New and younger entrepreneurs are on the rise in the South Bronx, and they’ve created boxing gyms, event spaces, and youth mentorship models to help those who aspire for their own business, like themselves.
Many of the newer businesses, which opened after 2016, aim to show youth, who face challenges of poverty, single parent households and public housing, that they don’t need to leave the neighborhood with their talents to pursue their professional goals – they can “make it” right in their hometown.
According to data from New York Census, residents under 19 make up 31% of the neighborhood – three times the state average – and about half live below the poverty line. Almost one-third of the city’s “disconnected youth,” those between 16 and 24 who are out of school and out of work, live in the Bronx.
The rise of disconnected youth comes at a cost to the city. A 2012 study estimated the annual cost, through fiscal burdens to taxpayers, of each disconnected young adult at $16,000, which includes lost tax payments and expenditure in criminal justice, health and welfare sectors.
According to a recent Hunts Point commercial district needs assessment report, business owners identified better services for youth as a top need, and shoppers expressed wanting to see more movie theaters, bookstores, and entertainment options to keep young people in the Bronx.
Many activities geared towards youth are located outside the neighborhood, like the Bronx Zoo, Pelham Bay Park, and Starlight Park. In the area, the Bronx Children’s Museum, located at 725 Exterior Street, opened this winter and police-sponsored youth programs, like NYPD Kids First and Police Athletic League, also offer programs for kids that you can find here.
Long-time community members, who are well acquainted with the hardships of growing up in the neighborhood, are raising their efforts to show young adults the possibilities for success they can experience in their home borough – either as business owners or as stable employees needed to staff South Bronx small businesses.
South Box: A gym with a former U.S Olympian in Charge
Eric Kelly, the co-founder of South Box, created an outlet for neighborhood youth to fortify their confidence, release stress, and become part of a community that uplifts them.
Kelly, a 42-year-old Florida-native who grew up in Brooklyn, is a four-time national boxing champion and former member of the U.S Olympic Team, and co-founded the gym with his business partner, Andrew Roth, in 2017.
“I would oftentimes fight in the Bronx, where I would compete at Roberto Clemente,” Kelly said. “I noticed that the passion for the sport of boxing was very deep in the Bronx. We got a legendary fighter named Iran ‘The Blade’ Barkley and he is from Patterson Houses, just three blocks away from our gym.”
With Roth, the duo trains kids, young adults and the general public, many of whom range from age 9 to mid-20s. Through a collaboration with Bronx Community Justice Center, kids have the chance to train for two months through twice weekly classes. They also offer a program through Dream Academy, located on Bruckner Boulevard.
“You already see a difference in these kids. When they first come in, they don’t necessarily make eye contact with you, they don’t show a lot of confidence,” Roth said. “But after a few weeks, they’re more vocal, you see their back is a little straighter. Eric is like a sledgehammer, he’s able to identify what people are going through and break through whatever boundaries people have in front of them.”
The gym employs three full time staff and relies on Kelly’s large network of boxers who signed on as personal trainers and independent contractors, which Kelly said draws in customers through their expertise and one-on-one training. The gym offers memberships for $75 per month for those younger than 18, and $100 for adults, and also personal trainers at a negotiable rate.
Two South Bronx natives, including James Yarborough, recently competed at Madison Square Garden and wore the name South Box on their trunks. Adonis Ayala, a 15-year-old who trains almost every day at the gym under Marco Suarez, one of the top trainers in the South Bronx, recently won the Championship for the City of New York. Multiple world champion fighter Gervonta “Tank” Davis also used the gym to train and make weight for his upcoming fight against Rolly Romero at the Barclay center.
Kelly and Roth said the main objective is to help youth, who often struggle with challenges of poverty, street violence and misdirected rage, find a healthy outlet and to equip them with mental tools for handling their emotions.
“People are getting in trouble for any number of reasons, you open the paper every day and you can see it,” said Kelly. “You need to have an outlet so it doesn’t destroy your life.”
Kirk Leslie Terrel, a 16-year-old member of the Bronx Community Justice Center, has been coming to the gym for almost two years, and trains six days a week. “I want to have a career in boxing and music, I want to express myself in all different ways,” he said. “It keeps me off the streets. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d just be forming with the crowd.”
Neighborhood Benches: A Nonprofit for Youth Empowerment
William Evans, the South Bronx-native behind grassroots organization Neighborhood Benches, picked up the same call to empower youth, through a nonprofit business model.
Evans founded the group in 2017 to break cycles of youth violence and incarceration, and provide educational opportunities and leadership roles to youth who may have experienced some of the things he did. Before he founded Neighborhood Benches, Evans experienced an arrest, spent almost a year in Rikers Island, and survived a gunshot wound to the neck when he was 16 years old.
“This is a neighborhood where I’ve been shot, where I’ve been abused, a neighborhood where I starved and caught my first arrest,” Evans said. “Why would I want to go back there, but I’ve been for many years now, focused on healing and repairing harm.”
Evans clocked in six years of combined experience as an Alternative to Incarceration counselor and leader of a team of discharge planners on Rikers Island before he started Neighborhood Benches with a plan to engage youth from early ages to help keep them out of systems of violence.
