration
Still in its early stages, inKind (www.inkind.us) has raised $750,000 in startup money from private investors. Behind the scenes, Black, along with three partners and two contractors, are working on fine-tuning the website and pitching the idea to charities and retail companies. Home Depot is inKind’s first retailer to sign on.
The idea for inKind came from Black’s own frustrations when creating the Raleigh-based not-for-profit Stop Soldier Suicide. Money was hard to come by and seeking donations was often futile. “You have to be in philanthropy to see how painful it can be,” Black says.
He recalls walking in to an office supply store and asking if there was a discount for nonprofits. The clerk laughed at him.
There has to be a better way, he thought.
Black is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of Stop Soldier Suicide, but is still active as a member of the board and as a passionate spokesman.
He tells the story of returning to the United States after his first tour in Afghanistan. “My first 15-month deployment, we did not lose a guy. It was a miracle.”
But within a month of their return, a military buddy shared the news that a soldier attached to Black’s company had killed himself. Word of the suicide was jarring to Black, who was then in Army Ranger training before returning for a second tour of duty in Afghanistan. More suicides followed.
Black’s shock turned to anger as he came to realize that far more veterans and active-duty men and women were dying by their own hand than were being killed by enemy forces. “I get fired up to this day,” Black says.
Stop Soldier Suicide (stopsoldiersuicide.org) provides support for veterans and active-duty service members who reach out for help, whether it be a relationship issue, a job loss, financial problems, mental health issues, or any other stressor that could lead someone to consider suicide.
Staff and trained volunteers help the person in need connect with the right services and resources. For up to two years, Black says, the group follows up to make sure no veteran or military member falls through the cracks.
Among Stop Soldier Suicide’s partners are the Veterans Administration, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Hampton Road Hyperbaric Therapy and Saratoga Warhorse.
Run by veterans, the organization is uniquely qualified to understand the problems former and current military men and women face, especially upon returning home, Black says.
“I was six months removed from my last firefight on my first day of business school,” Black says, recalling how difficult it was to transition from military to civilian life. And he was far more fortunate than most, he says, with a college degree and a supportive family.
He remembers feeling misunderstood and disrespected by the much younger students on UNC’s campus. “My first week I almost left. It’s hard to come back. It’s really hard.”
Less than three years since graduating from Kenan-Flagler, Black and his work are attracting attention. This year, he was named to the 2016 class of Presidential Leadership Scholars, an elite group of 62 men and women from across the country who have demonstrated leadership in their communities. The program is a collaborative effort of the presidential centers of former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson.
“No surprise at all,” says UNC’s Connolly, who described Black as one of those “bigger than life” sorts of guys, adding, “Nick’s got a certain energy about him and is willing to do things differently and stir the pot to get results.
“He was not here (at Kenan-Flagler) to be a banker or a consultant. He wanted to start things. Nick has a different focus. He will make a massive splash.”
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Born: October, 1983, Fairfax, Va.
Career: Founder and CEO, inKind
Awards: Presidential Leadership Scholar, Class of 2016; Leadership North Carolina Class XXII; Rollie Tillman Leadership Award; Kenan Institute Leadership Fellow; two Bronze Stars; Army Commendation Medal (Valor)
Family: Wife Amanda; one daughter and one son
Education: B.A. political science, Johns Hopkins University; MBA, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School
Notable: Black took his GMAT and applied to business school from an Army base in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Board memberships: Stop Soldier Suicide, Raleigh; Life Skills Foundation, Durham; Ally Research, Pinehurst.
How inKind works
Much like a wedding registry, inKind’s website lists items needed by a charity to complete a specific project. From a $439 hot water tank to a $3.47 tube of caulk, no item is too large or too small to be listed. InKind makes it personal by telling the story of the family or individual who is being helped by the project.
The inKind software is free to charities. Black’s company makes its money through sales commissions paid by the retailers providing the products.
So, for example, if a donor pays $25 for several boxes of nails, the donor receives a tax donation receipt for $25 and the charity receives the nails. The retailer pays inKind a commission of 3 to 5 percent for the sale. The charity pays nothing for the service, saving it up to 8 percent in marketing and credit card fees.
“We’re never going to charge a nonprofit a dime. Everything’s free. Businesses will pay for access to nonprofits,” says inKind CEO Nick Black. “It’s a win, win, win.”