Lawrence Carpenter knew he always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but he was in the wrong business—the business of selling drugs.
After his second stint in prison, it became clear, “I made mistakes in my life and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in poverty because of those mistakes. I also knew that I had a criminal record and looking at things realistically, I knew it was going to be pretty difficult finding a job anywhere. I didn’t want to use that as an excuse. I knew that in order for me to realize the goals I had financially, my only option was to start my own business and create my own market.”
The Durham, North Carolina, native set about the task of starting Super Clean Professional Janitorial Services, a commercial cleaning service. “I wanted something that would get me as far away from the streets as possible, but where there wouldn’t be a limit or a cap on how much money I could make.” Now the sky seems to be the limit, as Super Clean is generating over $2.5 million in sales per year.
It’s the Lawrence Carpenters that organizations like City Startup Labs want to motivate, train and unleash in inner cities around the country. This new non-profit was created to take at-risk young men of color, including ex-offenders, teach them to become entrepreneurs and give them a new set of role models along the way.
Inner-city America is hanging in the balance and as a result, so is the country. While we attempt to mollify often misplaced fears with the demonization and marginalization of young men of color, especially black men, we place our country in peril of falling further behind economically. As a result, the full contribution of these young men towards the productivity and prosperity of our country remains un-utilized. This continues to thwart our progress, especially at a time when “all hands on deck” are required.
The fast company approach of Silicon Valley and Alley, has so permeated the popular notion of what it means to be an entrepreneur, that it’s hard to imagine young men from the inner-city playing a vital role in our country’s recovery. By training the best and brightest to become small businessmen, they can make a dent in a dismal job market by hiring from within their communities.
There’s a not-so-obvious disconnect when we grant billions in aid to the developing world, for an array of worthy projects, but don’t see that we have a potent developing market right underneath our own noses. A few years back, the Milken Institute called inner-city America an “Emerging Domestic Market.”
In spite of this neglect, black business development is quite a compelling story. During the period from 2002 to 2007, according to the Census Bureau, and before the Great Recession struck, the growth rate of black-owned companies was more than triple the national rate of 18%. Receipts generated by black-owned companies increased over 55% to $137.5 billion. They were often businesses like Lawrence Carpenter’s Super Clean Professional Janitorial Services.
“Black-owned businesses continued to be one of the fastest-growing segments of our economy, showing rapid growth in both the number of businesses and total sales during the time period,” said Thomas Mesenbourg, deputy director of the Bureau. Naturally, the nation’s largest cities were homes to the bulk of these black-owned companies.
These same cities face a parallel conundrum about what to do, primarily with their young black male population. For example, in August 2011, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the Young Men’s Initiative, in an attempt to address just this perplexing question. This initiative zeroes in on the education, criminal justice and employability issues of young African American and Latino males, yet omits entrepreneurial education as a vital path to self-employment and job creation.
Today’s economic climate allows employers the pick of the litter, leaving anyone with a record with few options. Young men of color who’ve had no brushes with the law still routinely face real barriers in getting on a job ladder’s lowest rung.
According to a 2005 Princeton study, Discrimination in Low Wage Labor Markets, young white high school graduates were nearly twice as likely to receive positive responses from employers, as equally qualified black job seekers. Even without criminal records, black applicants had low rates of positive responses, about the same as the response rate for white applicants with criminal records.
What’s the cost of this lost productivity and economic contribution? And what could it mean to those communities that stand to reap the dividends of their marginalized young men—their prodigal sons?
As Lawrence Carpenter sees it, “If this business were to fail, my only option is to go and start another one.”