Small Business

Growing sustainable communities: Tony Hillery, CEO of Harlem Grown

Jenny Flores
Posted by Jenny Flores
Corporate Social Responsibility

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.

Tony Hillery speaking from behind a podium at the NextGen Experience.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.

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7 ideas for business owners looking to tackle costs

Michelle Di Gangi
Small Business Banking
Woman small business owner on the phone at her desk & scanning her computer monitor.

Savvy business owners know that surviving and flourishing is all about keeping costs under control, regardless of the external business environment.

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The Bagel Deli: Small business with a big following

Michelle Di Gangi
Small Business Banking
Joe & Rhoda Kaplan side-by-side in the deli

The biggest challenge is maintaining the quality in an ever-changing landscape. We strive to consistently provide the finest food and service possible.

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Increasing our support for women entrepreneurs

Jenny Flores
Posted by Jenny Flores
Corporate Social Responsibility
Woman entrepreneur, side view as she looks out from a conference room window. She is shadowed by the bright sunlight and cityscape she

By supporting women business owners, we will be closing the wealth gap while fostering innovation and a stronger economy.

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Home and small business network/routing devices face new risk

David Pollino
Security
Hand plugging a cable into a home router, next to a computer and modem.

A type of malware called VPNFilter is causing the damage, enabling criminals to view, modify, and steal data.

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