If your tech startup is part of the “Original 100,” you won’t be just a passive actor in the revitalization of Camden. Not if Khai Tran has anything to do with it.
Tran’s vision for Waterfront Ventures, which aims to attract or provide resources for 100 startups in Camden, is that these new businesses “want to be on the roster” and make a deliberate commitment to the city.
He’s looking for startups “committed to helping us build the city and provide the vast majority of jobs back to the students and residents.”
Given thorny issues like gentrification, economic development can sometimes be incompatible with poverty alleviation — especially in a city with a 40 percent poverty rate. But a key part behind Waterfront Ventures’ work is the intention to address urban problems while catalyzing business growth.
Camden Catalyst, a pitch competition hosted by Waterfront Ventures to help seed a Camden-based tech startup, captures the organization’s efforts to link promising startups with economic revitalization. To win, a company must base its headquarters in Camden, make its first hire from Camden, and then hire 50 percent of its workforce from Camden residents or students.
“We’re looking for this startup to be the poster child of Camden to inspire and attract other startups,” Tran said.
— Waterfront Ventures (@WaterfrontVent) June 22, 2017
Applications for Camden Catalyst are due June 30, and more info is here.
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Another piece of Waterfront’s efforts to bring jobs to locals is through a partnership with an organization called Hopeworks ‘N Camden. The goal of the partnership is to prepare local youth in tech skills, like programming, engineering, design and marketing, which builds a pipeline to internships and jobs in the growing startup scene.
“Right now, to a lot of families, success to them is their kid being able to leave Camden. We want to change that … so they can get a really high-paying job down the street,” said Tran.
Waterfront Venture’s approaches may strike some as different from more traditional economic development measures.
“We want to bring startups into the city organically. Because when you provide them an incentive,” Tran said, “that will be the main reason why they come here. The conscious part isn’t quite there. They may not be as invested and giving back to their community that brought them there.”
One of the tech founders involved in the revitalization of Camden is Johnathan Grzybowski of Penji. Penji provides on-demand design services for marketing teams, and is housed in Waterfront Lab, a coworking space run by Waterfront Ventures.
A key part of Penji’s mission is to “deliver not only an incredible service, but we also want to provide learning and job opportunities in underprivileged communities,” Grzybowski said.
Grzybowski sees great potential in Camden. “We believe that great designers are hidden within our community – it’s kind of like that underground rap artist, so to speak. That one that’s so good but nobody’s ever heard of him,” he said.
To nurture a pipeline of local talent, Penji is providing design internships, workshops and learning opportunities to help students further hone in on their design skills.
Gryzbowski doesn’t shy away from the civic responsibility to Camden that Tran is looking for, he said: “We want to be able to set the precedent as one of the first community-conscious tech startups to relocate from Philadelphia to Camden to pave the way for others.”