John Henry is a hustler. The 26-year-old, born to Dominican parents and raised in Harlem, knows the right thing to say at the perfect time. His uncanny ability to maneuver in different settings paired with his innate business acumen has catapulted him from a doorman to a part-owner of Harlem Capital, a company designed to invest in businesses created by women and minorities.
At 18, Henry’s entrepreneurial journey started when a resident of the Brooklyn building where he worked took notice of his intellect and vibrant personality. The tenant owned a dry-cleaning business and offered Henry a chance to make money if he contracted clients for his venture. Eventually, he would end up making the larger part of the profits. This small start led him to develop Mobile City, a dry-cleaning service that winded up catering to Hollywood’s most prominent television and film sets. His first big break in Tinsel Town was in the costume department for The Wolf of Wall Street. He ended up landing more contracts within entertainment, which led him to drop out of community college to solely focus on his company. Since then, he’s sold the business for an undisclosed hefty amount.
“I understood early on that the real money wasn’t the $14 an hour that I was making — the real currency was the people that were there,” Henry tells VIBE. “I had a very people focus approach very early on. When people see something in someone they want to help them out, so there was this one resident in particular, a Boricua guy, who told me, ‘You’re too fu**ing smart to be behind the desk, you can have your own doorman. Don’t settle for being the doorman.’”
Now, with his new VICELAND show titled Hustle (executive produced by Alicia Keys and Marcus Samuelsson), Henry sounds like a seasoned vet who’s an owner of five Fortune 500 companies while mentoring the entrepreneurs featured on the eight-episode show. He uses terms like Riches n Niches, Brand Equity, and Biz Def to break down his strategy on helping these businesses go from unknown status to mainstream lucrative ubiquity.
On the first episode, viewers meet Ashley Rouse, the owner of Trade Street Jam, a company that sells $12 vegan jams made out of fruit with low sugar. During the episode, Henry persistently attempts to coax Ashley into quitting her 9 to 5 job to focus on her business. According to a recent interview with XO Necole, Rouse did leave her corporate job.
Amid hosting Hustle and being a part-owner of Harlem Capital, Henry also owns a real estate business and owns 17 apartments in two buildings in Allentown, Penn., Fortune reports. “The sky is the limit” is definitely an understatement when it comes to Henry’s work ethic and drive.
Here, VIBE chatted with him about how he hustled his way to Hustle.
VIBE: How did you come up with the idea of a dry-cleaning business at 18, and then get Hollywood clients off it?
John Henry: I didn’t come up with the idea for the dry cleaner. I didn’t come up with the idea for a lot of stuff that I’ve done, which is interesting because we’re made to feel like an entrepreneur is someone who has this brilliant idea — and sometimes that’s true, but, more often than not, it’s just a matter of making something out of what’s presented to you.
And here’s what I mean: this resident already owned a dry cleaner. That’s how he made his money. He said, “John, I own this dry-cleaning facility. I don’t have much in this world, but I have this. You go and make something out of it. Convince anyone, I don’t care who it is, go out there and hustle and convince someone to give you their clothes. And if you bring this to me, I’ll clean them for wholesale rate. You charge the market rate and you make the spread.”
So in other words, a suit would cost you $12 to dry clean, it would cost me $4 so I would make the $8 spread. So I was like “Ok.” Eight dollars a piece isn’t much money, but if you’re talking 100 pieces it’s looking much better or 1,000 pieces that’s even better than that. Immediately, I fell in love with the idea that in entrepreneurship the results are really in your hands because no matter how much I open that door, my income was capped as a doorman. Whereas being an entrepreneur it was all up to me.
To answer your question on how I got started in Hollywood, that also wasn’t my idea. I started promoting my business, so one of the residents in the building told me “I’m in film/TV, we need someone to do our dry cleaning because we shoot at three in the morning and no dry cleaner is open at that time.”
Obviously, he’s like, “What time do you get out.” And I was like, “At 11.” He picked me up, took to me to set of what became my first film account, which was The Wolf Of Wall Street. I was fortunate they gave me a chance. I did well with it. And then he said, “There is a new account. I’m going to introduce you.” That new account was Boardwalk Empire, and Law & Order: A Person Of Interest. Then I went on to do White Collar and Ninja Turtle. I quit my job. I dropped out of college and I really went for this full time.
How did your parents take you dropping out of college?
As immigrant parents, they came here and they always had this vision of us being a doctor or a lawyer. They were definitely not thrilled when I told them that I was going to leave school and that I was going to start a business. They were like, “Alright what business?” I said, “Dry cleaner.” They were like, “What?!” because my father was actually a presser growing up. They felt like, “Dude we didn’t come here so you can take a step back, we want you to take a step forward.” But they didn’t understand at the time that it wasn’t about the industry, it was about ownership. That’s the first time I ever really owned anything and now they are my biggest fans. They came around but it took them a little while.
Did you handpick the contestants on Hustle?
