An Interview with Destinee Swindell on Strivers’ Row, Black Businesses, and Harlem

On the occasion of National Black Business Month, this August, we sat down with Harlem-based Destinee Swindell, the founder of Strivers’ Row, a digital platform that celebrates and connects creatives, entrepreneurs, and professionals in New York City.

Destinee Swindell, founder of Strivers’ Row

The Culture LP: Why did you start Strivers’ Row?

Destinee Swindell: When I moved to New York in 2013, I started a GroupMe with the 20 people who I knew were moving here as well. It eventually grew to over 1,400 people. We would drop events or job postings in the group. I stumbled into creating community. I found there weren’t a lot of things that spoke to creatives, entrepreneurs and professionals at the same time. So I wanted to move the needle for the people who occupied those spaces and were involved in our community as a whole.

And now Strivers’ Row is featured in digital ads throughout New York for National Black Business Month! How did that partnership happen?

We came across an amazing opportunity to leverage the LinkNYC Wi-Fi kiosks around the city to bring attention to National Black Business Month and some local black businesses, while also giving our Strivers a place to shine. I could have let that opportunity be a one-off thing, but I’ve been trained as a media strategist for the last five years to never let anything be a one-off thing.

I’ve come across some statistics that are shocking to me about the state of black businesses in NYC. Black business ownership is very disproportionate to our existence here in the city. Only 3% of businesses are owned by black folk, but we’re 22% of the population. New York City is operating in a reverse trend than most major cities in this country in that the number of black businesses between 2007 and 2012 shrunk—and I can only imagine what those numbers look like now because of gentrification.

How has your own neighborhood, Harlem, inspired you?

I love coming off the train at 125th Street and just being back in my area. It feels like home. There’s so much history to be inspired by here that keeps me really humbled. I was inspired by Strivers’ Row the place. It makes me aware of how fortunate and privileged I am and it lights a fire under my butt to be my best so that I don’t squander the opportunities that were given to me.

There are three places in Harlem that have had the most impact on me:

  1. My friend Josh’s apartment: When I first moved to New York, he was the friend that had a fairly nice spot. His house was the place to escape. The foundation of my New York family was built there.
  2. First Corinthian Baptist Church: I have my ups and downs in my relationship with God, but I appreciate FCBC for always being there and coming through with just what I need. I appreciate going to a church that acknowledges mental health. I love God and I know the power of prayer, but it doesn’t fix everything. Part of New York feeling like home is that I do have my anchor. I have my moments when I stray, but I can go to FCBC and be reminded of who I am and what this journey is.
  3. Strivers’ Row: Josh’s apartment is on the edge of Strivers’ Row. That’s maybe why this whole thing exists. I’m really proud of the fact this is a Harlem-inspired platform, because Harlem has given so much to me and I’m really honored to be able to bring attention and awareness to this space. Strivers’ Row does signify excellence—the homes are beautiful, the homes are priced beautifully—and to live there is to have arrived. It really inspires me. One day, I want to own a home on Strivers’ Row.

What was the biggest challenge getting Strivers’ Row off the ground?

The biggest challenge is fear and just feeling confident enough to branch out and do something new and different than what people knew me for. That’s something that I still struggle with now as I try and take Strivers’ to new levels. I get scared a lot, and I have to talk myself off the bridge.

It took a while to get Strivers’ Row off the ground. I spoke to Jarrod Anderson, Strivers’ Row’s creative director and photographer, about it at the end of 2016. We finally scheduled a shoot in March [2017] and shot the first three Strivers, but then I froze up — I didn’t schedule their interviews.

If I’m honest, I was talking to a guy and I thought I might’ve stumbled upon something real, but in typical fuck boy fashion, he ghosted me. I got thrown into a little bit of spiral. So I told myself, “No, that’s not what you’re going to do. You’re going to do something. You’re going to create something.” I hit up Jarrod like, “Yo, we’re about to launch this in a week.” It’s funny how life happens.

Lastly, why are the intimate, family-style dinners you throw so important?

I want Strivers’ Row to be a family. I want folks to feel like they have a bunch of really dope, tight cousins, all around the city, who do different things and who know different people and who are able to help them accomplish anything—professionally, socially, or spiritually. Sometimes, when you enter black spaces that are supposed to be about excellence, you’re expected to talk a certain way, dress a certain way—that’s not what we’re about. It’s about being our authentic selves. Our brilliance is not tied to any outside markers. The dinner is meant to reiterate that. We sit around the table and break bread, and there’s nothing more true to our nature as black folk than that.