To get a feel for the Ice House courses facilitated by husband-and-wife team Dr. Jeremy “JK” Morris and Dr. Juanita Morris, just listen to their weekly podcast, Thee Morris Code. The guests laugh and banter, but they’re also willing to display a remarkable degree of vulnerability.
Podcast guests included Keenan Washington, who owns Good-to-Go Lawn Service, and Jason Peeler, who owns Inherited Lawn Services. Washington described how he started his company to create generational wealth for his family. He also described how nervous he was about being on the radio. Peeler talked about how intimidated he felt attending a class—any class—as an adult Black man and business owner.
The Morrises started facilitating Ice House courses in the fall of 2021 as part of EnRich’s Minority Mentor Protégé Program, which supports people who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs in overcoming challenges and moving forward with their careers.
The Morrises have worked hard to create a space where participants like Peeler and Washington feel a sense of comfort and belonging. “We are intentional about how we show up—as husband and wife, as two African-Americans, as very educated and polished,” Juanita Morris explained. They’re also clear about what they want participants to bring too. “Our expectation is that participants support one another, listen to one another, and remain connected.”
As the course unfolds, the Morrises share their own stories. Juanita Morris discusses growing up with parents climbing out of poverty in Decatur, while Jeremy Morris shares about the family of entrepreneurs who shaped his childhood in Mississippi, where the book “Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur” is set. The couple also shares the journey that led them to move back to Decatur in 2016 and start J. Morris Enterprises, which comprises the small businesses they founded.
“We’re definitely unlikely entrepreneurs. We’ve lived these lessons on a day-to-day basis. We’ve taken on these habits. That’s what our participants see when they come to class,” Jeremy Morris said. “They see themselves in us, in what we have gone through as business owners and husband and wife. That helps them become more comfortable in the entrepreneurial space.”
Addressing Trauma and Fostering Resilience
Richland Community College created EnRich in 2018. It was created to address the high unemployment rate among minority and low-income people in central Illinois’ Macon County. Many participants have trauma-related experiences that affect their ability to engage fully in the workforce. “From that trauma lens and the lens of helping our participants be more resilient, we have to ask the question, ‘What happened to you?’” Jeremy Morris said. By helping people understand how those events impacted them, they can work on triggers. These triggers hinder them from getting and keeping jobs and embarking on successful self-employment.
In addition to the Minority Mentor Protégé Program, EnRich offers other options. These include a full-time, 10-week training that pays participants. This training helps participants learn technical and essential skills within a trauma-sensitive practice.
When the Morrises learned about the Ice House program in 2020, they felt it would resonate with the community the EnRich program serves. This is specifically because of its focus on the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others as a way to empower oneself. Also, it prompts a shift in how people view themselves.
Juanita Morris said it’s remarkable how much participants’ mindsets change in their 10 hours together. But she’s also well aware that “when you shift a mindset and then send them back into their regular environment, it’s difficult to navigate both. You need support.”
In response, Richland Community College provides access to resources. These include web development, marketing, and other basic business services through its Workforce Equity Initiative and other grants. “We don’t allow money, marketing, or licensing to be a barrier,” Juanita Morris said.
Impacting All Types of Industries and Individuals
When Enrich launched, its focus was industrial job skills. That has since expanded to include education, health care, and entrepreneurship. Often these overlap.
For Ice House participant Tyra Manns of Choices Health and Fitness, it was getting a start within the wellness industry.
For Williena Fonville, it meant transitioning from working as a licensed practical nurse to driving trucks. After earning her commercial driver’s license and starting Fonville Trucking and Hauling, she recently landed her first big contract with a major company.
For community organizer Dominique Bates-Smith, it included co-founding the nonprofit Walk It Like We Talk It, which engages people ages 17 to 30 to impact their community.
For Shardai Hickmon, who had been working in maintenance at a factory, it meant returning to a certified nursing assistant position. It also meant leading a group of 10 others toward achieving their certifications through a local leadership organization. “Shardai grasped the mindset, and it exploded,” Jeremy Morris said. “The way she shifted thinking about her future doesn’t happen normally. That is something very special.”
Juanita Morris credits the Ice House curriculum with helping these and others practice a new kind of entrepreneurial mindset. The mindset where they can discover their own opportunities and design their own solutions. “We’ve been sold this traditional perspective of entrepreneurship—that you’re not successful unless you’re a gazillionaire like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk,” she said. “The Ice House does a good job of unraveling that and saying that entrepreneurship is a way of living your life. It becomes very tangible. Zuckerberg is not tangible, but my day-to-day choices are. Recognizing those opportunities makes the course content real to our participants.”
Those who have completed the program tend to stay in touch as a source of support for each other. They spread the word about upcoming courses to those they think could benefit and help grow the community of like-minded entrepreneurs in Decatur. So far, 53 people have completed EnRich’s Ice House program.
During the summer of 2022, Juanita Morris’ contract with the college ended. Jeremy Morris decided to focus fully on his new leadership role as Richland Community College’s Vice President for Finance and Administration. That means a new facilitator will take over the Ice House course. The Morrises plan to support the new leadership while giving them space to continue to shape the program. They’ll also stay connected to past cohorts and continue to interject the entrepreneurial mindset throughout the Decatur community.