VICE gives me a lot of creative liberty. We have a casting company that spreads the word and gets hundreds of applications. Then they’ll do all that part for me and boil it down to like maybe five or 10 finalists per episode. And then I choose who I get most excited by. I drive what happens in the episodes. It’s my vision for how the entrepreneur should grow their business. I told them early on that it would be hard for me to work with a business that didn’t fascinate me. With Ashley, for instance, I hand chose her and I was really adamant about working with her. Every business in the whole season you’ll see was hand selected by me and I was very excited to work with each one of them.
Did you come up with the three business models presented on the show: Riches n Niches, Biz Def and Brand Equity? Do you use them in your own business approach?
That section of the show we call Biz Pod. It’s something we came up with. I’m glad you asked because it was kind of a funny story of how that whole device came to be. We were shooting the pilot and I’m so engulfed in my own world that I’m not even noticing when I’m using business lingo. I keep saying we have to biz def or we have to build brand equity. Those are not terms that I made up, but those are terms that are used in business, that maybe are not commonly used outside of business. My director was like, “John what the hell is biz def?” Then Ashley was like, “What’s biz def?” That’s when we realized there is an opportunity here to actually educate the viewer.
We really fell in love with this idea of producing the show around showing an authentic look at entrepreneurship and along the way educate the viewer on some key terms that we think they should take away. That’s kind of how we came up with that little device that ended up being called biz pods. I choose all the terms as well. My director and I go back and forth on what we feel is the best biz pod for the episode and then we take it from there.
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On the show, you speak with a lot of conviction about the decisions you think must be made in order to achieve success. Were you always this confident or was this a muscle you had to develop?
Definitely a muscle I had to develop. The more time you spend in the arena, the more confident you become in your own abilities. But also, the more self-awareness you develop. I have no problem saying, “I’m being too stubborn,” or taking a step back and saying, “I think I’m wrong here.” But one thing I did learn over the years is when you’re in the driver’s seat you have to be careful because sometimes people come with interests that are not aligned with yours. That is a learned skill that comes with time.
What are some challenges that you’ve faced in your career?
So many. For starters, I would say one of my biggest challenges was figuring out how the whole machine works. The reason why I’m really passionate about the show is because we get a chance to offer a glimpse to people about the fundamentals of building a business, like the basic building blocks because if you grow up in an affluent neighborhood you kind of have examples, role-models, support networks, all around you at any given time.
If you have a question about taxes you have an uncle that’s an accountant, or your auntie that’s a lawyer or something like that. Growing up in The Heights, in any underserved low-income community, that infrastructure does not exist so the hardest part that took me years to learn was how the whole game works. I’m talking about how the whole machinery works.
How does business affect a community? How does real estate affect a community? How does politics affect business? All these pieces that seem kind of separate are actually very closely interconnected. And it took me probably five or six years to really develop a macro perspective. Now that I have that framework I really feel like I can go on and do anything. So that’s the same understanding that I really want to impart on people both through my personal efforts like the content I create on Instagram and obviously something like the show.
Dominicans make good business people. In New York, many of the corner grocery stores are Dominican or Arab-owned. And Dominicans also own a lot of taxi car companies. Has your cultural background influenced your business sense?
Absolutely, and you’re right Dominican people are good at business. In New York, we tend to be more merchants, but the skills that I learned from our culture are fu**ing invaluable. Even just my mom buying plantains on the corner. She would constantly negotiate. My dad trained me to be really resourceful. We had so little growing up that he would teach me to make the most out of it. All these ingrained lessons from our communities were instilled in me. Now that I’m in the corporate arena I’m a beast because a lot of these kids I’m with grew up in a different life path. Now that we’re in the same rooms I find myself consistently outwitting and outmaneuvering a lot of these people because maybe they don’t have some of that cultural edge.
If you can come from a disadvantaged position and make it, you end up having such a massive edge because then you have both; street smarts and book smarts. I think of Jay-Z, he maneuvered real danger and the streets. And now for him to sit in a boardroom there is no one else in that boardroom who’s had his life experience, which makes it even more valuable.
What do you think is the biggest risk you can take in your career now?
The biggest risk right now that you can take as a business person is to take no risk. If you default to just doing things the way you’ve done them you will go out of business because everything is changing so fast. The media is being consumed differently. Weed is being legalized, retail is going out of business. The mall that used to be so hot is now being replaced by Amazon. Lawmaking and policy-making are now being shifted by artificial intelligence, cars are going to be self-driven. Every industry is changing so much, so the most dangerous risk you can take is not doing anything different.
I love risks because with high risks comes high reward. And it doesn’t always work out and that’s the scary part about it. I’m just focusing on leveraging this opportunity. My biggest risks are all on the Harlem Capital side. I have a $25 million fund and we invest in women and minorities. I don’t just talk about this. We put our money where our mouth is and invest our money into companies owned by people that look like us, and that’s very risky business because a lot of businesses don’t make it.
What do you hope people in your community will take away from being on this show?
I’m already starting to see the response. Dozens of people a day are reaching out to me saying, “I’m so proud just to see someone who looks like me that understands business and is on camera while helping other people.” The byproduct of this show is going to be good because people are going to have role models, they are going to see real stories of people who look like them striving to make it, and making it.
Hustle airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on VICELAND.