Champions of Change in Minnesota: Houston White

The North Minneapolis entrepreneur used 2020 to expand businesses built for human connection
Houston White - Founder, HWMR & The Get Down Coffee
Houston White – Founder, HWMR & The Get Down Coffee

Tintype by Carla Alexandra Rodriguez/Blkk Hand

Entrepreneur Houston White’s goals for “Black Excellence” go far beyond just a message on shirts he sells. He’s after community-level change with “culture plus capacity” partnerships that go deeper than just a check and handshake to help create opportunity, stabilize neighborhoods, reduce crime, and increase home ownership. When the pandemic brought many 2020 plans to a halt, White used the pause to refine his portfolio.

Among his current ventures: Houston White New Classic and Fresh fashion lines that are bold and versatile enough to appear in both the reopened Lake Street Target and North Loop retailer MartinPatrick3, the HWMR barbershop functioning as a cultural hub in North Minneapolis, and a new coffee company called The Get Down formed with Dogwood Coffee.

Why is it important to you to connect with different communities with your businesses?

I’m from Mississippi, and grew up both there and Minnesota. My best friend’s German/Irish and went to Harvard, but I also have friends who used to be street guys. It’s a spectrum in me of interconnection. I get bored playing in take get bored out and insert (I feel like our differences make us dope) one place with the same folks. The world is much more interesting when you broaden your horizons and you’re around different types of people. It’s important to me.

How do you feel about what you accomplished and what you saw transpire in 2020?

I remember last November working on my 2020 calendar. I had a trip booked to Africa on March 8, and I had all these events to grow my brand. Had my first trade show at the Chicago Collective. Target had agreed to be our sponsor for our blues and barbecue event, so it was feeling good. I was like, “Man, this is the year.”

I think it was March 4 there was a call. At the end of February, I started to shut down a bit. I started to feel real strange about having the barbershop open. We closed March 4 and didn’t reopen until August 4. Everything I had planned, from my fashion week event to my trip to Africa to all of the things we have planned for the physical location, none of it could go. And then in that moment I was like, “I don’t know what to do.” From retail to barbering, everything’s about coming together with people. So I said, “Let me bring all my endeavors and put them out on a desk. I want to look one by one and find gaps.” I’m so busy. I started to discover each one of these things needs work. What I thought was going to be one of the worst years, and it started out a pretty lame year, actually is one of the most important years of my entrepreneurial journey.

The last time I experienced something like this, I was building houses in 2005, 2006, and 2007. I was 29 years old in the middle of building a $2 million house and the world came apart. I didn’t have any context, so I went into depression. The good that came out of it for me was that I ended up buying the barbershop. It was the one silver lining for that moment. The guy that’s 40 years old said, “You’ve been through this once before. The writing’s on the wall. The world’s shutting down. Everybody’s in it together. You took advantage of it last time. How much can you get focused?” This has been a moment of focus and clarity for me unlike any other. It prepared me for when the world does come back to be in a position of strength for being next.

What type of initiatives go through your head when you’re looking to improve?

I’ll give an example: coffee. Originally in the buildout of the new HWMR space, I was just asking Dogwood Coffee to sign a lease for a coffee presence. Then George Floyd’s murdered. Dogwood owner Dan Anderson reaches out and wants to talk. We went and played golf. The first thing I told him was, “Look, donations are cool. But then that money dries up. How do you do create long-lasting change and add your talent?” He goes home, comes back, and says, “My wife says we should start a coffee company.” Dogwood lends the expertise and relationships, but the roasting and the wholesale is the better, bigger part of the business. Our coffee shop is the experience of that business.

If I were busy, I wouldn’t have had the time to flesh out and really think through the plausibility of such an enterprise. Come to find out it’s actually doable, but we need time to build the framework of a company that can actually provide jobs via manufacturing and roastery, and a destination to a community. It creates much more long-term benefit than Dogwood just writing a check for $1,000 or just signing a lease. Just one example. All my businesses, being able to sit down with my mentors and say, “Take a look at this business model, give me your feedback.”

What else grew out of this past year?

I finished my manuscript for this book that I think will be really important. It was written to the 14-year-old, the 18-year-old, and the 25-year-old version of myself. It’s tools for people at these crossroads having to make key decisions about life. When I was thinking about my own impact, my mentors said, “What is your 100-year creative strategy? How are you going to do something that’s going to affect the world for 100 years?” That really helped me.

Something else that occurred to me is this idea of culture plus capacity. We have this huge concentration of wealth, relationships, community safety, if you will, in white America. The goal of any group of people is to make it subsequently easier for each generation, but that hasn’t occurred in Black Minnesota. It’s community that actually stabilizes the neighborhood. You have higher rates of home ownership, crime goes down, and the schools get better. Culture plus capacity is this: if you want to start to level the playing field, US Bank, invest in me, an entrepreneur. I’m going to create a thing that brings different people to the neighborhood, potentially to live in it. Then, there’s these reverberating effects of that investment where the community starts to fix itself, instead of this perpetual motion of, “Hey, I need $100,000 this year,” and it never changes. I started to talk to Target, US Bank, United Properties, a lot of folks. “Y’all got the capacity, I got the culture. We can combine and really make some magic. And be a model of how others should do it.” I got the buy-in of some pretty big corporations. Again, I wouldn’t have had time to flesh that out if I’d been running from event to event.

A recent story touted $125 million in investment in West Broadway in North Minneapolis lately, but is it enough?

It’s going to help. It’s a start. No, it’s not nearly enough. Probably the most bustling part of West Broadway is 1.7 miles, so it’s really 3.5 miles of development if you’re talking about both sides of the street. We need billions of dollars. I think these projects are going to spur economic vitality, but you have to also tackle home ownership rates. A lot of development is the “whack-a-mole” approach in Black America. Like, “If we put a building there and it’s $40 million that’ll catalyze the street.” We’ve still got Popeye’s and 13-14 other chicken restaurants, and it remains a food desert. West Broadway is a very complicated thoroughfare, it just is.

But I am hopeful. The approach I take in Camdentown is that the smallest institutions have the biggest impact. As one of my mentors says, you’ve got to be brave enough to be simple. In Black America, that is the church, the barbershop/salon, and grandmom’s house. We get sidetracked by this notion of huge investment. There was tons of investment put into the Regional Acceleration Center, but that didn’t do what a lot of folks hoped it would do. Instead of “Let’s give money to one Black enterprise and hope they take care of it,” we need to build small things. Get great pizza shops and restaurants, and build up neighborhoods that are stabilized with 20-30 Black folks owning houses—and then development. I’m holding out hope, but I also want to see more of a holistic strategy.

Now that we’ve flipped the calendar to 2021, what are you thinking about in society?

My brand’s model is that human connection is the most powerful force of human nature. Our differences make us dope. That’s a core belief of mine. I’ve learned to be an example for what I hope for. I’ve tried to be the change, literally, my entire life. Especially as a kid, people don’t listen to you. You’ve got to start to do it. Then, people get excited.

I never imagined Minnesota would be the epicenter for any kind of great racial awakening or awareness. It’s a great opportunity. My hope is there is a real effort to share. You can’t undo hundreds of years of disenfranchisement overnight. But organizations can help jump start it. Like Target, they’ve never done what they did as quickly before. It wasn’t just pandering, it’s good business. I’ll always say “I don’t want sponsors, I want partners.” Folks are listening to that. If we can have this chatter. We’ve had these meetings for decades. Make.It MSP and those doing work for why Minnesota doesn’t feel right for Black folks. Now is a moment to lean into bold new approaches and I’m hopeful that folks will try. Even if they fail, fail forward. We learned, we pivoted, and we actually got it right.

Learn more at Houston White’s website.

Read about all 22 Champions of Change featured in our Jan/Feb 2021 issue.