A new competition invites public housing residents in New York to start their own enterprises.
Sarah Adams, a teacher, began selling her Jamaican grandmother’s rum cake as a side business in 2015 with $5,000 from her husband’s retirement money. She was soon handing out samples at fairs and street festivals, growing her business, Ms. Macs, one tin at a time.
Ms. Adams, who lives in a poor housing project in northern Manhattan, was forced to pivot when the epidemic damaged her blossoming business in 2020. Ms. Adams used the money she saved by not commuting to try out recipes for vegan muffins, reduced-sugar cookies, and low-carb pizzas.
Ms. Adams got a newsletter from her landlord, the New York City Housing Authority, a few months ago, in which it introduced a new competition for entrepreneurs living in public housing. It provided up to $20,000 in cash awards as well as free business development training.
“I thought it was a fake,” Ms. Adams explained. She checked with the housing authority to make sure it was legitimate.
Ms. Adams, 47, is the owner of one of the nine businesses that won “NYC Boss Up,” a “Shark Tank”-style competition in which some of the city’s poorest inhabitants pitch company ideas for further development and finance. A total of 279 applications were received, with 23 chosen for the final round. In March, those entrepreneurs pitched their company strategies and answered questions from a panel of judges at Brooklyn’s Central Library.
A $1 million contribution from Ron Moelis’ family foundation helped support the Boss Up initiative for five years. The real estate developer had the idea after reading the 2022 research by the non-profit Centre for an Urban Future. The study identified a gap in the market for encouraging inhabitants of public housing to become more entrepreneurial.
Following the selection of the successful entrepreneurs, Mr. Moelis visited with the unsuccessful finalists to provide comments and to encourage them to try again next year. He added, “It’s really hard to start a business in New York City.”
With the assistance of other partners, including the FJC Foundation, which handled the prize payments, and NYCHA, which offers free business programmes to residents, Mr. Moelis helped create the Boss Up programme.
Candidates for the Boss Up programme must either reside in one of NYCHA’s developments, which are home to around 368,000 people in the entire city, or be eligible for Section 8 rental assistance from the federal government. The one-time prizes are not taken into account when determining a family’s rent based on their income.
A flyer for the contest was discovered in the lobby of one of the winners, 18-year-old Valeria Ortiz Martinez, who resides in the Dyckman Houses in Inwood. She has converted ConnectoTap, a customisable digital business card that resembles a credit card and transmits data by tapping it on a phone, into a successful company.
Other winners, like Ms. Adams, were already running small enterprises but needed assistance to take them to the next level. She intends to use the $20,000 to launch her line of healthier baked goods and increase her marketing efforts.
Another winner, Kat Perez, launched her company, Kat D Productions, in 2019 with video equipment borrowed from her alma institution, the College of Mount Saint Vincent, which also served as her first client. Ms. Perez and a buddy created two films of students describing slang terminology while she was there. The videos received almost six million views in total.
Ms. Perez has since shot over 50 videos and made $38,300 in revenue last year. “I felt like I finally had the foundations for my business to grow, but I didn’t have the capital or the resources,” said Ms. Perez, 25, of the Bronx.
Ms. Perez hopes to use the award money to recruit an assistant, purchase extra video equipment, and market her company on social media.
Daniel Wool, who created Digital Design Truested Technologies in 2022, intends to use the $20,000 to diversify and market his business, which pays volunteers to test hardware and software systems for businesses. “It was the seed of a business — I think they really gave me the impetus to go forward,” said Mr. Wool, 45, of Morningside Heights’ Grant Houses.
Winning the contest would provide Harlem-based artist Michael Watson with the opportunity to expand Fable Jones Studios.
Mr. Watson increased his drawing and painting during the pandemic and gathered money to create a gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in 2020. The majority of the local artists, singers, and entertainers, including Mr. Watson, 35, who presented his watercolours there, were persons of colour.
But a year later, when the landlord found another tenant for the space, he was forced to shut down the gallery. Mr. Watson intends to relocate his business. But for the time being, he is weighing all of his alternatives.
Because he wanted to be certain that his strategy was the best one, he declared that he had not yet spent a single penny of the money. “I don’t want to screw anything up.”