(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Young Alumni citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards ceremony and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
Not many cotton farmers enroll in the entrepreneurship program at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. That’s not the only characteristic that made Julius Tillery ’08 a standout. In an era when most students in the class were racing to build the next hot app that would make them billionaires, Julius was interested in using an entrepreneurial approach to alleviate poverty, create jobs and develop the rural community he called home.
Julius grew up in Northampton County in the northeast corner of North Carolina. His dad farmed cotton, corn and peanuts, as had three generations before him. Julius, in line to be the fifth generation to farm the land, sought a different tool first. He enrolled at UNC and graduated with a degree in economics and a minor in entrepreneurship.
He had options for how he could change the world and give back to the community: succeed up the corporate ladder and funnel wealth back to the farm, or go into politics or government and make policies that would benefit agricultural families and small towns. Instead, he chose to support what an outside observer would consider a low-growth commodity-like business and reimagine it. He applied his knowledge and insights to create a new, long-term sustainable future for a part of the economy some had written off.
There’s not much money in the cotton farming business, and Julius returned from Carolina intent on giving it a different value. He looked at cotton in a new way — not the history of cotton, but his story of cotton. Raw cotton as art, as a wreath, as a Christmas tree ornament. And spun cotton that could multitask as advertising merch. He reconnected with a childhood friend, Jamaal Garner, and the two founded Black Cotton, which sells handmade home décor, jewelry and apparel from cotton grown on local farms.
Julius put the farm to work in new ways. He orchestrated educational tours, opened the landscape to artists and photographers, and rented the site for films and music videos. He flipped the narrative on a crop that historically is enmeshed with the ravages of slavery; through his vision, he used cotton to empower Black farmers and rural communities. Rather than look back to what cotton farming was, he looks forward to what it can be.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, fewer than 2 percent of the U.S. population farm, and of those, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, barely 1 percent of all farm operators are Black.
Julius leverages entrepreneurship to uplift his community. He advocates for farmers to be paid a fair price and is a resource provider in the local agricultural and environmental verticals. His impact extends beyond the economic sustainability of his family’s 400-acre farm. He teaches a modern agriculture seminar series at Roanoke-Chowan Community College, which focuses less on how to grow cotton than on how to sell it. Never one to spend time on social media in his personal life, he knows how to use it to draw attention — and bring in new customers — to Black Cotton. He’s even coined a couple of hashtags: #cottonisourculture and #traumafreecotton. And on his Facebook page, he pasted an adage from one of his longtime mentors: “Successful people do the things unsuccessful people are not willing to do.”
When he’s not farming or selling or developing new products and marketing ideas, he’s advocating to improve the success of family farmers. He serves on the administrative council of Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and on the N.C. Forestry Advisory Council. He is vice chair of Future Leaders of Conservation and the state coordinator in North Carolina for the Black Family Land Trust, a national nonprofit that mitigates land loss of underserved populations.
Previously, Julius worked at Rural Advancement Foundation International and was the farm resources coordinator for The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit that protects land and water and strengthens local economies. And he was business developer for the Farmers of Color Initiative, a natural capital investment fund.
In March, N.C. State University’s Class of 2022 Park Scholars voted to honor him with the William C. Friday Award, based on his commitment to scholarship, leadership, service and character as exemplified by his advocacy for rural farming and his determination to give back to his community and create social value through his business.
The Wolfpack giving one of its most prestigious honors to a Tar Heel? That’s a unique vision Julius can cotton to.
Read a story about Tillery in the July/August 2015 Carolina Alumni Review: