“We, not me” has always been entrepreneur Duane Johnson’s business motto. He grew up in south San Diego, working for a small Black-owned business called Pie Guy’s Bakery, where he learned that the key to true success is building wealth within a community, not just an individual. That mindset led him to pursue a business degree and later cofound Tuloko, a website and app that connects users to Black-owned businesses, events, and resources in major cities nationwide. The app quickly found success: It won the Impact Division of the 2012 MN Cup, one of the most notable business competitions in the US, and has become one of the largest databases of its kind in the country. Most recently, Johnson was recognized as a USA Today Leader of Change alongside Colin Kaepernick and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
But the road wasn’t always smooth. Launching a startup or operating a small business comes with unique hurdles that Johnson says are especially challenging for Black entrepreneurs. Here, he talks candidly about those setbacks, his successes, and what it means to be recognized as someone paving the way forward.
When you launched Tuloko in 2012, was there anything else like it out there?
There was really nothing out there. My business partner, Sean Armstrong, and I both traveled a lot when we worked in the corporate world, often for weeks at a time. We’d always try to find Black-owned businesses to support—places to eat, to get our hair cut, whatever it may be—and it just felt so much more difficult than it needed to be. It seemed natural for us to combine our business skills to create an accessible digital guide to find these businesses in any city we went to.
What does the name “Tuloko” mean?
We both have a great interest in Black history, specifically the parts of Black history most don’t talk or know about. Before this year, many people didn’t know that Tulsa, Oklahoma, was home to what was known as the Black Wall Street, an epicenter for Black businesses.
Where does your entrepreneurial drive come from?
The owner at my first job, Pie Guy’s Bakery in San Diego—sadly, no longer around—was a one-man show who really instilled in me core business principles about putting out a good product, treating all customers the same, and bringing the whole community up to the next level. That stuck with me throughout the rest of my career.
What’s one of the biggest challenges that Black business owners face?
Access to capital. Without it, tackling the other aspects of the business is nearly impossible. My partner and I were lucky when we won the Impact Division money, but it was always a hustle. I’d catch a bus every other weekend going from St. Louis to Minneapolis to qualify for grants. We even made our way down to Santiago, Chile, for seed money from a partner down there. Most Black businesses simply don’t have those opportunities. Since launching Tuloko, it’s been an important goal of ours to offer as many resources as we can to support other Black entrepreneurs.
Being named a Leader of Change by USA Today must have been pretty amazing.
That was completely unexpected, but such an honor. You know, I see these names that I’m listed among and think, How did I get here? I don’t have any books to my name, I don’t have sponsorships—I probably make the least amount of money! But if anything, it’s been validation that I’m on the right path and that the work I’m doing is making a difference.
How can San Diego better support local Black-owned businesses?
Continue to shop at them. That includes restaurants, but there are also many outside of the service industry to support, too. Keep going back to them, recommend them to your friends and family, and educate yourself on their experience—that’s the key to real change.