Between Anxiety and Excitement: a Q&A with Dion Cook, CEO of Denkyem

Growing up is a winding path with ever-changing terrain, like a video game. We will encounter treasures, dangers, obstacles, sages, and tricksters. All factors that can enhance and or deplete our life force depending how we meet every moment and the decisions we make, intentionally or not. Curating a satisfying life is to remember that we can begin again, and act on that principle. A lot easier said than done, and with some luck, love, and “the right balance of anxiety and excitement” each of us can live a life that we love.  

Threshold Philanthropy wants to introduce you to our first funded partner highlight, someone who is no stranger to the twisting and turning terrains of life! Meet Dion Cook, the CEO of Denkyem Co-op, Born in L.A., one generation removed from the South, both his parents have roots in Texas. In addition to L.A. he has lived in Vegas, Italy, in Paraguay as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Lake Placid, NY, and Seattle, to teach, before he pivoted again and became an entrepreneur! As Wendell Berry says, telling the story of a man’s life is “like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”

So, we’re going to let Dion introduce himself and his work in his own words through the interview below! (Edited for length and clarity)

What would you like our community to know about you and your work?

I am always looking to learn and build relationships. As for my work, I am the CEO of Denkyem, a Black-owned small business. We provide access to affordable loans and personalized support to black-owned businesses. At our core, we are about connecting folks with the resources they need to reach their goals in growing their business.

You were a schoolteacher before this, what course brought you here?

While I was teaching, I would always invite the parents of my students to get to know me. That’s how my wife and I operate, we’re always trying to build community wherever we go. My thought process was, if you want to know who’s going to influence your kid for the year, for better or for worse, let’s meet.  A few of the parents took me up on that offer. We would walk or meet for lunch kind of thing.

One of them ended up being Denkyem’s Co-Founder, Rudy Gadre. I was sharing with Rudy that I was thinking about pivoting from teaching for a bit. I was toying with the idea of going into sales and asked him for advice. He said let’s meet and discuss where our values align and see what’s possible. One thing led to another, we talked about how entrepreneurship can really be one of the lowest barriers to building wealth and autonomy, especially in the Black community. We started conducting research, walking into businesses, and getting to know them. Now, here we are, almost five years later, with some great opportunities on the horizon.

Going from something somewhat more stable like teaching, to something that I had no formal background in, and not knowing what would come from it, there was the right balance of anxiety and excitement. I think that’s a good place to be, I believe that’s where growth happens. I’m not sure I would have done it with our 11-month-old, but back then, we were in a unique situation to take this leap.

What is a day in the life of working at Denkyem?  

I reach out to two to three clients a week to check in on them. In addition, I answer a lot of e-mails and participate in several meetings. Since our office is above Boon Boona Coffee, I am well caffeinated, and in good company with my officemates. I’m looking forward to visiting businesses again, since that has stalled over the last three years.

You want “Denkyem to be the rich relative we would have if we weren’t barred from building wealth”. What are the values that drive your vision?  

We really want to support businesses that are all about the community, not just about making themselves rich. Of course, they need to make and generate revenue and profit, for their growth. At the same time, they should be a business that prioritizes their community, their neighborhood, their friends, their family, because that ultimately is what’s going to make their business thrive. it’s people first at Denkyem. Our logo is a two-headed crocodile that shares one stomach. If they fight over the food, neither one of them eats. But if they work together, they’ll be well-fed.

In short, we must:

  • Work together to reach our goals.
  • Foster self-confidence which leads to self-discipline, creating a productive cycle.
  • Share our clients’ stories, thoughts, experiences.

Those are our values. Once those are established, we will have an environment where Black entrepreneurs have all that they need to find success, stabilize, and possibly scale their businesses, serving as a beacon to the greater community.

How are you doing lending differently?

I always go into a meeting with a client, saying to myself, that I’m going to make this loan work.  Which isn’t a traditional approach to lending. Then I take the time to learn more about the client and see if it’s the right timing for a loan. We assess an applicant’s community involvement as part of our decision criteria. In addition, we look at their cash flow to make sure that the loan doesn’t hurt them more than it helps them. There have been instances where the cash flow didn’t support the amount requested. Together, we would end up working on an appropriate solution.

Whenever I call a client, It’s always, ‘how are you doing?’ A lot of times the clients are the ones that say, “hey, I know I got a payment, it’s coming.” I communicate to them that this loan is for their growth. I’m here to work with them to reach their goals. I’m never going to ask anyone to compromise themselves to pay a loan back. And I think it’s hard for folks to really believe that that’s what this is. We still need to get the money back, don’t get me wrong, because if not, it’s going to make it harder for this program to keep going, but never at the expense of our clients.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs says that “Freedom is not freedom without care.” Your care and intention for your clients is evident. What are ways you are taking care of yourself?

