Entrepreneurship as Protest

Anti-poverty advocate Brandale Randolph sells high-tech bikes to law enforcement agencies. This Juneteenth, Brandale shares his vision for the future.

Brandale Randolph with one of his earlier (non-police) products.

Background

A history buff with a background in business, Brandale named his company, 1854 Cycling, after the July 4, 1854 protest in Framingham by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, attended by William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Henry David Thoreau.

Brandale’s founding vision was to hire—at a living wage—formerly incarcerated mothers, who find it hard to get jobs upon their physical release from prison, effectively locking them and their kids into another link in the historical chain of poverty.

Brandale had been making a few hundred bikes per year in his garage since 2016. Yet recent tariffs on Chinese imports drove up the price of bike parts, which nearly smothered his business. Brandale was forced to find a way to pivot.

He retooled his strategy and partnered with well-known local technology companies. The result: an electric power-assisted bike that includes top-end data and communications tools: the Thoreau Tactical System (pictured below). The current challenge: orders by the tens of thousands from law enforcement agencies for the +$10,000 customizable package, who know that bike-mounted officers are less intimidating, more agile and approachable, and work in all weather conditions.

Below are highlights of recent conversations and correspondence with Brandale.

What is your perception of the present moment?

“The racial wealth gap is the scariest part of our current context. As Martin Luther King said, ‘what good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?’”

“I have survivor’s guilt,” Brandale continues, “because there are so many brilliant black people unemployed, or underemployed, that will never make it back. This predates COVID-19. But the pandemic made it worse. Our best and brilliant are under-earning. College-educated young people are driving for Uber.”

“What will close the black wealth gap? Entrepreneurship is one way we move up. But it has gotten harder. How do you bootstrap when your bootstraps have been removed?”

What is it like to do business with law enforcement agencies, especially now, at a time in which police brutality and racial injustice are in the headlines? And what’s your vision for the future?

“My overall goal is to demilitarize the police force. I see a neighborhood and visualize a better way of serving: the same way that I see in other communities. Not with weapons.”

“I am thinking; ‘you are about to go into my neighborhood? Here’s what I want you to have.’ We see breakdowns now in building relations. I’d like all neighborhoods to see an officer helping a homeless person or the elderly.”

“Instead, I want to provide information tools so that officers have context—so that they better understand the communities and the people and the situation.”

“To clarify: I don’t want law enforcement professionals to be social workers, but I see a world where they have a better connection to social workers, mental health professionals, etc.”

Specifics on moving forward: “we have solutions”

“I sell this world, this vision. I see a world where we want to police ourselves with your help (meaning the help of police). In the community I live in now, law enforcement only comes when there’s a problem. There are no suspects. It’s different in predominantly black communities: those are patrolled—and that tension boils over every few years. Why can’t you treat me the same way?”

“We have to make the transition from ‘we’re the people with the problems’ to ‘we have solutions.’ We’re saying: ‘since you’re going to be in our neighborhoods… here’s how to actually serve and protect, here’s how to do your job so patrols are less of an armed exercise of white supremacy.’”

Anything to share on challenges of being a black entrepreneur?

“There can be awkward situations. People try to poke holes in your reasoning, seeming to imply ‘you with are not as smart as you think.’”

“But the offense happens in negotiating contracts like a term sheet. If I ask for $2 million, I hear a response like ‘we’ll give you $500,000 if you hire a COO, and then we want 30% of your company.’ I would prefer a ‘no’ than an insult like that. I see mediocre white businesses get $5-10 million investments for dumb ideas. I see them fail in less than 3-4 months, but at least they got their shot at success. It’s frustrating, yet that is the present reality of the world in which we live.”

“Given this situation, starting and growing my business is my protest and my solution.”

Thank you to Brandale Randolph and his wife, Dr. Angela Randolph, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at Babson College, for the past five years of conversations, correspondence, and friendship. Brandale and I bonded at a Babson event to welcome new professors and their families in 2015. This post is respectfully dedicated to a future worthy of both those we’ve lost and those growing up right now, including the Randolphs’ children. For more background on Juneteenth by Henry Louis Gate, Jr., click here.

Published by Adam Sulkowski

Associate Professor of Law and Sustainability, specializing in research and teaching on sustainable business, corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainability reporting, integrated reporting, and corporate and environmental law.

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