Francilia Wilkins Envisions Growth For Black Women-Owned Companies

Francilia Wilkins’s 13-year-old company, R.F. Wilkins Consultants, just signed a new contract with the city.

During a press conference on March 7 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Mayor Eric Adams announced that Wilkins’s firm has been named the new developer and operator of the $25 million state-of-the-art AYO labs facility. AYO labs will further R.F. Wilkins Consultants’ efforts to work with and guide the development of small business entrepreneurs.

“This lab will have everything a small business needs to flourish, from back-office support to world-class instructors, hands-on training, technical assistance, mentorship, networking opportunities, and access to capital,” Adams said.

AYO labs will focus on helping Black, Indigenous, and female entrepreneurs launch businesses in the health and wellness industry. Once qualified to join the AYO labs incubator, a small local business that might have started in somebody’s kitchen will receive the coaching and support to help it scale upward. 

“R.F. Wilkins Consultants was one of 30 firms that bidded for this opportunity, and after being in business for so many years, I was not interested in seeing another technical assistance program,” Wilkins told those attending the press conference. “I was tired of hearing that Black businesses didn’t exist; I was tired of hearing that we don’t have the capacity to work…I understood the only way we would scale and thrive as Black and brown communities is if we had access to contracts, if we had access to capital.”

R.F. Wilkins Consultants has spent years helping companies gain such access. To date, they say they’ve raised close to $900 million for everything from after-school programs to homeless shelters, affordable housing, and transitional housing. But project management is what they’re known for, such as managing the compliance and oversight on the $20 billion redevelopment of John F. Kennedy International Airport. They’ve also worked with companies like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) by researching, defining, and managing their Developers of Color Program for Minority-owned Business Enterprise developers.

An independent business development consultant

“I always say I didn’t come from money or any of those things. I didn’t know how to run a company,” Wilkins, who started the firm when she was 23, told the AmNews. “I didn’t know anything about building or scaling a small business, and definitely not how to do business in New York.” Yet, 13 years after she founded the company, R.F. Wilkins Consultants is in the top .1% of Black women-owned firms by revenue in the nation.  

When she was fresh out of college, Wilkins said, she couldn’t get hired for a job. She’d graduated at the tail end of the Great Recession and sent out hundreds of résumés, but could not find employment. 

“So, I went on this website, and I saw consulting and what the different fields looked like. And I started to tell people just generally, ‘Oh, I’m an independent business development consultant.’ I just started to say it.” 

A friend called whose father was trying to start a nonprofit organization to advocate for disabled individuals in the prison system, and asked if she could help build the new charitable entity. “My friend calls and he’s like, ‘My father needs help building out this company.’ He’s like, ‘Aren’t you an independent business development consultant?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m an independent business development consultant.’ And––I kid you not––that was my first ever client.”

Wilkins credits her family and their experiences with helping her build her tenacity. Her mother, Rudine, was assistant minister of agriculture in Liberia while her father, Jerry “Ayo” Wilkins, was a petroleum geologist just before war broke out there. “I was born in Liberia, I grew up here in New York, and my siblings were literally born wherever my parents were traveling—all over the United States.

“When that war broke out—the second one in the 1990s, our family, like other Liberians, were displaced. A lot of people died. My mom always shares the story of us running through, you know, dead bodies. I was probably about two years old at that time. My mom was pregnant, she had my little sister and was holding her…so there was no one to hold me; they had to just hold my hand. She said, ‘While you were crying and crying, we just told you to sing this song.’ And they had me running through, and singing this song, and I just braved through it. That’s like the graduation story they told me every time I got another degree.”

Wilkins wants to help more Black women entrepreneurs confront any fears they might have about starting a new business.
“There’s so many different things that I love to share about how to get there and what it takes for us––Black women-owned companies––to even be able to have access to scale because it’s not an easy thing,” she said. 

“There are huge investments happening in New York. Whether you look at the news and you see new construction is happening somewhere, you see what’s happening with the infrastructure bill on the federal level and a lot of money is coming into the city and the state. You see developers are here in communities, building stuff. You see money allocated to human services, money allocated to DOE, money allocated all over the place. 

“Now, small businesses, minority-owned small businesses, there’s a good number of us in New York. And the narrative is always that, ‘Oh, we don’t have the capacity to give small businesses this work,’ right? I say all the time, ‘Give us contracts.’ The way I was able to grow is I got contracts. The more contracts I got, the more people I could hire. The more people I could hire, the bigger my company grew. The bigger my company grew, the more capacity I had. 

“…the point is, we support communities by creating initiatives that pour back into the community. That [money] goes back to the community, whether it’s workforce, people who are working on the ground, or…small businesses who can do the construction or project, who can do the tiling, who can do signage, who can do pouring concrete—these small businesses count, and they should not be overlooked.”

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