#SpotlightOnCLT: City Startup Labs | SHARE Charlotte

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#SpotlightOnCLT: City Startup Labs

September 24, 2020    in

This article was edited for length.  Interview by Christine Edwards.

In our changing world, one thing remains true; those returning from incarceration or often the most overlooked and underserved. Many challenges faced by Charlotte residents experiencing poverty, homelessness, socioeconomic stress is felt doubly by those returning from incarceration. We recently spoke with a Henry Rock Founder of City Startup Labs about their program REEP (ReEntry Entrepreneurship Program) which aims to reimagine “returning citizens and African American millennials as a new class of entrepreneurs”. According to Rock, “REEP is an extension of the work that CLS has been doing of reimagining, educating and fostering a new class of entrepreneurs, capable of significant productivity and innovation when empowered, given the opportunity and provided the support”. Read our conversation below. 

Tell us about the launch of City Startup Labs’ ReEntry Entrepreneurship Program (REEP). What has changed since its inception in 2018? What have you learned and how have you adapted? 

In a way, REEP was coming full circle. I had originally had the plan for doing an entrepreneurs bootcamp for former gang members and formerly incarcerated persons (returning citizens) in Newark, NJ. I pitched the idea to the incoming Mayor Cory Booker administration and had other priorities at that time. So, the target shifted to young black men, which is who we served initially when we launched back in 2014. Then fast forward to the summer of 2018, we were able to pilot the REEP – which, by the way is a play on words, as we want to sow seeds that can be reaped or reaped sometime later.

At the core of the concept for REEP is this idea of restorative justice. What I mean by it, is that communities that continue to experience harm - as in economic dislocation or neglect or crime – can receive reconciliation. And on the other hand, we have persons coming home from prison or jail, needing to have trust restored [over 100 persons – at last count – return home from state prison to Mecklenburg County. That doesn’t include Federal prisons or jail]. Returning citizens can play an important role at the vanguard of restoring these communities. Many come home wanting to make a difference in their communities – it's a characteristic that showed up consistently during the pilot. In fact, we dedicated the pilot to Ramona Brant, who exemplified this and who died much too soon. 

Similarly, these same possibilities exist for the formerly incarcerated, as we need to find ways for this population to be effectively reabsorbed into the community as a viable alternative to standard employment for returning citizens, as well as an anecdote to possible recidivism. 

We approached the REEP pilot (2018-19) with a few assumptions that needed to be tested and to really learn as much as possible with something completely new for CSL. What we learned has informed our LEARN/EARN/BUILD model: LEARN is where accelerated on-trend skills and entrepreneurial training happens. EARN is the opportunity to gain some facility through apprenticing and/or business model testing. BUILD occurs as three options – build a job as a solopreneur or independent contractor with a REEP business-in-a-box; build an enterprise as a founder or co-founder of a potentially scalable venture or targeted Mainstreet business; or build a career in this on-trend skill, starting as an entry-level employee with 2nd Chance employers. I call this 21st Century workforce development. 

There’s an Alvin Toffler (Futurist) quote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” 

Research shows that 1) 85% of jobs that will be available in 2030 don't exist yet for today's graduates, 2) there will be a 20% growth in demand for higher cognitive skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, decision making, and complex information processing, in the United States by 2030 and 3) we have reached a possible tipping point, where 40% of the U.S. workforce are comprised of contingent workers. 

Rather than facilitate a cycle of recidivism by addressing returning citizens’ income needs with work that doesn’t match with their potential; REEP instead wants to have us (the broader community) see them and returning citizens see themselves as catalytic in “reimagining” work, creating real wealth and demonstrating community impact. 


The changing tide of philanthropy in Charlotte is turning towards social entrepreneurship. What does the REEP program add to this space?

Well, I’m not so sure that social entrepreneurship, as a rule is being practiced, because at the end of the day, an enterprise needs to create value in the marketplace and that has changed before our eyes with COVID. I’ve been thinking about addressing the digital divide with REEP long before COVID revealed the severity of the problem. Along with Informative Technologies Inc., who we met as University Business Partners at UNCC, since early 2019, CSL has been crafting what will become a social venture — Reentry Connections (ReConnex.us). Imagine a Geek Squad in the ‘hood – again, positioning returning citizens at the vanguard of demonstrating practical community impact. 

Pre-COVID, using the LEARN/EARN/BUILD model, we were planning to launch REEP2.0 at the end of April, in collaboration with Mecklenburg County’s Criminal Justice Services Office and the Charlotte Area Fund. Participants have the opportunity to learn on-trend digital technology services skills related to hardware, software and connectivity, do an apprenticeship, and become either a solopreneur digital services tech (supplied with a REEP business-in-a-box), work on building ReConnex into a scalable social venture, or pursue a digital technology career. 

Currently, we’re designing training for digital navigators, who will be deployed to support a distribution of computers through the Library’s MeckTech COVID digital divide response (Informative Technologies has developed and is executing this initiative). These navigators will function in a help-desk role, as well as assist in last-mile delivery and service. CSL has received funding through the United Way to begin undertaking this digital navigators’ effort, which extends into affected communities as troubleshooters beyond the MeckTech project. This will serve as a test of several components of the model and the ReConnex idea.

What is your vision for REEP graduates beyond 2020? 

COVID has exacerbated the digital divide and exposed the fragility of black-owned businesses demonstrating what pernicious issues that these are and have been. It has laid bare the core of Chetty’s implications about where we stand as a city. It is a symptom of deeply entrenched ways of being and functioning. It’s clear that these ways have failed our citizens at the margins. Therefore, it’s time for thinking out of the box, being very creative and imaginative. In my estimation, one thing that we can do is to invite returning citizens to reimagine their communities and themselves within them. The reimagining takes hard work, because the conditions that require this curative didn’t just happen. Yet this reimagining requires deconditioning (unlearning and relearning) on everyone’s part. There’s the need for new or repurposed tools, well-placed resources (at CSL, we have long talked about developing three asset classes – human capital, social capital, economic capital) and patience.

How can Charlotte help support this program?

Supporting City Startup Labs and REEP centers within these asset classes: 

  1. We operate programming designed to develop the human capital, where practically speaking we can use funding, through donations in-cash or in-kind, through institutional support and corporate sponsorships. Each of these is a way of allowing us to build upon what we started back in 2014. 

  2. social capital is something that we seed with mentors (or accountability partners, as they’re known) and business coaches. There are several volunteering opportunities available in this regard. 

  3. I mentioned the REEP business-in-a-box, where there are a few key elements that we will provide - such as professional business services (bookkeeping/accounting, legal, HR, etc.) and kick-starter capital. These are some specific areas where we can generate a social return on investment.

VOTE NOW: City Startup Labs is in the running to win $5K this month thanks to the Amy and Brian France Foundationwho have partnered with SHARE Charlotte for this year’s Spotlight Series and YOU can help when you VOTE NOW! You can also check out the other organizations eligible to win this month’s prize, here!