My life has been somewhat of an unbelievable adventure. After attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania I returned to Los Angeles. I dabbled in the film industry and worked as a securities trader and commodities broker before moving to Texas in 2010 and starting a nonprofit dedicated to the alleviation of poverty. Through that work, I was invited to do my first TEDTalk at Texas Tech University, called Stop Throwing Breakfast Sandwiches at the Poor
. I also worked with underprivileged populations such as teens who were months from being emancipated from the foster care system, chronically unemployed adults, and soon-to-be-released prison inmates. I have authored two books on poverty and just recently launched the 1854 Cycling Company
, my first for-profit venture that donates a portion of its proceeds to help support ex-offenders and their efforts to re-enter society.
Pedaling Social Justice
My first passion is based on helping to make the world a better place for the people that many societies have neglected. A company that assembles bicycles supports this passion on three different levels. First, cycling is better for the environment. Second, it helps create skilled-labor jobs for commonly marginalized populations such as ex-offenders. And finally, introducing cycling to an untapped market has the potential to be extremely profitable. I am also a fan of hidden American history. I was in the process of searching for a name for my company when I came across a flyer for an anti-slavery rally that happened in the town that I now live in on July 4, 1854. This rally featured William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Henry David Thoreau. I did a little research on what the rally was about and I decided to name my company in honor of it.
A Thacher Mentor
I matriculated to Thacher as a sophomore, from a community in South Central Los Angeles that was very violent in the early-to-mid-’90s. For me, everything was new. Within the first weeks at Thacher, I learned a valuable lesson from my English teacher, Phyllis Johnston. I don’t remember the assignment, but I got my first bad grade in English. For weeks, I felt that I was too dumb to be at Thacher and I should go home. Somehow, this came out in class and afterward we talked and she taught me that failure and making mistakes are part of learning. Over the course of the years, she often made sure that I was not being too hard on myself. Now, years later, as I go through the business start-up process, that lesson keeps me motivated, and less likely to dwell on my missteps.
What About Mentors Since Then?
In social justice work, there are many pitfalls that can simultaneously derail both your mission and credibility. Not long ago, one of my mentors alerted me about being too affiliated with a certain prominent activist and simply because I trusted the wisdom of the mentor, I quickly separated myself. Months later, my mentor’s insight proved to be true as the prominent activist and his organization became embroiled in a scandal that made national headlines. In social justice, relationships are essential to maintaining that delicate balance between activism and credibility among your target populations. Without personal relationships, it all falls apart.
While the alleviation of poverty is my overarching passion, right now my focus is on the poverty that stems from mass incarceration and the disproportionate number of ex-offenders who are released into already impoverished communities. While the data states that 56 percent of adult ex-offenders are rearrested within six months of release and 76 percent within three years, in certain communities those numbers are much higher. This often results in the loss of desperately needed financial contribution that could be the difference between poverty and stability. I hope that my company can successfully raise enough capital this spring to expand our operations to hire and train at least 20 ex-offenders. Ambitious, but that is the fire in my belly that “Derf Nameloc” (Fred Coleman) told me that I had years ago, and those flames have not died yet.This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Thacher Magazine.