Blavity had the honor of sitting down to chat with John Henry, the Chief and Cofounder of Cofound/Harlem and Managing Director of Cofound Ventures.
John was born in NYC and raised in Florida to Dominican immigrants. Being a first generation American, as he says, “framed his upbringing and drove his maturity quicker than many of his peers.” This maturity helped him see a great business opportunity in the professional laundry business while working as a doorman in NYC residential buildings. He had no formal experience in the laundry business, but as he says, he “learned by doing.” He started off with residents in neighboring residential buildings and then moved on to providing laundry services for film and television studios for shows like Boardwalk Empire and Power. Two to three years and 18 employees later and his company, John Henry Cleaners, was acquired. John’s next step was to start an accelerator called Cofound/Harlem with the help of friends and colleagues from his former business.
Blavity: What is Cofound/Harlem?
John Henry: “Cofound/Harlem is a social impact accelerator dedicated to launching 100 high-growth companies in Harlem in by 2020. We were inspired to start an accelerator right here in Harlem because of my love this neighborhood and to take advantage of the overwhelming amount of untapped potential and stifled innovation here. Besides being in Harlem, what really separates us is our “no cash in, no cash out” model. We don’t require equity from our startups, we only ask for a four-year commitment of growth in Harlem after our nine-month program, along with contributing to the spirit and community of Harlem. In turn, we provide a $50,000 stipend, payment-in-kind via mentorship, office space and credits for services with our partners. We have worked with companies and organizations such as Microsoft, Amazon and Digital NYC that have helped us be very creative with value exchange.
B: What is Cofound Ventures?
JH: Cofound Ventures was started off of the desire to show quantifiable results off of the success of Cofound/Harlem. After speaking to successful friends in the entrepreneur community, they noted I had a good opportunity to “do well and do good at the same time.” Potential is not enough for a good company and we want to be the catalyst to provide investments as well. Simply, we are completing the pipeline to provide more access for companies interested in working with us. We are launching in 2016 with a goal to raise a total of $8 million with $3 million going toward operating the nine-month accelerator and funding startup stipends, and $5 million toward further funding Cofound/Harlem startups.
B: What’s the criteria for Cofound/Harlem and Cofound Venture companies?
JH: Glad you asked that. We are interested in working with various type of startups that are focused on creating companies with significant social impact. However, we are even more interested in working with companies that have a desire to be successful right here in Harlem. We are not interested in startups that are geographically agnostic; we want the companies that can succeed because they are in Harlem. With this strategic location in the middle of the city they can leverage untapped political/social good will and the socio-economic and cultural diversity of the city.
B: Why is Harlem’s community so special?
JH: I love Harlem. The community really embraced my first company and I built a lot of strong connections with other entrepreneurs in the area. I am looking outside my window and I am familiar with a lot of the business owners here. Ultimately, I want to remove the stifling of innovation here and do real good for the people of this special town. Through Cofound/Harlem, we project the creation of at least 800 additional high-paying jobs in Harlem in the next four years.
B: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
JH: My best advice for entrepreneurs is to have a gut-wrenching relentless work ethic. I have told people that “if your friends are saying you’re not obsessive then you’re not working hard enough,” and I believe that. I personally don’t read all of the “cool” startup books but I do believe in hard work. This was the approach I took to my company and its what I would expect from anyone we work or invest with. When Muhammad Ali was asked a question about his workout regimen he said, “I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting.” That is when I start counting, because then it really counts. That’s what makes you a champion.” In addition, if you want to be an entrepreneur, the best time to start is now. I’m non-technical and I started a company, the technology didn’t come until later. Finally, surround yourself with the best people you can find. I am fortunate to have a phenomenal team of close advisors and friends who round me out.
Stay in the loop with John and his team at Cofound/Harlem below: