This spring about 60 local gang members – including top leaders of Wilmington’s main gangs – gathered on the couches at tech company Untappd’s downtown office and watched a PowerPoint.
It was a pitch deck, not unlike one potential investors might get. But this was a different sort of sell.
“We’ve had a lot of gang meetings over here, over the past year,” said George Taylor, a serial entrepreneur and driver behind the idea.
Taylor, whose background is in founding and building tech startups, has been grinding out a concept for nearly two years now: whether a company based on offering gang members good-paying jobs can make a dent in shootings and illegal drug trade in the area.
Those who have heard the details – whether or not they harbor concerns about how it might play out – concede that it is tackling the long-discussed issue of gang-related violence with an idea totally out of the box.
That premise could be tested early next year when TruColors Brewing, a commercial brewery and brewpub restaurant employing gang members is expected to open.
Taylor is speaking about the project at the upcoming Cucalorus Connect conference on Nov. 9 – the first time he has outlined TruColors’ specifics to a public audience.
Leases have not yet been signed, but Taylor said they are looking for a space of between 30,000 and 50,000 square feet for the brewery, which also would include a small public taproom mostly for tours, as well as a gym, day care center and recording studio for employees.
A brewpub would open in a separate restaurant space, likely somewhere on Front Street in downtown Wilmington, Taylor said, where walk-by traffic will be heavier than at the brewery.
“Our goal is to have everything open by the end of the first quarter,” he said.
The plan is to hire about 100 people in the year-and-a-half after it opens – from waiters and managers in the restaurant to brewers and canning line operators in the brewery to finance and marketing staff in the main office.
“We recognize we have to compete with street money and give them an opportunity to build a life, so the minimum salary is $40,000,” plus benefits, said Taylor, who declined to say how much funding is being invested into the project.
Nearly all the workers will be active gang members, he added. To Taylor, and his working premise, this part is key to the whole thing working.
Taylor is chairman of local startup companies Untappd, JOMO and National Speed. He launched six startups in the past, several of which were sold and one that went public. His daily life is, and has been, firmly entrenched in the tech world.
A drive-by shooting and the resulting death of a 16-year-old high school student jolted Taylor’s interest in learning about the structure and leadership of local gangs and the communities where they operate.
The student, Shane Simpson, died in December 2015 following the drive-by shooting at Castle and 11th streets, where other teens were also injured. Police, who made several arrests in the shooting, described it as gang-related.
It led Taylor to talk with local law enforcement, gang leaders and gang intervention organizations in other parts of the country working on similar enterprises – similar but different in one major aspect.
For example, Taylor and some of the local gang members he worked with early on flew to California to meet with Homeboy Industries, which runs a bakery that opened in the wake of the Los Angeles riots and is staffed by former gang members.
While there are examples of employment programs – both nationally and locally – that help formerly incarcerated individuals or former gang members find work, that isn’t TruColors’ focus.
“In general I would expect at least 90 percent of the team is active gang members,” Taylor said about the hiring plan. “Active just means you’re still a member. There’s a misconception that being an active gang member means you do something illegal on a regular basis – it’s not true.”
“It’s illegal to do illegal stuff,” not just to be a gang member, he said, adding that employees engaging in illegal activities would be fired. And he’s depending on the gang leaders who are involved at the company to use their influence among their ranks to keep gang-related violence in the city at bay.
“Anything we believe will put folks on a positive track … we applaud those efforts,” said Wilmington Police Department spokeswoman Linda Rawley Thompson, who added that she has heard of TruColors but not enough details to know what to expect. She said there are concerns “but we’ll wait and see what happens.”
Legislators this summer overhauled the state’s gang activity law, first passed in 2008. It defines criminal gang members – not gang members – to impose enhanced sentences on them and criminal gang leaders if they are convicted of certain felonies.
“The state law that is going into effect in December is making it increasingly more difficult for gang members to continue their old ways. At the same time, expungement laws are being expanded to give people with criminal records the ability to get into legitimate business,” said Ben David, district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties.
A dozen gang members are now full-time TruColors employees.
Some have been working out of Untappd’s Front Street office for most of this year; others were added after the pitch deck presentations and Taylor’s meetings with gang leaders last year.
They’ve gone through a two-month boot camp – focusing on life skills, startup and business skills and beer.
“Everyone’s title is entrepreneur still. That will begin to change in the next six or seven weeks as we start designating people we think are doing well in an area,” Taylor said.
Right now, they’re working on the brewery’s business plan and helping the three community winners of a recent Battle of the Bosses pitch contest that TruColors hosted. Two of the winners will open restaurants – one on the Northside, the other near the Creekwood neighborhood – and the third plans to open a laundromat on the Southside.
