Interview: Harold de Jesus, P.O.L.I.D.O. Skateboards

logoP.O.L.I.D.O. (Physics and Other Laws I Don’t Obey; FacebookInstagram, Tumblr) is a custom skateboard company in the Bronx, NY, that was recently organized into a small workers’ cooperative. I wanted to interview P.O.L.I.D.O., in part, as a window on the exploding New York workers-cooperative scene. P.O.L.I.D.O. has benefited from training and support from a number of groups in NY: Green Worker Cooperatives, a cooperative incubator in the Bronx; Business Outreach Center Network, a business consultancy that works with under-served entrepreneurs; and the Urban Justice Center, who provide legal support to community groups, all under the auspices of the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative, a city-wide project to grow the cooperative sector in New York.

But, I also wanted to speak to them because I had never interviewed a skateboard workers’ cooperative before and it seemed pretty cool. I got in contact with Harold de Jesus, one of the founders of P.O.L.I.D.O., and in our interview, I was particularly struck by how important serving their community is to their vision and day-to-day work. They work with artists to design new skateboards, but they also are involved in a lot of community events in the Bronx, using skateboarding as a way to talk to young people about issues affecting their lives and their neighborhoods. Check it out:

TA:        Thank you for agreeing to talk to me. It would be great, to start, to hear a little bit about the history of your co-op, what you are trying to do and what your goals are for the future.

HDJ:      Our co-op started as a not-for-profit called Ecoriders and we used to work for a community center called the Point Community Development Corp (The Point CDC). From there, we used to teach kids how to ride skateboards and how to build skateboards while also teaching them about the environment, about what happens around the community, about problems like the pollution in the Bronx, and alternatives for fixing these problems. Eventually we decided it would be better if we were a business because that way we would be able to maintain ourselves and attain our goal, which is to keep helping the community this way.

TA:        Excellent. So how did you go about starting the co-op?

HDJ:      When we started speaking about it, we had no idea how to start or what to do. We had no idea at all. Then we met Omar Freilla who is one of the leaders of Green Worker Cooperatives, and that guy helped us out – he still helps us out with everything. When we started, he invited my friend, one of our co-founders, Victor Davila, to take part in their worker-cooperative training program, and then Victor came to me with the idea, and I said, “Yea, sure, I’ll join you in this great adventure.” And that kicked it off and it was amazing. Green Worker Cooperatives, the classes that they teach, helping you understand how a co-op works, are amazing. They are very thorough in every way. They engage you and help you understand what it takes to be a businessperson, or to run you own business.

TA:        So what was the next step? After you had worked with Green Worker Cooperatives what did you do?

HDJ:      Well, after we finished the course at Green Worker, we were still a bit lost, so we went back to them and they helped us out: they paired us with someone to help us further. We moved forward with getting our business name out there, organizing as a limited liability company (LLC), making sure that the legal side was all set, setting up the business really. With customer referrals, we started growing. Now, we are still growing and Green Worker is still helping us out, which is amazing.

TA:        So tell me a little about the business itself. What are you doing now?

HDJ:      From the time that it started, P.O.L.I.D.O. has grown quite a bit in the community itself. We do a lot of events during the summer and early fall. We do events where we team up with different community groups like the Point CDC. We do the same sort of things we did as Ecoriders, but we do them now as P.O.L.I.D.O. For instance, recently we were involved with Boogie on the Boulevard, an event that happens down in the Bronx, like a block party. We teamed up with the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and we held a skate competition there and we gave away free boards.

As another example, the Point CDC has a teen leadership program called A.C.T.I.O.N  (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood), and we invited the kids from A.C.T.I.O.N to an event where we talked about rezoning, and then held a skateboard design workshop afterword. Through events like these in the community, P.O.L.I.D.O. has grown, and the community recognizes us now, and come and chill with us, and hang with us all the time.

TA:        Nice! What are your plans for the future then? When you envision what you want to do with the co-op in the future, what do you have in mind?

HDJ:      Oh, man, whenever P.O.L.I.D.O. gets to work, we just imagine that we will continue doing what we are doing now, just on a larger scale. We often think, hey, it would be nice if we could take what we do now in the community, and take it to other countries like Nigeria, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, because in these countries also there are a lot of problems, people not understanding the skateboarding community as well. We would like to visit some of these countries and see if we can help their local skateboarding communities, and through that, raise awareness about the situation in those countries, and try to help them out, team up with schools or community centers, to help out the people. And that is basically our goal: to take what we do here, and do it bigger, on a larger scale. That’s what we’ve wanted to do since we first started.

TA:        When you transitioned from a non-profit to a commercial workers’ co-op, what did you have to do to start making money, so that you could support yourselves and keep going? How did that work?

HDJ:      At first, it was really funny because we didn’t have any idea how we would price everything, because we started this very, very early; I was fifteen when we started this. I was the youngest one and I didn’t have any idea … none of us had any idea how to market ourselves, or how to start selling things, because we were so used to just making the product and giving it away, that we never thought about pricing. So when we changed the name, and the whole idea of the not-for-profit company, and started to explain why we went this route (as a commercial workers cooperative), people understood, which was amazing. And I guess the prices were not as crazy, because we were kids, and it just worked out. One of the main things, aside from pricing, was that we had a lot of help from this other skate company in the Bronx called HeavenBound7, and the owner of that company helped us out a lot by reaching out to other people. There was a lot of help that came our way.

