Oftentimes, the greatest innovations are born when a problem (personal or societal) needs fixing. Social justice champion Brandale Randolph is doing just that, with his new high-end brand and company 1854 Cycling. The problems he is solving through the Boston-based 1854 Cycling are both personal and societal, in scope. Personally, Randolph needed a bike that he liked, but was not available. In a societal sense, 1854 Cycling aims to substantially improve the lives of the less fortunate, especially returning citizens (i.e. the formerly incarcerated).
We spoke with Randolph about 1854 Cycling, the concept of “social entrepreneurship and more.
DON DIVA: Give us a little bit of your background.
BRANDALE RANDOLPH: I landed in Lubbock by way of Los Angeles, after the financial meltdown of 2008. My wife was getting her Ph.d. and we relocated to support her. While there, I started a nonprofit, called Project Poverty and one of the populations that I worked with were soon to be released prisoners. To many, I don’t come off as the kind of person who would stand in the middle of a pod of sixty to eighty prisoners and teach a financial literacy class for free, but that is what I did for years in Lubbock. My wife ultimately finished and is now a professor at a college here in Boston. We may have left Lubbock, but the passion to help the less fortunate, has remained.
DD: What is “social entrepreneurship,” in your definition?
BR: I differ from a lot of people in the way that I define “social entrepreneurship.” For some people, it’s just doing good and making money. For me, it’s much deeper than that. For me, “social entrepreneurship” is about new businesses that exist to positively change the arc of the lives of disadvantaged populations. For example, giving away a pair of shoes for each pair that is purchase; planting trees on weekends or hiring people for non-skilled positions, but paying them minimum wages only marginally improves the lives of people in poverty and, to a lesser extent, their communities. However, when your company is supporting, hiring, training and paying living wages to people, such as ex-offenders, you are changing the arc of their lives because your company is now a catalyst to break cycles of generational poverty. There is “doing good” and then there is helping to change that arc that often leads back to raising children in poverty.
DD: How did you come up with the concept of 1854 Cycling ?
BR: One of the things that I truly believe is that the reason why people live in poverty varies by region. In Lubbock, TX, the largest number of people lives in poverty because of chronic unemployment. While unemployment is about not being able to find a job, chronic unemployment is about not being able to keep one for longer than 90 days. Here, on the east coast, a large percentage of families and individuals are in some ways ‘locked’ into cycles of poverty because they have a low level criminal history that prevents them from finding gainful employment, joining the military or enrolling in college, community college or vocational school. This is even after they have paid their debt to society. So in this sense, many ex-offenders are never truly given their freedom.
I find this much like in the year 1854, when enslaved blacks who had managed to escape from slavery, had to live under fear of the now-federally enforced Fugitive Slave Act. In 1854, all over the country, even blacks who were born free and living in free states like Boston and Philadelphia, were being legally kidnapped and dragged back into slavery. On Independence Day of that year, a bunch of abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth and Henry David Thoreau, got together here where 1854 Cycling operates and called out the hypocrisy of celebrating America’s Freedom from Great Britain, while simultaneously participating in slavery. So “freedom” in America is, and has always been, a relative and subjective term.
It is my hope that the 1854 Cycling Company can grow to become a place that hires, trains and uses significant portions of its revenue to support the re-entry of ex-offenders.
DD: From your experience, what contributed to your bike designing? Did you just do it by ear or did you know what you were doing?
BR: This company started because I wanted a bike and I didn’t see anything that I liked. I looked for a bike and I found that I only had three real options. First, I could have purchased a cheaper, low-quality one from a big box place that pays less than living wages to its employees, but that went against my personal code of ethics. Then I could have spent several thousand and purchased one more suited for training for a triathlon, but I am not into that. Then I could have imported one from overseas. It was there that I found the inspiration to get into designing, because I saw some of the dopest bicycles that I have ever seen. So I tried making one. After a bunch of learning, help from experienced frame builders and cyclists, we stumbled upon “The Garrison” and its matching leather bag.
Bicycle designing is not for the faint of heart. Unlike fashion design, a horribly engineered bicycle frame may not just lead to low sales but the kind of death or injury to a customer that could trigger the kind of lawsuit that ultimately ruins your company. It’s important to me, to create a company that lasts, therefore when it comes to bicycle design, I do what I can but I rely on people who have decades of knowledge and experience so that we can create something that is both beautiful and safe to ride at all speeds.
DD: What is the anti-recidivism element of 1854 Cycling?
BR: Right now we are focusing our initial efforts on local movements such as those that look to expunge or seal the records of juvenile offenders. Portions of our initials proceeds are going directly to pro-bono legal organizations, smaller nonprofits and agencies that do this work. Rather than just give blindly to these organizations, we are setting up a fund that can be used by juvenile ex-offenders who can’t otherwise afford the fees to have it done. The more items that we sell, the more that we can add to this fund and thus the more people that we can help. Later on, we hope to switch from this to employing and training ex-offenders.
DD: What goes into launching a legit bicycle company? What steps did you need to take?
BR: For us, we wanted to gain the trust and analyze feedback from legitimate cycling communities. Not doing so would have been like launching a new sneaker without feedback from sneakerheads. In the same way that a smart sneaker company should not want to launch a sneaker that causes their customers to be shunned by the sneaker-buying community, we didn’t want to create a bike that cyclists around the world would ridicule. I did lots of research and absorbed feedback from people who I knew rode bicycles, particularly to work, and we created something that is safe enough to ride and beautiful enough to put in your office.
DD: How has 1854 Cycling been received since launching?
BR: Generally positive. Lots of people love the way that our first bicycle looks and the concept behind our company and brand. The only push back that we have received are those who are a bit uncomfortable when you bring up the subject of slavery, the Abolitionist Movement or working with ex-offenders and there is a reason why I won’t let their discomfort alter our focus:
I don’t believe in giving any authority to people who are not even potential customers. I believe that even if I became the “All Live Matter brand Bicycle Company,” people who don’t care about equality or restorative justice probably still won’t buy anything from us. Their cowardice, ignorance and fragility prevents them from being part of the solution and frankly, I can say I don’t want the support of such people, even if it is a large potential source of income. I would rather sell one hundred bicycles to people who will proudly ride it and wear an ‘abolitionist’ sweatshirt, than a million people who refuse to understand why the fight for equality and justice is still relevant.
DD: What is your ultimate goal with 1854 Cycling?
BR: Our ultimate, long-term goal is to open our own factory where we fabricate our own steel frame and handcraft all of our leather goods. Hopefully, then we will be able to employ a few dozen people– a majority of them ex-offenders–and pay them above-average living wages. In the short term we are looking to introduce an entire line of upscale bicycles and bags. We want to introduce a women’s model by this time next year, maybe a BMX style design, new bag designs and possibly an electric bicycle within the next five years. 1854 Cycling is designed for the long-term, but to get there, it all starts with the early adopters who choose to give us a chance by buying a bicycle or bags now.
Visit the official 1854 Cycling website to see what they’re working with here.