When I first met John Henry—at a startup party, fittingly enough—he had recently sold his first business and was launching Cofound Harlem, a startup incubator in the historic upper Manhattan neighborhood. He possessed an infectious charm and energy, which might have been chalked up to youthful naiveté. But Henry, now a partner with Harlem Capital Partners, has gone on to accomplish an amazing amount in the last few years—all by the tender age of 24.
Henry, pictured above, was working as a doorman in New York when he was offered the use of a dry cleaning facility at wholesale prices. He carved out a brisk business servicing film & tv production crews that needed fast turnaround and had special wardrobe needs—his first big client was the film The Wolf of Wall Street. Henry expanded the service and launched an on-demand app, and sold the company, called Mobile City, in late 2014.
Feeling a strong desire to give back, Henry created Cofound Harlem, a nonprofit incubator with economic development goals that quickly attracted high profile support. The incubator offered startups $50,000 worth of in-kind services, such as mentoring and coworking space. Unlike most incubators, it took no equity stake—the only requirement was that the company put down roots in Harlem. The first cohort of four startups included Bandhub, an online community for musicians, and Croissant, an app for finding and booking coworking space. Cofound Harlem is currently accepting applications for its 2017 cohort.
Soon Henry was thinking about starting a venture capital fund focused on Harlem. As he was raising money for it, he was asked to run AREA, an early stage real estate tech accelerator created by members of the Rose real estate development family (including David Rose of the angel investing platform Gust).
In his latest move, Henry has teamed up with Harlem Capital Partners, an early stage investment fund started in 2015. The partners are earmarking half of their funds for entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds, including women, blacks, latinos and others that struggle to raise funding.
When he’s not working with startups, Henry is hosting Open for Business, a branded podcast from eBay and Gimlet Creative. (Did we mention that he’s just 24?) We caught up with him recently in Harlem over some chai tea.
What’s the mission of Harlem Capital Partners?
Our mission at HCP is to change the face of entrepreneurship by investing in 1,000 diverse founders over the next 20 years. We in invest in all backgrounds, but reserve 50% of our capital for women, LBGTQ, Latinos, blacks and other minority groups.
What’s your ideal investment candidate?
Our ideal investment candidate isn’t looking to us to validate their idea. They’ve done the groundwork, proven they can execute, proven they can monetize, and is seeking strategic capital to help them grow to the next level. We’ve invested in Media companies like Blavity, retail companies like Harlem Coffee Co. and FinTech/cannabis companies like SeedCX. We aim to be part of the first $750,000 a company ever raises.
Entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds often tackle challenges that others overlook, or are rooted in their personal experience. What, in your view, is the link between diversity and innovation?
As it stands, the overwhelming majority of venture-backed founders are white males. And while there’s definitely been some meaningful innovation that has come from our white male counterparts over the years, we strongly believe that there are incredible amounts of untapped business potential lying dormant within our own communities.
You’ve been working in Harlem for a few years now, starting with Cofound Harlem. Has the entrepreneurial scene evolved in that time?
The biggest notable change I’ve noticed has been the influx of young, bright minds flocking to the area. It seems that local government, big institutional capital, and young talent are aligning more closely than ever in our efforts to keep Harlem dynamic, diverse, and economically robust.
You’ve accomplished more by 24 than many people do in an entire career. What’s the secret to your success? Any tips for other ambitious entrepreneurs?
Aw, shucks…. thank you. I was blessed with a very healthy appetite for risk, paired with an early sense of knowing what drives me. I can’t say that what’s worked for me will work for others, but, I believe pretty strongly in: “If anyone can do it, why not you?”
What’s your most hard-won lesson or insight?
It seems to me that old adage of “trusting your gut” has never rung more true for me. If you find yourself leaning in when talking to someone, trust that. If you find yourself repelled by others— trust that, too. The more I’ve gotten into the rhythm of this, the more on-brand and on-purpose I feel. It’s as if things line up more smoothly and effortlessly.
Another, more practical and very hard learned lesson: Build your financial foundation first. I stepped into money early… and given my humble beginnings, was very tempted to “give back” much earlier than I could actually afford to. The result? I burned through way too much cash with nothing to show for it. This time around, I’m much more conscious of the value of a dollar: Earn it. Save it. Invest it. Then Share it… Repeat.
Where do you think you’ll be dong 10 years from now?
I’ll likely end up at the intersection of Real Estate Development and Smart Cities…. that seems to be where my heart is pulling me.
Anything else I should ask you?