Resilient Neighborhoods: This faith-based Detroit nonprofit helps young entrepreneurs succeed

John Giovanni, the 20-year-old CEO of Giovanni Enterprises – a company that handles everything from music and clothing to catering and seasonings – can't help but smile while looking at the first check his company had ever received. Glancing at the memento on his wall during a recent Zoom call, he says, “I got it because of Pastor Barry.”

Rev. Barry Randolph – known simply as Pastor Barry – is the pastor of the ChurchJohn Giovanni of the Messiah on Detroit’s East Side. He doesn’t take credit for Giovanni receiving that check three years ago. The pastor simply recommended Giovanni to a prospective client, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

“There was a church looking for a caterer. And he literally said, ‘I know someone. He can do it,’” Giovanni says. “I think he tasted my food one time. Literally one time, and he just threw me that opportunity. That’s really what launched Giovanni Enterprises.”

Giovanni and dozens of other young Detroiters are participants in BLVD Harambee, a nonprofit organization connected to the Church of the Messiah. the organization's name combines BLVD is an acronym for Building Leaders for Village Development with Harambee, which means “all pull together” in Swahili. The organization was created to teach five main life skills: Empowerment, Education, Employment, Enlightenment, and Entertainment. 

Ryan Smith started his clothing brand, Stay Ribelle, at Michigan State University, where he’s currently a senior. But when he started working with BLVD Harambee, his business really began growing. Smith, 21, recently came back from Paris, where he participated in a fashion show.

Randolph elaborated on the brand’s international attention.

“He's going to be doing a fashion show also in Barcelona. He’s one of the young people who took advantage of a lot of the opportunities at the church and has an incredible clothing line. Very talented – he just don’t talk,” he says. 


Empowering Local Youth

BLVD Harambee was founded in 1993 to complement Church of the Messiah's affordable housing work. The original program was similar to social services, Rev. Barry Randolphproviding food, after-school care, and children's activities. Its mission shifted around 2015 to a new focus on empowering people to get out of poverty. 

“Our thing was, how do we get people to a point where they are empowered? And they can change their life so they don't have to come to the church to get food. They don't have to get clothes," says Randolph. "How do we help them make those next steps?” 

After this realization, came the action behind the words. BLVD Harambee, which branches into multiple initiatives, created an employment office in the church in partnership with Michigan Works!

“It's something that can help them get to the next level built to eradicate poverty, says Randolph.” 

Rev. Wallace Gilbert, Jr., an assistant pastor of the Church of Messiah, also plays a vital role in the mentorship of young entrepreneurs like Ryan and Giovanni, and works with youth through BLVD Harambee’s Equitable Internet Initiative (EII). A collaboration between the Church of the Messiah, the Detroit Community Technology Project, and Allied Media Projects with other partner groups around the city, the program teaches and pays participants to install wireless internet into homes. 

 EII participants affiliated with the Church of the Messiah have already installed two charging stations on the east side and are in the process of installing a third. 

“When you start working with young people and getting involved in their lives, [you] have to bring them up. When I started [working with the Equitable Internet Initiative], everybody was making $15 an hour. Now we have some young people who are making as much as $25 an hour. And it's hard to sustain technicians when we’re competing with the big boys like AT&T,” says Gilbert “So what we want to do is we want this network to continue to grow." 

Other BLVD Harambee initiatives include a male mentoring program, marching Rev. Wallace Gilbert, Jr.band and cheerleading team, bike repair shop, and a community garden. Each initiative is categorized as an initiative, business or program, and they touch on at least one of the five “E’s” that are part of BLVD Harambee's mission. Each of these divisions is led by different members of the congregation. 

As the pastor of a youth-centered church, Randolph works to ensure everyone feels welcomed.

“We found young people don't reject God, they just reject the package that the church puts God in. So our package is totally different,” he says. “It's about empowering you to be the greatest you can possibly be and whatever that God-given talent is, to bring that out."

Smith certainly appreciates the resources and fellowship that Church of the Messiah and BLVD Harambee provide.

“Since I was introduced to the church, I was welcomed with open arms,” he says. “A lot of opportunities have come from this church – and not just opportunities, but love. Each and every one of us has shown [love for] each other.”

The Stay Ribelle founder speaks with fellow young entrepreneur Giovanni often, to talk about everyday life and their respective businesses. While Smith is planning on his next international fashion trip, Giovanni is expanding his seasoning into retail, something Randolph is very excited about. 

“His spice is amazing," says Randolph. "He's in between 45-to-50 stores all over Detroit. He’s about to be picked up by Meijer. He's 20 years old. Ryan is 21. They're two of our top entrepreneurs."

Both church leaders have prior experience in the business world. Randolph once owned a restaurant and Gilbert ran his own tech company for 12 years. The two of them draw on these experiences when working with the young entrepreneurs involved with the church. “When the young people come to us with ideas, we try to help them understand that all of this is possible." says Gilbert. “Our young people come with an idea. And we do the best we can to help them bring an idea to fruition.” 


Getting 'where they want to go'

Around 70 percent of the Church of the Messiah's congregation is under 40. Keeping this in mind, Randolph is doing his best to help his young parishioners  "get where they want to go.” Whether that be spiritually or in a goal-oriented sense. From the perspective of the church leadership this often involves reworking their ministries to stay up to date, especially because their church is so young. 

To that end, Randolph has plans to convert the church’s gymnasium into a business incubation center for entrepreneurs like Ryan and Giovanni. Randolph hopes the renovations will be finished by this time next year. And they’re always looking for new entrepreneurs to work with. 

“As long as the people come in disciplined, willing to work, [and] ready to go to the next level, the church will help them be able to do that,” says Randolph. “This is how we eradicate poverty. This is how we work on a lot of different things to help level the playing field that is totally unequal in a city like Detroit.”

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

Read more articles by Kyla L. Wright.