An ex-trader is creating jobs, music — and hand-painted sneakers
At work, Rowan Richards — a former minor league baseball player turned Chicago commodities trader — was surrounded by millionaires.
From his apartment, he stared out at a community ravaged by crime and poverty.
That wasn’t working.
So Richards left the trader life, which at times had earned him a six-figure salary, and started The Stewards Market, a Humboldt Park-based nonprofit that launches, develops and manages microsocial enterprises to create jobs that combat poverty.
Stewards Market has launched three enterprises: a recycling business, a streetwear apparel store, and a recording studio and artist management enterprise.
The ventures employ 10 people. Richards says Stewards Market will soon launch a venture to train and place 65 more workers in those enterprises, as well as at businesses with which Stewards Market plans to partner, including a catering company and a renewable energy business.
Stewards Market began in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood near where Richards lived when he first moved to Chicago. Initially, it provided financial education to adults and elementary school students and entrepreneurial training. It started with an invitation by a pastor at a Cabrini-Green church Richards attended, who asked him to help teach financial education to church members.
“We were having some success with some individuals making strides,” Richards says. “But it wasn’t enough [to] help families break the cycle of poverty. Individuals would say, ‘I appreciate the lesson on how to make a budget, but I have no income. How do you budget nothing?’ At that point I’m like we have to be creating work.”
Richards, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where he majored in business and marketing, launched Stewards Market’s first enterprise, King Lizzy Apparel, in 2009. The business works with artists who create graphic designs for T-shirts, caps and the hand-painted sneakers it sells. King Lizzy Apparel features graphics that reflect stories of real people and that communicate the dignity and value of each person, he says. One T-shirt reads, “I’m not a piece of meat.” Another reads, “I’m not angry, just hungry.”
The business has a retail site on Division Street, where Stewards Market’s SOAP recycling business and King Lizzy Music Group also are based.
SOAP collects discarded plastic containers of lotion, soap, shampoo and conditioner from five Chicago-area hotels, who pay a service fee. He says staffers retrieve the unused content and donate it to local nonprofits, including La Casa Norte and New Moms Inc., which provide services for homeless adults and adolescents.
At the recording studio, rap artist Adam Nazario and others help manage the space in exchange for use of the studio to work on personal projects. Artists are encouraged to avoid profanity in their lyrics and create music that elevates the mind, Nazario says.
While Stewards Market’s operations are currently microenterprises, Richards has his sights set on growth. He says that for every seven hotels SOAP adds, another job is created.
“At the end of this year, our goal is to reach 40 hotels,” he says. “Through 2014 we’ll focus on Chicago, getting to 80 properties.”
By 2017, his growth plan calls for SOAP to be national and employ 60 people.
Sun-Times Media photo of Rowan Richards