Three Pillars of Success: The John Henry Story

Maya Angelou once said, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” People across the world lust for success, riches, fame, and power. You may be reading this, thinking, “everyone does.” Does everyone know what it takes however? Additionally, not everyone’s intentions for success are worthy of success. Enter 23-year-old, John Henry, the linchpin behind Harlem’s economic renaissance and four companies valued at a combined 10-million-dollars. His efforts within Harlem have been encompassed by three pillars that epitomize anyone’s road to success; intention, philosophy, and adversity.

Intention

John Henry is chairman of Harlem business accelerator and non-profit organization, Cofound Harlem. Said organization boasts corporate sponsors such as Google and Amazon. Why do you think this is? One could surmise it is because of intention. Go to Cofound’s website and you will see the words, “Let’s build 100 companies in Harlem by 2020.”

According to the city of New York’s public environment and health data, nearly 50% of children under the age of five in Harlem were living in poverty in the year of 2000. That was 16 years ago but according to the Manhattan Institute, poverty has only marginally declined within that time. This is relevant because Cofound Harlem can remedy a lack of economic wealth, or at least according to John; “It’s cool how a group of four that we invested in was able to create a company that was able to hire people and then for every person that they hire, it’s a livelihood being sustained and then they can afford things for their kids. So you start looking at the widespread effects creating companies has.”

John expands upon this mentality when discussing long-term goals for Cofound Harlem, “The number one indicator of Cofound being a success is an entirely new set of aspirations for the youth. It’s not far-fetched for (Silicon Valley kids) to grow up and say I want to be a productive, and a positive member of society. Whereas in inner-city neighborhoods, that’s just not the case. You can’t blame the kids, it’s more an environmental thing. For me, Cofound Harlem is a success if 10 years down the road, you have a generation of youth that are growing up with a totally different set of aspirations.”

Not only does their intention lead to immediate opportunities for people through Cofound-affiliated businesses, but it could lead to relative prosperity for the area as well, as John alludes to, “Can we get midsize or large companies to have offices here? Google, when they came to New York, moved to a neighborhood called Chelsea. The moment they went there, a bunch of small start-up companies moved around them. Now Chelsea has a thriving, start-up, ecosystem.”

John adds, “After doing a little bit more inquiry, typically, bigger companies will look for environments that already have some start-up activity.”

In this scenario, this potential bigger company should see the start-up activity presented by John Henry and Cofound Harlem within Harlem. Just how noticeable is Cofound Harlem, you ask? Take a look at Cofound Ventures, which just so happens to be Harlem’s first-ever venture capital fund. It’s an 8-million-dollar fund in which $3 million contributes to the Cofound Harlem business accelerator and $5 million goes to funding Cofound Harlem startups. Currently, more than $500,000 has been raised by four portfolio companies while another is soon to raise even more.

“I don’t think things happen without catalysts. I see Cofound Harlem very much as a catalyst here in Harlem,” John states emphatically.

A presence of good intention seemingly attracts quality and quantity. Take for example the upwards of 700 or so members in the Uptown Tech Meetup, organized by John Henry, to influence and share wisdom in the realm of entrepreneurship. 

Philosophy

When you started reading this article, you likely didn’t expect to be reading about the ever-famous astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, yet here we are. “My conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson was incredibly interesting,” John Henry recalled.

It was a 2015, mid-autumn night and Hotline Bling was being played in every nook and cranny of America. Now that we painted a picture for you, we can stop pretending that this wasn’t just a little more than a half-year ago. John arrives at the 5-star Mandarin Oriental, yes, the one that overlooks Central Park and Columbus Circle. The reason he’s there; an education gala. In his felt blazer and self-tied bow tie, John made the rounds. “You have this guy who is loud and boisterous and animated. You could tell that some people were put off but it was also magnetic,” John recollects.

John approaches Neil. “What’re you drinkin’?” John asks. Neil responds, “Did you tie your own bow tie?”, to which John replies “yea”. “If you didn’t tie your own bowtie, I’m not talking to you for the rest of the night,” Neil declares.

John shows him that he did indeed tie his own tie and later in the gala, John returns to Neil deGrasse Tyson for a less superficial and more philosophical conversation. Neil finds himself swarmed by a mob of selfie-seekers by this time. John asks him about this very thing. Given Neil’s substantial knowledge on the universe and aspects in his field, John ponders how Mr. Tyson could possibly care about this line of people and asks him about it. Tyson pauses the line, moves in closer to John with his hulking figure, and says, “When you’re famous, and someone comes up to you and they take a selfie with you, they want to take a picture with you, for you. When people come and meet me, they ask me about Pluto, they ask me about the cosmos. I serve as a platform for their curiosity. The question is never about me. It’s about their curiosities. So, what role do you play in humanity?”

