From prison to community change agent
By the time Elizer Darris launched his consulting group in 2016, after spending more than 15 years in prison, the inspiration had been years in the making.
“I dreamed up the Darris Group while incarcerated,” said 39-year-old Darris. “I wanted to be able to create a vehicle that could allow me and my family to have independence, while also having an impact in the areas that I cared about the most. I decided to use the Darris Group as a consultancy to do that. I knew before getting out of prison that the Darris Group was going to be a thing.”
In addition to his consulting firm, Darris has been involved in the racial justice movement. For nearly three years, Darris was the executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a multi-million-dollar fund that pays criminal bail and immigration bonds for those who otherwise cannot afford it. In 2021, Darris was appointed by Governor Walz to the State Board of Public Defense, becoming the first formerly incarcerated person to ever serve on the board.
MSR: What does your business do?
Elizer: We do consulting and motivational presentations for both the private and public sector, nonprofit organizations, governmental entities, and even sports teams. Oftentimes it’s centered around motivational presentations. Also, we help organizations and governments learn how to interface better with community.
MSR: What was the spark, the moment that made you want to start the Darris Group?
Elizer: I don’t know if there was a moment. I think that it was a continuation of my thinking in terms of creating something that would allow me to have independence, while also having an impact. And so it was just the studying that I had been doing.
In terms of personal empowerment, leadership development, community organizing, even while in prison really led me to understand that I needed to create an entity that would allow me to have a voice and allow me to have an impact.
I named it probably five years prior to getting out. Initially, I named it Amani Global, which was going to be my first son’s name. But I decided to switch it to Darris Group so that I could pull in more of my family under a banner and so that the impact would hit harder with them saying their own name.
MSR: How does your business impact the community?
Elizer: It allows community to be present in spaces and places where we typically would never be invited. I oftentimes hire community members that canvass in their own communities around election issues, census, and voter registration.
Sometimes we work on behalf of specific candidates to make sure that their voices are heard, to make sure that people know about them, and to make sure that the issues that community have are brought from community and into the ears of the people who sit in the halls of power. And so Darris Group is centered squarely inside of community.
Everything that I have done with the Darris Group has been community-oriented. Even when I go in and speak to sports teams like the Minnesota Vikings, I’ll bring community with me. I’ll bring the individuals who helped to train me, those who helped to teach and educate me inside of prison, to make sure that they’re part of the presentation. And so, yeah, community is squarely rooted inside of everything that the Darris Group does.
There’s a theme that I have continuously spoken about within the Darris Group: ‘Nothing about us without us is for us.’ And so, any engagement that the Darris Group does always brings in the most impacted community members to be at the table. They are to be the voices that are going to be communicating the issues to the community.
MSR: What do you consider the main service that the Darris Group is hired to do?
Elizer: Probably the service that is most in demand is the government side with the consulting that I do, in which I attempt to make sure that community perspective is present inside of the spaces where decisions are being made by government officials on behalf of community. I go in as a consultant to make sure that a different perspective is brought in their decision making.
MSR: What has been your biggest challenge in owning a business?
Elizer: The biggest challenge in the business is making sure that I select the right opportunities for us to engage in, because all that glitters isn’t gold. I’ve turned down a number of opportunities that I didn’t feel were in the best interests of the community or in the best interests of the Darris Group.
It has to feel right. I have to believe in it. And it has to have a positive impact. I’ve turned down a lot of bags that I thought were dirty bags, harmful bags, bags that would hurt the community.
And so really making sure that I use discernment to figure out how we grow in a way that’s organic, but also in a way that is protective of our organization and protective of the community. Using discernment in terms of what to do and what not to do.
MSR: What’s your vision for your business? What does success look like for you?
Elizer: I eventually want to be able to bring more consultants and more impacted people on board and to really elevate Darris Group so that it’s managing multiple sub-businesses. So really getting more into the space of management of ventures is really where I want Darris Group to go.
Some of those ventures are going to be communications. We’re going to have seminar productions, motivational presentations, and things of that nature. Other ventures that we’re going to continue are the consulting inside of government spaces. Some other things we are going to continue with is canvassing inside community spaces.
Ultimately, what I really want to do is elevate a few levels and hire individuals to run some of the sub-ventures and really manage the individuals that manage the projects. That allows me to multiply my efforts and be more effective.
Right now I’m managing all of the different venture opportunities single-handedly, while at the same time trying to maintain a vision for where we can go. You know, when you are involved in an operation at the same time that you are involved in strategy, it’s really difficult to see the forest for the trees.
MSR: What has been the most rewarding part of owning your business?
Elizer: Knowing that we have made real, tangible, measurable impacts that have benefited the community, especially after a long campaign or a long consultancy. The most rewarding part is the end when I can see we’ve made a difference.
MSR: What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?
Elizer: Surround yourself with a solid team. Trust the team. And be open to taking what you’re trying to do in the direction that leads it to grow organically. So sometimes we attempt to control the enterprise to such an extent that we strangle our creativity, and ultimately it dies anyway.
For more information, visit www.darrisgroup.com, or call 612-385-5664.