Q&A: Why a tech millionaire built his incubator in Newark

By Steve Strunsky | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on November 27, 2016

NEWARK -- If Gerard Adams didn't exist, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka might have to invent him. 

Adams is a 31-year-old Belleville High School grad and Caldwell University dropout, whose father grew up in Newark and worked as a manager at Prudential. He made his name by cofounding EliteDaily.com, the self-described "Voice of Generation Y," then selling it to the Daily Mail last year for $50 million. 

Adams, who recently moved back to New Jersey from Manhattan, used part of the sales' proceeds to launch Fownders, a tech incubator, training and mentorship center, cafe, and all-purpose gathering place for aspiring young entrepreneurs in his father's home town.

Described on its website as a "Seed2Scale Accellerator," Fownders opened last Spring at the base of a 20,000-square-foot building on Norfolk Street in Newark's University Heights section. 

The building, which has 17 market-rate apartments upstairs, was built by Adams and his longtime friend and collaborator, Pedro Gomes, a young real estate developer and Ironbound native. The two are already planning another building a block away with more apartments and additional Fownders space.   

Adams, whose father is European-American and mother is of Colombian descent, is precisely the kind of private-sector ally Baraka looks to cultivate in his "Newark 3.0" campaign to transform Brick City into a technology mecca. Along those lines, Fownders is pushing the name "Silicon City" to place Newark among the established "Valley" and "Alley" tech centers in California and New York.

One morning last week, would-be economic disrupters hacked away on MacBooks and brainstormed over coffee and empanadas, with portraits of Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Newark native Shaquile O'Neil, painted by artist Sebastian Ferreira, hanging on Fownders' white walls.

Sitting below was 35-year-old Jade Jordan of Newark. Not a morning person, Jordan conceived of the Arize Alarm app to help people like her get up and start their day. She stumbled into what she thought was an art gallery a couple of months ago, and now Adams said Jordan's app will soon be one of Fownders' first products to go to market.

"This has been my second home ever since," Jordan said.

Dressed in a Fownders T-shirt, skinny jeans and black Vans sneakers, Adams, a former skate punk, balanced on a hover board and donned a virtual reality headset while he talked to NJ Advance Media about who he is and what he's trying to do.

NJ Advance Media: You published a must-read news site for Gen-Y. You do real estate investment. You build affordable housing. What are you?

Gerard Adams: (Laughs) I'm an entrepreneur. I'm a true form of an entrepreneur. I know that word is so thrown around now, its like the cool thing nowadays. But that's who I've been even when I was a young teenager. I mean, I remember being in elementary school selling lollipops, selling T-shirts in high school, car parts. My dad used to make a joke of it, too. He used to say I was -- what was that character's name? Not Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer. Because I used to figure out ways to get a little team of my neighbors together.

NJAM: To get them to paint the fence for you.

GA: Exactly. So, I would start shoveling my block when it would snow, and I would say to other kids, "Alright, let's divide and conquer. Let's get the whole neighborhood and split the money." It was just in my blood.

NJAM: (Gesturing toward the Fownders crowd) Are these your snow shovelers?

GA: But together. Every day we're all shoveling together.

NJAM: Just what goes on here? This used to be my route home, and I would drive by and think, "What is that place? Is it a cafe? Is it a gallery?"

GA: A lot of people end up thinking it's a gallery. Believe it or not, it's worked in our favor. First of all, being ingrained in a residential community is important to me. We really want to get ourselves involved with the community, with parents, with the youth, because we're going to have a thing called Future Fownders, where we're going to offer a mentorship to teenagers and to younger kids, to learn some skills that I think they should be teaching in school: leadership; business; how to do your taxes and what that means.

And also, we're right next to Newark Renaissance House, where a lot of kids go who got involved with violence or drugs, or are having trouble in school because a lot of times they're traumatized. I've had one kid in particular, Shakur, his parents got murdered, and he had a lot of negativity at home. He feels he has nobody he can trust.

And we have this foot traffic all day long with students, and they'll stop by and ask, "What is this place?" And I'll say to them, "Well, we help young entrepreneurs learn about business and how to launch businesses." And once you say to them, "business," they say, "Wait. I'm interested in that. How do I learn about business?"

And I'll say to them, "Well, come on inside. Let me talk to you a little bit, let me get to know you, let me see what your passions are, let me see what your dreams are. Let me see if this is something for you."

I've sat with Shakur, and he told me what he's been through. And I related to that somewhat. I actually had really good parenting, but I got involved with gang culture when I was in high school. I got involved with drinking and I got into fights.

But I made a choice that I didn't want to go down that path. And I started teaching myself business. But it took me 13 years. My goal is to cut that learning curve in half by having a place I wish I had when I was 18.

So, when I talk and I relate to Shakur, I say "I'm going to be here every single day, I was able to overcome those obstacles, you can too. But you have to be committed. If you start showing up here after school, you'll get mentorship, you'll learn about the things that I learned in my life."

And now, it's become a place of hope for them. They come in, they put on a virtual reality headset, they get mentorhsip, they learn to be entrepreneurs. It gives them inspiration.

I challenge everybody out there to get more into their community, step up more as a leader. Whether a teacher, CEO, investor, athlete, celebrity, whatever, we all can make a difference. It's about educating more, listening more, providing resources to our community. I'm just trying to do my part, where I can, in Newark, right now.

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