Being more mindful about what I’m taking in, not just making sure to eat nurturing food, but also reading. I’m off Twitter now, even though Twitter was a really fun and a raw source of information. I’m now reading articles that pertain to my work, health & fitness, and technology. I’m a big fan of speculative fiction, especially Octavia E. Butler’s work. Going on family walks is always energizing. Lastly, it’s important to have the right community of people around me that will hold me accountable and make sure I’m doing well.

Exercise is a big one for me. I was running, doing yoga, and different exercises, and it goes in waves. I go a long time of having good habits and then not. I’m just trying to find that balance through it all. Overall, I’m doing okay. I’m probably like a B minus C plus:)

You mentioned that you got connected to Threshold Philanthropy through your friend Cedric, what stood out to you from meeting and beginning your work with us?

I was able to be myself, ask questions without judgement, and be vulnerable. It has felt familial. Often, when it comes to different orgs and foundations, there is still levels of formality. I recently visited Lindsay, during Quiet February at her home. It was a pleasure to be able to be in each other’s company, with family, and not mention work at all. That’s what stands out. Everybody has a mutual respect of one another, and it shows in our words and actions.

I really appreciated the honesty about capacity. I knew that Threshold could sympathize with the present stage of Denkyem, and that we could grow together. Two years into our relationship, I can rest assured that when Threshold Philanthropy says something, that they will come through. Who knows what the timeframe might be because there are a lot of factors at play.

What has been challenging working with Threshold?  

The familial nature can be challenging because you almost think it’s too good to be true. Adopting an abundance mind frame has been a boosting hurdle. If you are used to thinking about how you’re going to keep the lights on, metaphorically, it’s hard to think in abundance. It’s hard to envision how it’ll turn out, but that’s what faith is right? You’ve still got to believe and put the work in to make it happen. Eventually, you start seeing things coming to fruition. it’s a lot easier to build on that momentum towards an abundance mindset when that happens. I’m grateful to be on this journey with Threshold.

As we close out, we have Lindsay’s, multi question, the one you called sense-ational. What does liberation look like, feel like, sound like, and smell like? How do you know when you’re on the right path?

It tastes like a sun ripened mango, straight from the tree, in your backyard.

It smells like a waft of unexpected, sweet Cedar scent when I’m walking through Kubota Gardens.

It sounds like my son’s laugh when I’m exhausted.

It feels like Evelyn’s hugs.

It looks like everything and nothing; a lump of clay waiting to be molded.

I believe I’m on the right path when opportunities present themselves, and I’m prepared for them. When gratitude is embedded in all that I do. I think when things start happening for you, like obviously you got to do the work, but when things loosen up without the extra effort, I think that’s a sign that you might be on the right path.

Who do you want to offer flowers to for loving you and showing up?  

I’d be remis to not mention my mom. My mom’s been through a lot, and she still has that light in her. She’s still here and pushing and working through life. She embodies strength, resiliency, patience, and love.

My wife, Evelyn, is a combination of rainbows, sunshine, and non-stop care bear energy bursting out the chest. It can get exhausting sometimes, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a good energy to have around. I’m someone who is lower frequency. It’s good to have someone to get me out of my comfort zone. Who helps me say yes to things that I probably wouldn’t say yes to and is just 100% supportive of what I’ve been doing.

Beyond them, my professor, Dr. Renford Reese, at Cal Poly Pomona, where I went to college and met Evelyn. He’s been a big advocate for me since my days playing basketball to what I’m doing now.

Of course, there are more, I wouldn’t be here without all the people that we have come across and that have helped raise my parents and me. This work is all based in community. I want to honor our ancestors as much as I can, and I want to make sure that we’re setting it up, to be good ancestors for the next generations.

A beautiful Black family consisting of two parents (named Dion and Evelyn) sitting on a bench in front of greenery, holding their 11-month-old son (Danin).
From left: Dion, Evelyn, his wife, and Danin, their 11-month-old son

There you have it, a snapshot into the life of an avid community builder who practices living into the possibilities that he cannot fully see. If you are interested in learning more about Denkyem, please reach out to Dion via email at May we all dare a little more to live in the spaces between anxiety and excitement and our design lives in the ways that bring all of us more healing, belonging, joy, and beauty!

Artwork by Liz Rideau

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