Oliver Somoza’s life changed when he was picking up a sandwich. He was at Little Jimmie’s Cafe in Germantown, Pennsylvania, a historic yet rundown neighborhood, when he got into a conversation with the owner. Oliver, age 32, had grown up in New York but moved to Germantown with his younger sister Gabriella, where an exciting wave of young people, restaurants, and condos were starting to take over. The pair wanted to become developers but without any experience, weren’t sure how to get their foot in the door. “Ken Weinstein,” Jimmy told him. “Ken is the man you need to know.”
Ken Weinstein, a serial entrepreneur who also runs the local Trolley Car Cafe and social enterprise, had recently launched a new program. Jumpstart Germantown is an incubator intended to provide education, mentorship, networking opportunities, and even loans to novice developers interested in getting into real estate. The intention is to ensure the benefits of development stay within the community rather than simply being turned into shareholder dividends for large profit-making companies.
Experienced developer Ken was already mentoring ad hoc and he realized that the hours he spent working with individuals could be parlayed into an entire program. Hundreds of people applied for the course at launch – including many women and people of African-American descent; demographics largely excluded from the existing property development industry.
The program trains people how to purchase and redevelop dilapidated buildings. Graduates stay in touch through a Facebook group where they continue to network and support each other through posting properties, vendor contacts, and generally, cheerleading one another. Three properties later, Gabriella raves about the program: “We got so lucky. I’ve learned so many things working with Ken. He makes you really understand risk and will even walk through houses with you. I can’t imagine the kinds of hurdles we would’ve had to deal with, without this program.”
The effect on the larger community has also been inspiring. Gabriella told a story where she was laboring in the front yard and her neighbor came out and began to do the same. “One by one, people started sweeping their yards and taking out trash,” Gabriella recounted. “They saw me ripping up my garden and it inspired them. It made people want to be responsible for their properties.”
Lines of credit
Education, mentoring, and support however, was not enough. Ken quickly realized that these first-time developers would need financial resources to get started. Jumpstart Germantown now offers a loan program that has already given $2 million lines of credit. Recently, Jumpstart received a major grant from The Barra Foundation to replicate the program in other neighborhoods and they’ve now spread out to Kensington and Mt Airy. Though it may look different depending on the area, Ken is certain that there is no community where it can’t be replicated. “It takes people willing to step up”, Ken says. “If you see a need, figure out a way that Jumpstart can be active in other neighborhoods. Socially responsible developers or community development corporations can definitely implement this in their community.”