Neighborhood Benches offers four main programs to help youth realize dreams of being business owners, leaders and professionals. In 2017, he created a pilot program focused on talk therapy using the benches in the neighborhood for young people to unpack traumatic experiences and other traumas. Simultaneously, he created a leadership program design for recruiting and training adult mentors, and another to give interested students advocacy training on incarceration disparities in public housing complexes.
In Evans’s program, students undergo a 12-week training program to understand issues outlined in the Bronx Task Force’s “Safe at Home” report, like disproportionate serious crimes in NYCHA developments, as opposed to citywide drops in crime.
The most recent report recommends that youth participate as tenant leaders in NYCHA developments, support programs that empower communities and prevent over-incarceration, and employ summer youth employment programs.
Through Neighborhood Benches, Evans addresses many of the recommendations through his programs, which aim to create a network of mentors that youth can look up to, and to tap into local businesses with South Bronx roots that can explain the process of becoming business owners.
“A lot of times the media talk about the violence that’s happened in communities and that alone steers business owners away from those areas,” Evans said. “We pull businesses into conversation with our young folks so they can tell them how they started. The local deli, shopping areas, bank centers, we want them to know their ideas could be attainable.”
In 2018, he also launched a neighborhood university partnership with several local businesses and schools including Columbia University Business School, CUNY Graduate School of Public Health, Lehman College, The New School, Yeshiva University, Fordham University, and others in California and North Carolina, to give students opportunities for hands-on job training experience in areas like hairstyling, fashion design and branding and marketing.
The nonprofit’s hairstyling program began in 2023, and selects cohorts of 12 to 15 kids to work and learn from two mentors who are partnered with Evans and his business partner, Team Brown LLC, stylists Michelle and Nikole Gellineau at Nebian Huts Salon, located at 620 Lenox Ave., for five weeks. The program will continue until the end of this year, after which Evans will assess and decide if it can continue.
Arian Revells, a freshman at Bronx Community College, was part of the first cohort at the salon and believes there were no opportunities like this at her high school, West Bronx Academy for the Future, and learned about Evan’s program through a flier on a window.
“I never had any program give me insight on what I’m going to be doing and what I need to know,” Revells said. But here, she said, “we would shampoo and condition and create a style on a client. We did it for each other, so we went through all the steps of being a stylist, and were introduced to other licensed stylists who were able to inform us how a salon goes, and how to deal with clients.”
She said she was sad when the program ended, and that through it she fostered friendships with other kids her age and had discussions at the Neighborhood Benches site on topics that affect the community, like rage, perspectives, and resources that they might need.
Revells is currently in a barber program at her college, and has a dream to open her own hair styling shop. “I created a friendship with one of the girls from the program and she also got her hair done from another girl from the program,” she said. “It’s really nice. They keep doing this, a lot of the kids in the community are going to be wanting to get involved, and that’s a good thing.”
The Neighborhood’s first upscale event space makes room for new entrepreneurs
Evans is not the only one thinking about education and empowerment for youth at the school level. DJ Spynfo, the musical mastermind behind Sankofa Haus, located on Third Avenue, kept his philosophy on early education in mind when he created the first upscale event space in the South Bronx.
“Traditionally, a lot of folks gain access to education and information and they may travel and find better job opportunities. They’re searching for the money and maybe visibility,” Spynfo said. “With this project, I am trying to find creative ways to bring information back and give people that may not have access to a certain network access through events.”
The name of his space, Sankofa, is an African proverb that originates from Ghana, and means ‘go back and get it.’ It is a reminder for him to collect knowledge from the past before society can truly advance and move forward.
Born and raised in Morrisania, DJ Spynfo started his career in entertainment as a college host DJ, and worked as a production manager for various college events, concerts, fashion shows, and back to school parties.
Now, he uses his event space to hold network events for emerging South Bronxite business owners, like financial panels and real estate seminars, and special private events like milestone birthday parties, graduation celebrations, baby showers, bar mitzvahs, weddings and proms. Rates for private events are between $1,750 and $2,750, depending on the season and day.
On the off days, between Monday and Thursday, Spynfo hosts free community events on women’s history and spoken poetry. He’s hosted classes on yoga and wellness, and wants to offer music classes and a weekly open mic for live music and comedy soon.
“If we can get the ball really rolling, we’ll do it every Wednesday just to have a destination in the South Bronx where people can gain access to new creatives and upcoming talent,” Spynfo said.
Spynfo opened Sankofa Haus in 2021 and plans to renew his lease for ten years after it ends in 2025. His dream is to open a Sankofa Haus in major cities across the globe, and he joked, the universe, saying the Sankofa Haus on Mars will be run by his son.
Regarding citywide needs, Spynfo believes that there should be more city investment in youth’s mental health and improvements in schools to prevent break-ins, illegal graffiti and street violence.
“Those are all stemming from lack of self-esteem and mental health problems, whether they know it or not,” he said. “In order for all businesses out here to flourish, a level of understanding to bring tools like music, medicine and meditation through the school system is the number one thing, so that when they become adults, everyone’s a productive member of society.”