Before John Henry sold his million-dollar on-demand laundry business at 21, he earned a living as a doorman in New York serving some of the wealthiest people in the world. A resident with a dry cleaning business suggested Henry could build up a clientele as a middle man for tenants who wanted laundry service with pickup and delivery. Beyond the people living in his building, Henry recruited other doormen in the neighborhood to tap their tenants. Eventually he made a deal to provide local movie sets with wardrobe cleaning, and was clearing $100,000 per month before selling the business to a private company.
Today, Henry, the son of immigrant parents who earned a combined annual salary of $25,000, is running one of Harlem’s first business accelerator programs aimed to grow 100 scalable tech companies in the community by 2020.
Henry and his business partners (also 20-somethings) launched the nonprofit Cofound Harlem in early 2015 to help build on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the neighborhood and grow the tech sector there.
Cofound Harlem provides entrepreneurs free office space during a nine-month program, $50,000 of in-kind services such as legal and accounting assistance, and a mentor network that includes big names like Google, and several wealthy business people Henry connected to when he was a doorman.
Henry’s team doesn’t require equity shares from people who enroll in the program. Instead, founders must commit to growing their businesses in Harlem for at least four years.
“We thought it would be interesting if we had a community-focused program where the community would be the real beneficiary,” says Henry, who anticipates that the initiative has the potential to create up to 800 jobs.
In its first year, Cofound Harlem hosted a broadly diverse group of startups ranging from an online music collaboration community to an ed-tech platform that livestreams classes taught by creative professionals to an app that helps individuals work from co-working spaces across the city for a monthly fee.
Three out of the four companies that participated in the first year’s cohort are still operating. One recently secured $500,000 in venture capital. Of 12 firms total overall, 75 percent are minority or women owned.
Cofound’s community-centered mission runs counter to how typical accelerators operate and often unintentionally exclude minority entrepreneurs from participating. According to Boston-based Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, most incubator and accelerator programs are in high-income, less-diverse communities.
Henry and his team worked with community leaders, politicians and real estate developers to take over a retail space in Harlem at no cost. They also worked with Fordham University and a community college to help find talent interested in starting their own business.
“The basis [for creating the accelerator] was that if we do a good job, we can start developing the community with this approach. It’s an all-around win to attract great companies from Harlem,” Henry says.
Jamall Oluokun, founder of Creatr (previously Reveu.me), says his time at Cofound Harlem helped him get clear about his approach to building a scalable business and gave him the guidance he needed to pivot from a media company into ed-tech.
“I’m a big fan of Harlem, and I felt right at home during our time in the program,” Oluokun says. “We would have meetings at Mist, go to gallery openings, strategize at Marcus Garvey Park and grab drinks at local restaurants.”
Henry often fields questions on how Cofound will solve major neighborhood issues, like Harlem’s high unemployment, displacement due to rapid gentrification, and rising housing costs. He contends that the incubator isn’t meant to be a silver bullet to any of these issues. Instead, the goal is to stay focused on building and growing sustainable companies that will benefit the community for the long term.
As Cofound heads into its second year, Henry plans to double down on mentorship and business connections for the next round of founders.
“Initially, we were very broad about our ambitions, but quickly learned that we didn’t want to dilute our value to the community. So we laser focused on our companies, realizing that the best way to give back [to Harlem] is to be successful,” Henry says. “We want to make sure that these startups don’t remain startups. We’ll see the real benefit as they grow their businesses here.”
Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology and digital inclusion. Her work has been featured in Black Enterprise Magazine, Triple Pundit and Inhabitat.