It’s a familiar story: A neighborhood hits a rough patch. Attracted to the low cost of living, a few urban pioneers, often young, educated artists, make it home. Soon developers enter the scene, rents and the cost of basic goods skyrocket, and lifelong residents and their businesses are displaced.
Is gentrification something we can fight? If you ask Alex Ocampo ’10, he’ll approach the question from a different angle. “Neighborhoods will change,” he says. “Businesses do come and go. But I ask, why is there no happy ending to gentrification for longtime residents? Why are the people who have given the neighborhood its history and culture always priced out?” Ocampo says there’s a critical mass of conscious consumers who hope to empower local businesses with their spending power, and he’s betting on them — if they have the right tools — to benefit locals as well.
“We want to create consumers committed to supporting local businesses.”Ocampo is quick to point out that he fits the profile of a gentrifier — he’s not from his community of Spanish Harlem, and he earns more than the average income. But he doesn’t want to contribute to the displacement of longtime residents. And the upcoming generation, Ocampo says, doesn’t want to support this negative cycle either. But right now it’s very difficult for individuals to do the research needed to decide which businesses to patronize. Sometimes a person is just hungry and wants a sandwich.
–Alex Ocampo ’10
That’s where Hire Harlem comes in. This online infrastructure aims to support businesses that hire locally, give back to the community, or are owned by women or people of color. Through an app format similar to Yelp, Hire Harlem will provide a searchable database and map of local businesses. But that’s just a first step. Unlike Yelp, content will include stories that highlight positive community impact and deliberately focus only on businesses with Hire Harlem’s stamp of approval. The company plans to offer incentives for businesses that give back to local nonprofits, schools, and community organizations, and to those that hire locally.
When corporations move into communities, Ocampo says, there’s an “extraction of wealth.” They don’t reinvest in the local area. “We’re trying to flip that,” he says. “We want to create consumers committed to supporting local businesses, so we can put pressure on new and bigger businesses when they move in.”
Ocampo visited Concord Academy on January 25 as part of the Entrepreneurship Speaker Series. He spent a full day and evening on campus, meeting with the assistant dean for Community and Equity, attending a history class on reform and social change in America and a course on mathematics and social justice, having dinner with students of color, and delivering two talks — an assembly for students, faculty, and staff, and an evening conversation with parents, fellow alumnae/i, and trustees.
In addition to discussing Hire Harlem in his assembly, Ocampo spoke about his time at CA and his career path. This school was difficult for Ocampo, but he learned to reach out for support. After graduating from CA, Ocampo found work as a project manager for IBM Watson, talking with clients about new applications for the computing giant’s artificial intelligence supercomputer. He realized his passion was for improving user experience.
It’s a passion that he has carried over to Hire Harlem, which is a labor of love that he attends to, with three friends, outside of his full-time job at IBM. He even took a night course to learn to code in order to create it.
As a project manager in tech, Ocampo knows how vital a quality user experience is. “We can be as altruistic as we want to be,” he says. “We’ll get people who want to support it to check us out once. But if it’s not easy to use, they won’t come back.”
Right now the Hire Harlem website is a proof of concept. Ocampo is hard at work getting it right behind the scenes.
In his assembly, he offered some advice to students: Push through difficult times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; your community is there to support you. But when you’re trying to solve problems, look outside your own networks to people with different points of view.