The contest prizes were low-interest loans of up to $200,000 each to get the small businesses started. The three winners also are on TruColors’ payroll until their businesses launch, which is expected in January. Besides those non-gang members, two other staffers have been hired to help run the day-to-day operations.
For gang members wanting TruColors jobs, the latest plan is to find them construction work.
“The idea is all these gang members want to work now, and so the idea is we’re going to start this construction division ... that is going to be the entree into TruColors,” said Taylor, adding that there’s about 40 people wanting to work for the company now.
To be hired, the gang members take the same psychometric tests the rest of the Untappd programmers, sales representatives and other startup workers take. They have to go through peer evaluations from the other TruColors workers. Then, under the current plan, they will work in a construction job for two months, hired by TruColors and contracted out to other jobs.
“If they stick it out, then they’re eligible, if there’s a position, to work in the brewery,” he said.
Taylor said the process would get more of the gang members contacting him into jobs while also gauging their level of commitment.
At the same time, they will go through life-skills training on topics such as finances, transportation and housing.
While one of the brewery’s goals is to attempt to make an impact on the social end, the other is to become a viable business.
The long-term plan, if the concept succeeds in Wilmington, is to expand it to other cities, possibly in seven to nine states, Taylor said.
“We have to prove it here first,” he said.
Cory Wrisborne, who joined in August of last year, was the first hire. When he first heard of Taylor’s idea, he was skeptical.
“I thought it was fake. When it was pitched to me, it was on a sheet of paper printed out, and I’m looking at it ... and it was saying like the job title, what’s expected and the different salary ranges. And I’m looking at it like ... yeah, right,” he said. “When I met with them, and we would talk about backgrounds and some things we can do in the community, what he plans to do moving forward – after the conversation, I’m walking to my car like, ‘This guy’s crazy.’”
But Wrisborne showed back up, went through the interview process and started off in sales for Untappd, a social networking app for beer drinkers, since TruColors was still in its nascent stages.
“I didn’t know anything about craft beer, software, sales, anything. I think I broke the call record [sales calls per day] in like my first couple of weeks,” said Wrisborne, who was promoted a few months later and then transitioned to the TruColors team once more people came on. “Everyone holds themselves accountable around here, and it’s going to be the same thing when we get into that [brewery] building.”
For many on the team, the world of craft beer was a foreign one.
Steve Barnett, another early hire last year, for one, was not a fan of the brews. But he said people would be drawn to the jobs that give them a chance to support their families without “looking over their shoulders all the time.”
“It’s not even about the beer itself. It’s the fact that you have this opportunity,” he said. “People are going to want to learn about the beer because they’re going to get paid to learn about the beer. It’s going to be a learning experience regardless for anyone.”
Taylor said he decided on a craft beer brewery because of the industry contacts he already has through working with Untappd (formerly called Next Glass before they merged last year) and because it requires a variety of positions to run.
“They definitely feel it’s hope,” said Vance Williams, founder of Wilmington’s Youth Advance Outreach, a social resource center on Dock Street in The Bottom neighborhood.
Williams knows some of the hired gang members from mentoring them when he worked for the nonprofit Leading into New Communities (LINC).
Williams, a former gang member in Detroit who said his focus is “trying to get people off the gang list,” said employment options are limited for those with records of gang affiliation.
And he saw the impact hiring can do on tamping down gang-related crime when LINC executive director Frankie Roberts took on 35 young people one summer several years ago.
“We had all the main gang members in here, and they never fought,” Williams said.
Still, he said he doesn’t know entirely what to think about TruColors because it’s so early.
“Anybody that’s employing young people that have been disenfranchised is a great benefit to this city, but it’s about how you go about changing the culture,” Williams said, adding that he thinks it is important for new projects to also work with people already in the field. “If a person happens to have the initiative to employ young people, the formula might not be all the way correct, but the thing is they are doing something that nobody else right now is doing.”
In some ways, the Cucalorus Connect talk will be a first real gauge on how the general public reacts to the brewery concept outside of the circles Taylor has spent the past year talking to about the idea.
“People don’t know anything about gang members. When you start getting into this, you start getting into race issues in this town,” Taylor said. “This town’s very segregated. They never talk, so they never figure it out.”
He has had two people tell him they won’t attend the upcoming talk because of safety concerns. And then there’s the question if customers will support the brewpub and brewery.
“So yeah, the truth is I’m sure there will be some people who won’t come because they feel unsafe. But if you do it right, then what will happen is people will realize that that is not the case,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen like that. These guys will protect what they see, [when] people are trying to help them reach out and get involved.”
Barnett also said he did not think having members of rival gangs would cause internal issues because they don’t want to mess up the opportunity. That’s how it’s been for the initial team already in place.
“We hold ourselves to a different standard. We know the role and the purpose that we serve within work and within the community outside of work, so we’ve kind of pretty much put ourselves out there to be role models,” he said.
“Money’s the great equalizer.”