John replies, “As a young man aspiring for greatness, that’s a very key lesson for me.” Neil strikes back with intent, “Don’t ever aspire to greatness. Aspire to expertise. Be the best that you can be at your craft and if someone labels it greatness, amen.”

Now imagine Neil deGrasse Tyson dancing in the Hotline Bling video instead of Drake. Moving on, John’s expertise, or at least this one, will revolve around economic empowerment. John believes programs such as Cofound Harlem could be an answer to inequality and poverty in America, specifically in the inner-city.

“I think that the private sector, but the entrepreneurial part of it, in particular, is the ethical economic engine of the 21st century,” John states.

“The concept of ownership is incredibly powerful and unfortunately it’s not a mindset that’s particularly prevalent (in Harlem),” John believes. John backtracks and reiterates that an entrepreneurial spirit is present but perhaps not in the most ethical of ways. “When you’re a young teen and you’re faced with either working minimum wage at McDonalds and getting grease all over you and shit, you can make $1000 a week selling weed. It’s very clear which route you’re going to go,” John elaborates.

“Although (drugs are) illegal, there is an attitude of entrepreneurship that’s kind of innate in street culture. It’s just a matter of redirecting that in an ethical way,” John continued.

Whether it’s Cofound Harlem, the Lupe Fiasco co-founded Neighborhood Start Fund, AOL Black Tech Leaders, Tech Inclusion, Coalition for Queens, Tech 808, or any others in a growing list, the movement is here to empower communities that have been both repressed and suppressed for far too long.

Adversity

“I remember times where I was like fuck man, why can’t I be them? I want it easy too,” John Henry recalls of his High School days in the largely affluent Martin County, Florida.

In this county, there’s a small town called Jensen Beach where John attended high school, Jensen Beach High School, specifically.

“The majority of the entrepreneurs that we see nowadays typically come from affluent families. They want to take a stab at a business, so a parent fronts them $100,000. They can take a hard crack at it and if they go on to make it, awesome. If not, then no problem, we’re going to get you a job at this firm. That’s really nice,” John composes.

This is the kind of “entrepreneur” you would see coming out of Jensen Beach High School. John was not as fortunate and most people aren’t either. Those who experienced significant loss, poverty, trauma, or even relative adversity earlier in life can rise above. “Pressure makes diamonds. Going through adversity, it really is a great opportunity to build character. I’m grateful now,” exudes John.

It’s a popular modern-day question. Should privilege be an excuse? Is a privileged person necessarily better off than someone who wasn’t as privileged? John continues to expand upon adversity, “Now, I see that their parents drowned them in water. They never had enough adversity to properly develop on their own. You see kids like (Let’s break the fourth wall. Why not? I, the writer, went to High School with John. Hi there.) and I, we did have to work for our own stuff and we’re doing just fine.”

Born to Dominican immigrants, John grew up with little to his name. “There’s nothing that we had as a family. We didn’t own property, (we had) zero savings, and my parents weren’t able to get good jobs,” said John.

“Every penny (was) spent towards rent and basic expenses. There were four kids. At some point, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. That’s six people in a one-bedroom,” John remembers.

John was born in New York but was able to move back at 18, believe it or not, to pursue a career in Jazz music. After working gigs and odd jobs, he was hired as a doorman, and it wasn’t until then that he found opportunity.

“I ended up being the safety net for my family. That’s really uncomfortable when I’m in a very volatile industry such as entrepreneurship. It’s a very volatile career path. That’s adversity if I’ve ever faced it man. I remember I woke up one morning and I was bleeding from my nose, I was so stressed because I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do,” John back flashes with a degree of solace.

Mobile City Services was conceived and because of it, today, John knows what he’s “going to do”. A Dry Cleaning business would be John’s opportunity. It’s not as flashy as being the next Miles Davis or John Coltrane, but it looks like it ended up being a sweeter melody for John Henry, altogether.

There was a certain rapport between John and his fellow Harlem doormen, which was where he began with Mobile City Services in order to build a customer base. John also became close to his building manager. He was then able to ask this building manager for a building. He was then granted said building.

Fast-forward through more hard work and adversity, John was able to pull in customers ranging from Boardwalk Empire to Orange is the New Black, and Spike Lee to Will Smith. Then, Mobile City even expanded into dog walking and housekeeping, and eventually they were able to put up a storefront on Fifth Avenue in Harlem. As time passed however, John realized his passion lied elsewhere and he sold Mobile City Services. A week later, Cofound Harlem was born.

“In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, towards the end there’s self-actualization. Self-actualized people tell themselves, I must be what I can be. That’s powerful. Then the question is; what can I be? The answer is; anything I can think of. If anything you can think of, you must be, then you work towards it. It’s not about money or living in a sweet apartment, it’s more that every day I discover more of what I can be. That, for me, in itself is fulfilling,” John concludes with a quote, that Maya Angelou would be proud of.