Darrell Freeman, mentor and benefactor for aspiring Black entrepreneurs, dies

·5 min read

Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect funeral information.

Darrell S. Freeman Sr., a self-made millionaire who served as a mentor and benefactor for aspiring Black entrepreneurs, died Tuesday after a "serious illness," his family announced on social media. He was 57.

Freeman, the first in his family to go to college, built tech company Zycron Inc. and sold it in 2017 for more than $20 million. After that, he invested thousands of hours and millions of dollars to help young, disadvantaged people go to college and budding Black entrepreneurs succeed.

In January 2022, entrepreneur Darrell Freeman poses for a portrait in his office in Nashville, Tenn.
In January 2022, entrepreneur Darrell Freeman poses for a portrait in his office in Nashville, Tenn.

"I spent the majority of my life getting money," Freeman told The Tennessean in February.

"I want to spend the majority of the rest of my life giving. I want to use my voice, my reputation, my resources to find people and help them become better."

Nashville reaction: Darrell Freeman's death 'a great loss' to Nashville but reaction shows why his legacy lives on

In a statement early this morning, Freeman's family said:

"Our beloved father and husband suffered from a serious illness that he succumbed to on the evening of June 28, 2022. As we navigate this unknown territory and difficult time, we ask for your prayers and privacy."

A graduate and board member of Middle Tennessee State University and former board chair for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Freeman was known for dogged persistence and a commitment to education.

"He was a lion of a leader, and his impact will be felt for generations," Nashville Chamber CEO Ralph Schulz said in a statement.

"Darrell was a mentor to many and was passionate about education and the doors it opened for him and could open for others."

Nashville businessman and entrepreneur Darrell Freeman, who recently volunteered to fly a mission to retrieve COVID-19 test samples to speed up the process for patients, stands with his plane at Hollingshead Aviation Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Smyrna, Tenn.
Nashville businessman and entrepreneur Darrell Freeman, who recently volunteered to fly a mission to retrieve COVID-19 test samples to speed up the process for patients, stands with his plane at Hollingshead Aviation Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Smyrna, Tenn.

And Freeman did so with swagger.

"He was a take-no-prisoners person that made you think about things in a way that made you go, hmmm, that’s probably right," said longtime business community leader Jacky Akbari, founder of economic development consulting firm Worthington Advisory.

"He was a bold truth teller."

Freeman preached education as chamber board chair and as chairman of the civic group 100 Black Men.

Freeman also backed it up with money and time — he donated more than $100,000 to MTSU for programs to help first-generation college students and hosted free ladies' lunches to advise and guide women entrepreneurs from around the country.

Freeman also invested in and mentored about a dozen young Black entrepreneurs, including the three Tennessee State University roommates who launched Slim & Husky's Pizza Beeria chain.

Because Freeman knew firsthand the challenges and barriers in place for the poor or people of color.

Loading trucks at UPS

Freeman's dad was a foundry worker who poured iron for 38 years, and his mom worked as a maid. They rented half a duplex in a Black, working-class neighborhood in Chattanooga.

They rarely saw professionals — doctors, lawyers or professors — and no one in Freeman's family had gone to college.

At 15, Freeman followed a cousin, Kenny Timmons, to Kirkman Technical High School, where Freeman learned to fix TVs and radios.

That school had a relationship with DeVry University in Atlanta, so Freeman moved into an apartment with three other students and enrolled in a 20-month technician program. Even though Freeman had a part-time job at Service Merchandise, he ran out of money in eight months and moved back to Chattanooga.

There, he enrolled in and struggled at Chattanooga State Community College, which he left after one quarter. Freeman then went to MTSU, funded by grants, loans and a 20-hour-a-week job loading trucks at UPS.

A 1989 picture of Darrell Freeman and his wife, Gloria, at the Elks Lodge in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Freeman then was a graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University.
A 1989 picture of Darrell Freeman and his wife, Gloria, at the Elks Lodge in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Freeman then was a graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University.

When Freeman finished graduate school in 1990, with a 4.0 GPA, he started working for a small Smyrna computer repair company.

Freeman made between $12 and $15 an hour, but the company billed customers between $1,500 and $2,000 a day for Freeman's labor.

"That’s when I realized I had a skillset valuable to the marketplace," he said.

With credit cards, about $2,000 in savings and the support of his nurse wife, Freeman launched Advanced Computer Services in a tiny office on Murfreesboro Road.

Freeman picked up a Yellow Pages phone book and started cold calling companies. He was turned down 99% of the time. Still, he generated some business, about $10,000 worth in the first year.

Freeman switched the name to Zycron, a name he came up with after a few beers at a local bar. "I wanted it to have a tech sound, so I put in a Z," he said.

Slim & Husky's

In 25 years, Freeman built Zycron into a company with 300-plus employees that generated about $40 million a year or more in receipts.

Freeman used lots of money from the sale of that company to help others start their businesses.

Darrell Freeman, left, with the owners of Slim & Husky's in March 2020 outside the Atlanta location that had just opened. From left, Freeman, E.J. Reed, Derrick "Moe" Moore and Clint Gray
Darrell Freeman, left, with the owners of Slim & Husky's in March 2020 outside the Atlanta location that had just opened. From left, Freeman, E.J. Reed, Derrick "Moe" Moore and Clint Gray

Slim & Husky's co-owner Derrick "Moe" Moore called Freeman's support "game-changing" for first-generation Black college students.

"To have a mentor who’s been in their shoes, who doesn’t come from money, and then to be where Darrell is?" Moore said. "That delivers the message they can be something and they can go further than they ever imagined."

Business leader Akbari, 61, a longtime economic development executive for Metro government, followed Freeman's footsteps with his guidance.

Akbari left government five years ago to start her own consulting firm, which focuses on inclusive business engagement, she said.

"Darrell encouraged me to pursue entrepreneurship, through model, example and specific launch tactics," she said.

"He was an inspiration for opportunity in business. While he will be greatly missed, his legacy is so strong, it will continue in this community and beyond."

Funeral, memorial arrangements

A public viewing for Freeman will be held July 7 from 10 a.m. to noon at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Whites Creek, followed by a family viewing from noon to 12:30 p.m. A funeral service will begin at 1 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to be made to the Chi Boule Foundation at chiboulefoundation.org/DarrellFreeman.

New Generation Funeral Home is handling all arrangements.

Reach Brad Schmitt at brad@tennessean.com or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Darrell Freeman, mentor for aspiring Black entrepreneurs, dies