Growing sustainable communities: Tony Hillery, CEO of Harlem Grown
Imagine growing up in a neighborhood where the only place to buy food is at corner pharmacies, quickie marts and fast food chain restaurants. There are no healthy, affordable fresh fruits and vegetables available, but instead only high-priced junk food. Neighborhoods like these are called “food deserts,” as defined by the USDA, and many of them are right in the middle of our most economically vibrant cities.
As a successful small businessman, Tony Hillery couldn’t imagine it either, until one day, during an inflection point in his career nearly a decade ago, he decided to volunteer at a public school in the heart of Harlem, New York.
He showed up at the principal’s office with the simple declaration that he was there to “help.” After confirming his good intentions, the school put him to work helping out in the lunch hall, where he began showing up every day, quickly getting to know the kids, and seeing first-hand the effects of entrenched, generational poverty endemic to a food desert.
He discovered that 98% of the kids’ families relied on food stamps, nearly 90% lived below the federal poverty guideline, and over 40% were homeless. But what really struck him, was the similarity of their personal stories – unstable and violent home lives, a lack of consistent, positive adult role models, and perhaps most troubling, low expectations for their own future. According to Tony, “These kids were scared, angry, confused and hungry.”
The challenges they faced were complex, but the hunger part of their problem sparked an idea. Tony decided that, maybe with the help of the kids, he could take over an abandoned park across from the school, and plant a garden to grow fresh produce that could be given away to the community.
The kids could learn how to plant seeds, nurture, and harvest fruit and vegetable crops, and even cook meals. They could be involved in every aspect of running a productive urban farm, gaining direct access to nutritious food. More than that, it would also become a place and a project where they would be exposed to a volunteer corps of consistent, positive adult role models, investing directly in them.
That first garden grew into Harlem Grown, an organization dedicated to growing healthy children and sustainable communities and to changing the trajectory of kids’ lives.
As a keynote speaker at our second annual NextGen Experience in Silicon Valley hosted by Bank of the West Wealth Management and BNP Paribas, we spoke to Tony about the evolution of Harlem Grown since those early days, and the importance of impact investing at the most fundamental level. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.