Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, TRU Colors’ CEO and founder George Taylor announced in a statement that the brewery, which employs active gang members, will close Friday. Click here to read coverage of the announcement. Below is the full statement.
I spent the past 7 years working closely with so many amazing people trying to better our city. Over time, our work turned into TRU Colors, a social mission with a tightly integrated business.
There was no playbook, and while we made mistakes, we learned and TRU Colors became effective in its social mission. But it has nevertheless been tough gaining local support. I’ve asked many about this, and generally the response is that for many in Wilmington, optics are more important than results. I sure hope this is untrue since this lack of care and courage would make real social change nearly impossible.
With these challenges and more (COVID delays to product issues to biased media to lost teammates), TRU Colors has faced stiff headwinds that have slowed progress. These challenges have only increased in 2022, and with recent events, tragically we are no longer able to continue.
TRU Colors’ last day of operation will be September 9th. The cost of change is high.
As we wind down, I thought it could be helpful to explain, and so below is a small look into TRU Colors – why we started and some of what we believe and care about. I don’t know what the future holds for the TRU Colors team or for those who were counting on us to succeed, but I do know these issues and the people involved are critically important to our community, and so I hope you will read on.
On December 22, 2015, my life changed forever. The spark was a 16-year-old who was tragically gunned down in our city on the corner of Castle and 11th, and from this horrific event I became obsessed with understanding the cause of street violence.
This was far from Wilmington’s first shooting, but it was the first time I noticed. And while some have expressed anger over my previous ignorance, it wasn’t that I didn’t care about Wilmington and all those in it. Instead, like most, I was just comfortably unaware.
At the time, I was living in a gated community, looking out and saying, “if those guys would just make good choices, they wouldn’t have all these problems”. I have since learned I was naïve and wrong, and for years we’ve had a saying at TRU Colors, “don’t judge my choices until you understand my options”.
Regardless, this spark generated enough anger in me that in 2016 I reached out to our District Attorney, asking for an introduction to gang leaders. I wanted to meet, and I wanted to understand.
This led to being around gangs for the next 3 years – first in our city, then our state, and then across the country. And the people I met and circumstances I saw them enduring, changed my perspective forever.
I learned that in Wilmington there are generations living in poverty, believing they will never have a chance at a future beyond their current circumstances. That there are children going to bed hungry and hopeless, believing that unless they become a star athlete, mainstream society will exclude them forever. And that there are communities living with the chronic anxiety that comes from witnessing violence and worrying about safety each time they step out their front door. This is a Wilmington most of us do not know or see, but it is nevertheless very real.
To understand what’s happening, you need to meet those who are living it. For most Wilmingtonians, this can be difficult, but it’s the only way I know to begin to understand. And I also found that once you exchange headlines and statistics for names and circumstances, you find the truth very quickly.
My epiphany came when I realized the core drivers of violence were lack of economic opportunity and societal exclusion. This critical understanding eventually led to the launch of TRU Colors – an inclusive economic opportunity with a social mission that uses reform, education, and livable wage jobs to lift communities and make them safer.
And contrary to media reports, TRU Colors has been effective. Our police department recently reported that in 2021, a year most cities saw increased violence, the Wilmington communities in which we focused saw a 43% reduction in violent crime. Certainly not perfect, but better.
In addition, TRU Colors employed scores of people who were once a risk to our city’s safety, but at TRU Colors they learned to believe in a bright future. They worked side-by-side, building careers and raising families, and they became contributing members of the Wilmington community.
But TRU Colors is hard. Really hard. Not only do we have the typical startup challenges, but the methods and processes of our social mission are admittedly non-standard and often controversial. Thinking about it though, street violence is a decades old problem that traditional methods have failed to significantly influence, so shouldn’t non-standard solutions be expected? Even sought after and encouraged?
Street violence in Wilmington stems from decades of mainstream ambivalence towards racism and poverty, and it is risky and complex work trying to reverse it. For the average white Wilmingtonian, it doesn’t get much scarier than working on racism and poverty mixed with guns and violence. So, I understand the hesitancy in openly supporting TRU Colors, and recognize it is far easier to remain, as I did, comfortably unaware, not knowing any names or circumstances.
But some try to tear down TRU Colors, almost always with half-truths, falsehoods, and a lack of any direct knowledge. This has been driven by some local media who appear to have decided that angering and dividing our community generates ongoing clicks and engagement (money), and salacious headlines and biased stories on TRU Colors coupled with violence and/or race adds fuel to the fire.
With lightning rod topics, TRU Colors also attract national media. Last week, The New Yorker published an article on TRU Colors. It presented a negative storyline, oddly choosing to omit context and facts that apparently did not align with the story’s narrative. This is the challenge with media, a fact can be accurate, but unto itself or without context, it is not necessarily truthful.