TA:        In your average day, what does your cooperative do? What are the main activities?

HDJ:      Oh, wow, in the summer, we are so busy! I am in charge of reaching out to the people, and planning the events. Kendrick Martinez handles the managerial side. And he and I team up to work on budgets for the events. And Victor Davila is in charge of the designs and the artist team that we have. A lot of it is just a lot of planning and getting prepared for what is coming up, planning new design ideas we have coming out, planning how we are going to do workshops. For example, we have a couple of workshops were are try to organize for this summer, that I won’t tell you about because they are secret! (laughs) So yea, in general, it is a lot of planning and preparing: getting ready for what is to come. We tend to do, like, small give-aways here and there. We are hopefully trying to start this summer with a big bang, so that we can move forward and that people will know that we are still here.

TA:        If you were to give advice to someone else who was thinking of starting a cooperative, and in your journey of starting your own cooperative, what are some of the lessons you have learned, or what might you do differently next time. What sort of advice would you give to someone who was thinking of going down this road?

HDJ:      Hey, man, with a co-op, people think it is easy, but it is really not. It is a lot of work. One thing is you are going to do an amazing amount of work. But the first thing I would recommend is to not give up. If you have an idea, and you push, and you really want your idea to be out there, and you think it’s the best idea in the world, and you back it up, then don’t give yourself up. Don’t get yourself down because people say it might not work. When P.O.L.I.D.O. started, we had so many people going like, “Oh, you guys have a business? That’s cool…” You know what I mean? Or we would try to sell stuff, and they would be like, “Oh, nobody’s gonna buy that.” And we were like, “But … OK.”

We never let those things bring us down. Now where we are, it’s because we tried and believed. It took us a little time, and yes, it takes a long time, but the benefit that you get afterword: it’s uncanny. There is nothing like it. The skateboard community, and the Bronx community itself knows us, and everywhere we go, we see other skateboarding dudes, they always call us over and speak with us. People out in the streets say, hi. Never give up with what you are doing, your work.

And do your research! Nothing is more important: do your research. Whatever it is you are going into, whether it is skateboarding, making guitars, or anything that you do, do your research. And find your people.

TA:        That’s an interesting point. I imagine a lot of people wouldn’t know where to start with market research. How did you guys approach that?

HDJ:      The way that we did it, right, we were trying to sell a specific product, which was skateboards, but skateboards are basically art, in a sense, because we team up with artists that are not skateboard makers to come up with designs for our skateboards. So we thought about that, and we were like, if we’re making art, we can also sell these as an art piece that can you can hang in your home.

So, the first way that we did it, the first wave, was that we had one guy, Emanuel, he’s our sponsored skateboarder, and he would take is board, skateboard around, do some tricks around the parks, and he would ask [people he met] how much they would pay for the board, and about what designs they would like to see.

To my surprise, a lot of people liked the designs we started doing, and a lot of people started coming back for them. But we had to explain that they are unique designs; we do not repeat them. So they were like, “Oh, OK.”  But that kept them on their feet, to come again and again, to check if we have any new cool designs.

The second way we did market research was to compare prices with other skateboard companies. We took the prices and tried to find a point where we could have an affordable price for our people, and still be able to make a profit. Then from there, we just reached out to the people. That is how we started our marketing. We did a lot of free give-aways. We just jumped into a lot of events that were happening, and since the people who were organizing these events kind of knew us, they would give us a shout-out, or give us a small booth, or a small area where people could come and check us out. People would just come and check us out.

TA:        I am aware of the time, but I would like to ask one more question about Green Worker Cooperatives. How did you first get in touch with them? How did the whole program work of them helping you start the cooperative, and what role do they have now that your cooperative is further along?

HDJ:      The first time that we met, it was my coop partner, Victor Davila, met Omar Freilla at Green Worker, and we started doing classes with them. That’s how it started. The Green Worker Cooperatives run classes that teach you how to be a coop, and they also teach you how to run a business, which was amazing. I remember that we used to take those classed every Saturday. Victor and I used to skateboard all the way to those classes and back. I used to go and pick him up and we would go together to the classes, and it was super fun. It was amazing.

We learned a lot of valuable things, how businesses are run, and then we graduated from the program, but the good thing is that the help doesn’t really stop there, you know what I mean? Even today, they are still helping us out. As a matter of fact, they gave us some office space right next to theirs, and we work from there a lot. We are there all the time doing work and planning. And to top it all off, they still give us business advice. They are just splendid people. For example, we were applying for a loan and they were like, “If you are applying for a loan then you should speak to Daniel deBrag, our manager, and she can help you with the application.” And we are in constant contact with her now talking about the next steps we should take to reach our goals. They helped us from the start and are still helping us to this day.

TA:        Excellent. That is a really positive note to stop on. Thank you very much for the interview.

HDJ:      Thank you.

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