This is a challenging time for New Jerseyans, to say the least.
For this New Jerseyan, the last few weeks have been marked by endless Zooms, a makeshift virtual elementary school in my dining room and conversations about the increasing panic about the state of small business and the start-up ecosystem.
Last week, my friend Kacy Erdelyi sent me a note that she would officially close Joyist, the organic functional foods cafe she founded around the corner from our houses. Kacy is not just a neighbor. She and I, along with New Jersey Economic Development Authority President Tim Sullivan, were college classmates. Kacy is a former New York City advertising agency executive turned small business owner in Montclair, the dynamic urban suburb we now both call home.
Joyist was a community-focused brand with an instant following. Kacy’s customers showed up early for lattes and vegan bowls and late for her “Think Tank” events, content sessions cultivated to support women entrepreneurs. As Kacy knows, female founders are underfunded everywhere, not just New Jersey, receiving only 2.7% of all venture capital last year. Unfortunately, ten weeks into the coronavirus pandemic this entrepreneur is now out of business. But Kacy is a resilient New Jerseyan and has already remade herself as a branding consultant for her Think Tank community and others.
In the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of writing about American businesses, large and small. With Big Tech companies like Twitter and Facebook and even my former employer Google, making noise about employees continuing to work remotely, even indefinitely, what does this mean for our region? If someone can get a job at one of these companies – say, while living in Salt Lake City – and virtually add value from her home office, then why live here? For new businesses that will surely emerge post COVID-19, why choose to put down roots in New Jersey? This place is expensive, as residents and business-owners know alike.
Similar to that old adage about robbing banks because that’s where the money is, large businesses and start-ups have thrived in our New Jersey communities because this is where the talent is. And in our case, a tremendous depth of highly-skilled, diverse and gritty talent on every street corner from Teaneck to Trenton. This talent is cultivated at our exceptional public and private schools, but also imported everytime we attract new professionals of all skill sets into the state. Companies large and small have dug in here, primarily because of access to that talent. That won’t change, for a long time to come. And I would argue that it never will.
Take for example, Montclair State University’s recent business pitch competition, which was open to students, alumni and community start-ups with founders based in Montclair, Clifton and Little Falls. One of our winning student businesses, SoLo’s Food, and a community startup, Vett News, will co-locate together at our Montclair Innovation Lab this summer. SoLo Food founders Diamonique Lundy and Kheyyon Parker are Montclair State food science students, focused on building a business delivering high-quality organic meals to low-income residents in Newark. Home delivery was part of their business model before COVID-19. On the flip side, VettNews is a correction engine for journalists, conceived by former Wall Street Journal writer Paul Glader and Peter Freeby. These Montclair residents have developed a block of code for news publications to drop in their content management systems to “vet” the news.
Organic home meal delivery and a tool to fight Fake News. Where else but New Jersey could these two types of businesses not only thrive in the same pitch competition but also coexist in the same incubator? That would be ours, the Montclair Innovation Lab at 10 Lackawanna Plaza in Montclair. Both business models are highly relevant in our current environment and both have the potential to have market traction here with the right support. Our region and this state provides Diamonique, Kheyyon, Paul and Peter the ability to further accelerate these very different businesses and build a customer base – in Newark, New York City and beyond.
We’ve heard that chaos breeds innovation and know that some of the most challenging times in history have led to great inventions and great businesses, many of them in New Jersey. It’s still hard to know what the future will bring. But we do know that this is a place where talent lives, diversity is celebrated and reinvention is king. (Or queen, in Kacy Erdeyli’s case). Companies big and small will continue to grow in New Jersey for exactly these reasons. Our job will be to support our entrepreneurs and allow them to pivot and grow in moments like this one.
Carley Graham Garcia, Executive Director, Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Montclair State University
Board Member, TechUnited:NJ
Incubator Advisory Committee, Hot Bread Kitchen
Board Member At Large, Montclair Center BID
Photos Courtesy of Mike Peters, Montclair State University
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