Whether local or national, once media finds a narrative that works, it tends to focus on maintaining and amplifying it. In the pursuit of dollars, some news agencies, once committed to journalistic integrity, are now re-titling journalists as Investigative Reporters, which appears to translate to someone who creates narratives that drive division, drama, and clicks.
This can be damaging. When TRU Colors is searched, news articles on some of our most personal and difficult moments appear with salacious headlines that would frighten most. This has been costly and over the past year TRU Colors has lost $5.6 million dollars in investment. These deals were set to close but did not because even though investors understood the stories were exaggerated or untrue, they were unwilling to take on the media and the narrative.
This happened again a few weeks ago when we were scheduled to close a critical funding round. At the time, we were aware of The New Yorker and disclosed what we knew. The situation brought to light the media risk associated with TRU Colors and the understandable concern of being brought into a social media storm on race and violence. For most, this is frightening and an unacceptable risk.
Because of these lost deals, and contrary to what the media portrays, TRU Colors does not have millions of dollars. We are very grateful for our corporate partners, but the fact is that Molson Coors took a small equity stake and while PNC Bank also invested, it was a refi of our building and equipment. After fees and repayments, TRU Colors was left with about $8,000.
Another misconception is that our team did not receive equity, and instead, I stood to make millions if TRU Colors sold. This is false on both counts. After 5 months employment, all team members received stock options, providing significant equity opportunity. Also, my agreement only allowed me to recoup my investment. Any gains I might receive were setup to go to the team.
So, the cost of change is high – financially, emotionally, and physically. But the cost of not changing is higher. Wilmington is an incredibly wealthy city with more than enough resources to implement real change, but we need the fortitude to step into these core problems and stay with it. We will never be a great city if we turn a blind eye on the tough issues and the people we have excluded for decades.
Business and political leaders are committed to things that can help – affordable housing, access to good food, counseling and education, etc. These are important services. However, their potential will never be realized if we don’t first provide safety and livable wage jobs. These are precursors to other services being effective, and TRU Colors is the only organization I know that for years has been working to move the needle on safety and jobs.
Real and sustainable change begins on the edges though, not in the middle where it’s comfortable and easy. That’s why so few work on these core problems, and also why efforts in affordable housing, food access, education, etc. have been tried for decades with far less success than expected.
The reason these efforts fall short is simple. It doesn’t matter if housing is affordable or good food is available, if each time people step outside, they are worried about safety. And without livable wage jobs, affordable housing is still unachievable and eventually just becomes passive gentrification, breeding further distrust and displacement of those it was intended to help. This is one reason TRU Colors is important. Its approach provides the foundation other services require to fully succeed.
As an early-stage startup, TRU Colors depends on investment to fuel growth and reach profitability. With unexpected delays, media problems, and more, it has been costly as we have worked through it all. With help from a few people, I have covered most of the company’s shortfalls, but I have reached the limit of what can be done. All of this, coupled with recent media issues, has created a perfect storm causing our expected investment to dry up. This has left TRU Colors without a viable path forward.
I have spent my career in startups, pursuing risky ideas that I thought would matter. In doing so, I have risked everything and succeeded and also risked everything and failed. Every failure hurt, but TRU Colors is different and tragic on many levels.
Good and selfless people who have risked so much to better themselves and our city, have lost their careers – most who found TRU Colors to be their first fair opportunity at a bright future. And our failure will further seed distrust in many of Wilmington’s marginalized and excluded communities and they will again question the intentions and ability of the next person who tries to help.
There is no good option here, and I sought advice from those I trust and ran down every opportunity I could find. For many reasons, it is wrong for TRU Colors to end, but sadly, I was unable to find anyone willing to help. In the end, a friend told me that sometimes you need to have faith in God to go forward, and sometimes you need to have faith in God to stop, and He has it. I think my friend is right, but I also wish God spoke in fewer riddles.
To the TRU Colors team and all the others who were counting on our success, I am deeply sorry I let you down. TRU Colors is so much more than a startup or financial investment. It is a vision and a mission, that are critical to our future. What our team did mattered and what our team did worked, but we ran out of runway. The cost of change is high.
I pray Wilmington will build on the lessons learned from TRU Colors. Reform, education, and jobs truly do lift communities and make them safer. We proved it. TRU stands for Truth, Responsibility, and Unity, and it is through this lens that I believe we can continue to move forward to unite and better our city.
Lastly, I hope Wilmington will show the TRU Colors team grace, appreciation, and opportunity. Instead of talking, they came together and acted. They showed more courage than most and risked much for the betterment of Wilmington. As Roosevelt said in his Man in the Arena speech, credit belongs to the ones in the arena, and the arena is most certainly where the men and women of TRU Colors have been. They acted and they made a difference, and I am proud and thankful to have stood with them.