A tech entrepreneur expands on his innovation center to make resources available in economically challenged regions
2/19/2016 - Editor's Note: In the Start Me Up series, the Kellogg School spotlights members of the Kellogg community who are bringing bold entrepreneurial visions to life.
When Emile Cambry set about choosing a name for his company, BLUE1647
, he wanted to evoke both its aims and its roots. Beginning in August 2013 from offices in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood at 1647 S. Blue Island Ave., the company provided a co-working space for local tech startups and hosted a learning lab with affordable rates for underserved communities. “We thought of ourselves as the blueprint of community economic development,” Cambry says. “When people say ‘BLUE,’ I want them to think of that.”
Now locations outside of Chicago are invoking that Blue Island Avenue address as Cambry’s mission spreads. The NAACP and the tech nonprofit LaunchCode recruited Cambry to open a 10,000-square-foot facility for the company in the fall of 2015 in St. Louis. There, the startup incubator will be much more than just a business.
St. Louis and beyond
In order to combat the high unemployment rates in St. Louis, BLUE1647 partnered with the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment, which identifies entry-level positions and provides IT and Microsoft certifications for potential applicants. “There are so many jobs and opportunities for folks if they learn a digital skill,” Cambry says. In the meantime, BLUE1647 has also partnered with the St. Louis Housing Authority and its Jobs PLUS program to freeze rents at the Clinton Peabody development for the next four years.
This, Cambry hopes, will combat a trend in public housing where “you’re in a job, you’re in a housing development, the rent rises significantly — more than your income — so there’s no reason to work.”
BLUE1647 isn’t stopping at St. Louis: Cambry has plans to open locations in Minneapolis and Compton by the end of February, Brooklyn in March and Croatia by the end of next year. For him, the biggest challenge at this point is simply not having enough hours in the day. “There is a lot more demand for what we provide than the time or capacity.”
From purple to blue
Cambry’s experience at Kellogg influences his work on a daily basis. “I took a course on managing decisions in the non-market environment. In places where you don’t necessarily have supply and demand, how do you deal with prices, how do you build value, how do you deliver?”
The support from his alumni network has been key to the success of BLUE1647. “Our first supporter was in the same class as I was,” Cambry says, referring to Peter Anthony Jackson ’10. “He was an employee at Groupon, and when it went public, he did fairly well for himself. He wanted to see a change in the tech community that he was a part of, and he was the first supporter to financially allow this vision to become reality.” Cambry continues to receive support from fellow Kellogg alumni: “They’ve reached out to say, ‘How can we help?’”
The company’s evolution includes more than geographic expansion. In February, the company will debut the Blue Coin, a virtual currency and rewards program comparable to the Bitcoin that users can trade in for classes and workshops. Cambry hopes the program will be useful to the many small business owners who work at BLUE1647. “Every day is ‘small business day’ within the BLUE network,” Cambry says.
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