Despite the risk that comes with introducing friends from two different corners of your life to each other—potentially a recipe for disaster—Ayanna Wilks has a thing for mixing peer groups. In fact, that’s where she thrives. Wilks, Senior Director of Publicity at Epic Records and co-founder of The Brownie Agency network, is what you’d call a relationship person, both by trade and by heart. “I'm all for the integrated friends and the integrated friendships,” she says over Zoom with a laugh. “I love to be able to have people that I know meet each other, because if I love you, then I can only imagine that my other friends will love you, too.”
The Los Angeles-based Brooklyn native prides herself on being the center of gravity for friendships in her personal life, and then expanding them. As the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, she comes from a big family teeming with aunts, uncles, and cousins, so she understands the importance of a strong community and providing that for others. “I know the importance of being around people who you love, who love you, who celebrate you, and make you feel warm and comforted,” she says.
That raw impetus to cultivate community is what led her to create The Brownie Agency alongside Brianna Agyemang, who is also the co-creator of #TheShowMustBePaused, a music industry movement created in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Co-founded in 2014, The Brownie Agency is a network that “promotes culture, good vibes, and Black Girl Magic.”
Wilks and Agyemang first met at Roc Nation, where they quickly went from coworkers to close friends. As a marketer-publicist duo, the two noticed how strong their dynamic was, working together on projects for clients like Justine Skye, Meek Mill, and DJ Mustard. Their relationship was so infectious that eventually they were known as a package deal around the office, with their own nickname to match.
“It was Lenny S. that dubbed us ‘The Brownies,’” Wilks says of the Roc Nation executive and photographer, born Lenny Santiago. The name spoke to the comfort and kinship Wilks felt in having a fellow a dark-skinned Black woman to share her work experiences with. “We worked on projects together and it just caught on.” The more Wilks and Agyemang worked together, the more they realized just how aligned they were on a deeper level. Both are from Brooklyn, come from immigrant households, and worked their way up through the ranks at Roc Nation. “We were super close,” she continues. “We know the same people. Some of my closest friends are her closest friends.”
"We don't take for granted that we're friends first, and we know that what we're doing is bigger than us. It's purposeful."
The Brownies not only made sense as a name for their friendship, but as a way for them to continue their relationship as business partners. Their first venture? Parties with the hope of bringing more Black women together. The two were already accustomed to throwing parties and planning events for Roc Nation artists, but Lenny supported them in creating their own lane. “He gave us our first hosting gig with him, and it was branded as The Brownies, but he also gave us the platform to be able to grow and stand on our own,” Wilks says. “That's something that we've never taken for granted. If we didn't have someone like him to vouch for us and put us in positions to win, we probably wouldn't have gotten this far along.”
What started as a birthday function for Ayanna and two friends in the industry—sponsored by D’Ussé—swelled into a proper Ace Hotel residency, hosted by radio personality Scottie Beam and DJed by Olivia Dope and Miss Milan. “We made it an all-girl thing,” Wilks says of the developing event arm of the agency, #TheBrowniesPresent. “Initially, it wasn't something that we were doing for a profit.”
Today, #TheBrowniesPresent comprises not just social gatherings, but also a Book Club, a Run Club, a newsletter, curated events, and more. This year, after receiving a generous donation from Spring Place, they turned that lump sum into a small businesses grant that gave back to the women in their community. These open-invitation extensions are meant to strengthen existing relationships, forge new ones, provide a support network, encourage goal-setting and accountability, and establish a safe space and community for Black women.
“We have a saying in Run Club: No Brownie Left Behind. Everyone finishes their run. It applies to regular life, too,” Ayanna explains. “The idea behind community is support. You don't necessarily have to work in the music industry to be a part of our community. You don't have to work in fashion. You don't have to work in entertainment. You can just be a woman of color.”
Even with The Brownies growing rapidly, Wilks and Agyemang have little interest in fully monetizing the seeds they’ve planted. “We don't necessarily do things for money,” Wilks says, noting that their first for-profit offering was a “Brownie” nameplate necklace that first dropped last month on Black Friday.
“Even the parties, we've never charged,” she continues. “For Book Club, we don't charge. For Run Club, we don't charge. For our Zoom workouts, digital workouts, whatever it is, we try not to charge people, because it is a community. People have always told us that we can make money off of it, but I think that pulls away from the purpose of what we do.”
And even as The Brownie Agency scales up, and increased demand means a heavier workload, Wilks doesn’t bat an eyelash when thinking about how they’ll manage it all. “If Bri is super busy, then I've got her back and I'll carry the load. If I'm super busy, she's got my back, and she'll carry the load,” she says. “We don't take for granted that we're friends first, and we know that what we're doing is bigger than us. It's purposeful, it's driven by others, and we know that maintaining a community is something that we're doing from our heart.”