By: Cate Anderson Issue: Innovation, Growth, Job Creation Section: Community
The Story of Haroun Cowans
The Story of a Young Entrepreneur
Five Points, one of Denver’s historic neighborhoods, resides northeast of the central business district. Once known as “the Harlem of the West,” this community supported thriving small businesses, restaurants, and jazz clubs that hosted the likes of musicians Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie through the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. In the late 1950s, the area began a social and economic decline with the influx of drugs and the rise of gang violence. The consequence of this decline is still sharply felt today with graduation rates hovering below 50 percent, with one-third of neighborhood children living in poverty, with rates of violence markedly higher than surrounding metro-areas, and with many storefront and commercial spaces sitting abandoned and boarded up.
Enter Haroun Cowans.
Presently, Cowans is working to revive this iconic Denver neighborhood through his own business ventures and by supporting entrepreneurial education among young people.
A native of the Five Points neighborhood, Cowans’ roots run deep. He attended high school in the area, has launched several businesses that have employed over seventy-five people from these neighborhoods, and he still lives nearby. Cowans’ current project is the restoration of the iconic Rossonian Hotel that is in the heart of the business corridor. From the 1920’s to 1950’s, the Rossonian was a hot spot for all of the great jazz legends traveling between the coasts. Built in 1912, this architectural gem has been vacant for years. Cowans has teamed up with Civil Technology, a private equity firm specializing in real estate, transportation and redevelopment in urban areas. The vision is for the Rossonian to house a restaurant and jazz club on the street level with office space above. “I see this project as a catalyst for a larger redevelopment of Five Points,” he explains.
Cowans traces his entrepreneurial foundation back to his early years. “At eight years old, my favorite game to play was starting my own business and selling it to my cousins. I had the entrepreneurial spirit, but needed mentorship and support to cultivate it,” he notes. Growing up in an inner-city neighborhood, gang violence, low high school graduation rates, and poverty were the norm among his peers. In 1994 at 16-years-old, Cowans applied for a job with YouthBiz, a local nonprofit organization that equips youth with entrepreneurial, academic and life skills. He names this experience as the vehicle that set him on the innovative track.
YouthBiz traces its roots back to the 1992 “Summer of Violence.” It was formed by eight teenagers and a local business leader in response to the 1992 outbreak of gang activity. With a loan of $75, borrowed hangers, and jerry-rigged equipment, the young people started a screen-printing business run out of a boarded up storefront. Soon, they were inviting their friends to come work in the business. It was urban guerilla entrepreneurship that would evolve into an organization that has today worked with over 4,000 young people and invested over $1.2 million in youth wages.
After working in the screen-printing business for a couple years, Cowans soon took on a leadership role in organizing and operating the program. “This role was one of the most important things I did as a young adult. It gave me insight into entrepreneurship and responsibility at a young age. Not only did I have a job, but I was in charge of running a business.” This early exposure led Cowans to start his first business at age nineteen.
Supporting Young Entrepreneurs
“Having a first-hand experience as an adolescent enabled me to understand and see the value of these programs from a youth’s perspective. In my role as Board Chair for YouthBiz, I am now able to foster a vision for the future of this organization and the impact it can have on this community.” said Cowans.
To succeed in the shifting 21st century economy, young people will need skills and attitudes beyond those taught in traditional academic settings. Entrepreneurs have a unique ability to recognize opportunities, assess risk, and approach problems with creativity and innovation. These skills are desperately needed in socially and economically struggling neighborhoods and have the capacity to redefine the narrative for a community. “I think a lot of kids have an early aptitude for entrepreneurship, but if it is not nurtured and supported, it can be squashed by the social norms. We cannot afford to lose the ideas, ventures, and development that these youth can bring to our community,” Cowans elaborates. “Investing and equipping young people who will be the innovators and job creators of tomorrow is the key. I believe entrepreneurship has the ability to change the trajectory of a community.”
While the challenges facing the teens of northeast Denver are great, YouthBiz works to expand the possibilities for entrepreneurship, education, and employment. Among youth who participate in the programs, measurable results are experienced — GPAs go up, risky behavior goes down, and plans for the future are made. In fact, several studies have observed the beneficial effects of entrepreneurship education programs on youth. Immediate outcomes include strengthened job readiness, civic engagement, interpersonal skills and academic performance. Long-term outcomes include higher levels of advanced educational attainment, stronger health status, a reduction of criminal behavior, and a more positive, holistic psychological well-being. As youth connect with educational and entrepreneurial opportunities, they develop the skills and courage to rewrite the existing narrative for their lives, their schools, and their community.
“As we work to build skills and character in the youth we work with, we do so through the lens of building community,” Cowans continues. "Young people must explore the challenges facing their community, so they may be equipped with the context, tools, and character to create change." Cowans expands, “We need to develop young leaders and entrepreneurs who work to create mutually beneficial relationships between their businesses and the community. This community is my home, so when I am hiring or developing vision and strategy for my business, I am always thinking how it can align with the needs of my community.”
Today, YouthBiz has retired the screen-printing business to focus on programs that develop entrepreneurial, educational and community leadership skills and attitudes among middle and high school aged teens. While programs focus on developing diverse skills and character traits, the foundation rests on creating young, enterprising leaders who have great vision for their futures, commitment to their community, and the creativity and capacity to make it real.
As communities – locally, nationally, and globally – face great economic upheaval, it is now, more than ever, vital to develop a new narrative for job creation and innovation with entrepreneurship at the center. “Entrepreneurship gives you options for self-empowerment. It gives you the opportunity to take control of your career and do what’s best for yourself and your community,” explains Cowans on the impact of connecting with the values of entrepreneurship at a young age. He goes on, “Hope, bravery, sincerity and transformation lie at the center of urban entrepreneurship. It is imperative to instill the values of entrepreneurship in this and other communities struggling economically. It is powerful in developing a sense of ownership and creativity.”
Cate Anderson is the Director of Marketing & Corporate Relations at YouthBiz. To learn more visit www.youthbiz.org.