I walk in on the weekly board meeting of Korner Boyz Enterprises, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect —12 people seated around a long conference table, projection equipment set up for a video presentation and everyone with a bottle of water.
But there are a couple of noticeable distinctions from the usual tableau: Four of the people at the table are teenage boys, three of them in hoodies, and the water bottles are as much a product demonstration as a source of refreshment.
Korner Boyz Enterprises is a startup created by a small group of Baltimore squeegee kids with the help of adult mentors. The boys are now selling their own brand of bottled water by the case, half-pallet or pallet. The business has been in development for months — the boys already have had some sales — and their official rollout is slated for Friday night at the Shake & Bake Family Fun Center in West Baltimore.
Those looking for an alternative to the contentious street enterprise in place across the city — teens and young men at busy intersections, variously pleasing, annoying or accosting motorists with their spray bottles and squeegees — might want to look at what’s happened here.
But warning: Korner Boyz took considerable time, creativity and consistent nurturing. This was no top-down intervention. It started with listening to the boys and, says one of their mentors, “treating them like human beings.”
Last winter, a young man who works at the Maryland Institute College of Art started talking with squeegee boys who worked near MICA, at Mount Royal and North avenues. Kai Crosby-Singleton is community liaison for MICA’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. He observed the squeegee boys, all of whom are black, being verbally abused with racial epithets as they tried to earn some bucks cleaning windshields. He got to know the kids by name — Taetae, Leroy, Khalil, Keyon and Deauntae — and learned about their lives. Some had been recruited into the drug trade but resisted and took up the squeegee instead. Most just needed money for food and their cell phones.
[ Baltimore’s ‘squeegee kid’ issue has reached a tipping point; it’s time for a break ]
The conversations continued into spring, and the more Crosby-Singleton understood about the kids’ circumstances, the more he thought about the possibility of moving them toward a better way to make money.
In April, he invited some of the boys to the annual Baltimore Thinkathon, a day of brainstorming by some of the city’s most creative women and men. The Thinkathon is a collaboration of MICA and the Baltimore Cultural Alliance; Sheri Parks, culture critic and MICA vice-president, established it seven years ago.
Five of the squeegee boys participated in the Thinkathon. They met Parks. They met Adrian Harpool, a communications specialist and campaign strategist, and Michael Scott, who runs the non-profit Equity Matters. Unique Robinson, artist and MICA faculty member, got involved. So did Harpool’s son, Ian. They all volunteered time, talents and knowledge at regular meetings at MICA.
From those discussions, the idea of helping the boys get into the bottled-water market developed. Some of them had sold water on the street already, and they knew others who did the same. “They told us it was the next business they wanted to get into,” says Crosby-Singleton.
Graphic artist and MICA teaching fellow Jerome Harris met with the boys and designed their logo. Scot Spencer, an associate director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, joined the project, and the foundation gave $5,000 toward the startup. Dorcas Gilmore, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, drew up a business agreement. Crosby-Singleton learned that the boys already had a code of conduct; he put it in writing for them.
[ Baltimore has tried to solve its squeegee problem for decades. Will the latest attempt work? ]
“The young men said they were businessmen, that squeegee and the occasional sale of water were their hustles,” says Parks. “They agreed to teach us how to work with them in exchange for our time. They already trusted each other in a way that would have been difficult to construct. They spoke often of loyalty and empathy. … We started applying their skills, strategies and patterns of work to another type of hustle.”
So, if you pick up a bottle of Korner Boyz water, you’ll see their motto on the back label: “Freedom to hustle.”
“What we said was, ‘We respect your hustle, we just want to show you some other options, how you can make money more efficiently,’” says Crosby-Singleton.
“These are smart, creative kids,” says Scott. “And we helped them build a business model and made it a learning opportunity. Every meeting with them has some lesson about business.”
The boys, none of whom wanted to give me their last names (for now), are not giving up the squeegee trade (for now), but they plan to eventually move off the street, pitch bulk sales to institutional customers at the wholesale level and sell their water at events.
Korner Boyz bottled water is just a start. There could be other products down the line — flavored waters, sparkling water — and Khalil already has his brothers-in-business talking about the need to recycle the plastic their enterprise produces.
“By us doing this we might help other [squeegee] kids,” says Keyon.
“This will make them see they can do something different,” says Khalil.
“None would suspect that kids from Baltimore could do something like this,” Keyon adds.
But it’s happening. Korner Boyz bottled water is now on sale, and they’re taking orders. Look for their web site at www.kbzenterprises.com this weekend.