Thriving under pressure
Taj Stokes helping revitalize Southeast, one business owner at a time
By Zach Hillstrom
The Southeast Express
When Southeast resident and community advocate Taj Stokes was a troubled youth in Joliet, Ill., he found himself in desperate need of a second chance.
A self-professed “bad kid” with a hard head and a reputation to go with it, Stokes had gotten himself into trouble and was facing expulsion from bible school when a pastor took a leap of faith, halted the expulsion and stepped in to mentor him.
“That summer changed my life,” Stokes said. “Just a little bit of an investment, a little bit of involvement, a little bit of encouragement … that changed everything.”
Working with the pastor, Stokes transformed himself into a straight-A student and leveraged his improved grades into admission into bible college in Colorado Springs.
He settled down in the Southeast while attending school and saw things he was unaccustomed to back home, like “black and brown people owning businesses,” owning property and having professional jobs.
“They have a lot of pride in themselves,” Stokes said, “and in their community on the Southeast side.”
Once he graduated, Stokes opted against a life in the ministry and launched into a lucrative career in sales. After the economic downturn of the Great Recession, he spotted an opportunity to move into a new field as a financial broker.
During that time, Stokes found himself living in California, making substantial amounts of money, driving a Jaguar and committing to a serious relationship.
“I was a high-flying, sellout buppie” he said. (That’s a “black yuppie,” he explained.)
His life was what some might consider a dream come true.
But when family issues brought his sister’s children to live with him, Stokes began to think less about the money and more about his legacy.
“That was kind of the start of THRIVE. Like, ‘If nobody is willing to give our people jobs, nobody is willing to give them an opportunity because of the way that they look or because they don’t have the education level … then … we’ll teach them how to make their own.”
Following a new path
He moved back to Colorado Springs in 2013 and deliberately settled down in the Southeast; but driving through the area, he found much had changed since he left.
“I’m driving, it’s, like, midnight, it’s snowing, it’s cold and the entire street is dark and it’s quiet. It looked so different,” Stokes recalled. “And I’m seeing signs like, ‘Going out of business’ or ‘For sale.’ And I’m seeing boards on buildings. So I was like, ‘What … happened to the community?’”
After finding a church in Southeast, Stokes began to work with its pastor, who’d been searching for innovative ways for the church to give back. To identify the community’s needs, the church conducted a survey of more than 500 Southeast households, and the response was resounding: People wanted more work.
“Almost nobody said they needed more money,” Stokes said. “They said they needed more work, even though, I would say at least a third of the people we interviewed were working two jobs.”
The church first tried bringing job opportunities to the community; it didn’t work. It then tried bringing the community to the job opportunities; again, to no avail.
In a moment of sheer frustration during a church team meeting, Stokes blurted out: “Well I don’t know how to help people find jobs. I’ve been making my own since I was a kid.”
And thus was born the idea behind the 501(c)3 nonprofit THRIVE Network, which Stokes co-founded and of which he currently serves as executive director.
“That was kind of the start of THRIVE. Like, ‘If nobody is willing to give our people jobs, nobody is willing to give them an opportunity because of the way that they look or because they don’t have the education level … then … we’ll teach them how to make their own,’” Stokes said.
Decades after his own second chance, Stokes now offers them to those willing to work for it.
Helping entrepreneurs THRIVE
Over the course of eight months, THRIVE takes students from a simple idea — or often less than that — into launching their own fully fledged businesses.
And this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill course teaching the basics of business. The program takes a community-first approach that empowers students to identify problems in their neighborhoods, come up with creative solutions to solve them, and then find ways to monetize those solutions.
“We teach people how to create their own economic engines,” Stokes said.
“We teach them how to create
their own jobs, and we do that by saying, ‘OK, everybody can problem solve, and here is how you can monetize that.’”
Since its inception in 2015, THRIVE has helped launch at least 40 businesses in the Southeast — a number that continues to grow with each graduating class.
And although THRIVE is far from the only way the community-minded Stokes is trying to help revitalize the area, it’s where he currently is making his biggest mark.
“We think that by teaching people they should be the captains of their own ships … we can actually revitalize the community organically, rather than gentrify it,” Stokes said.“I want the community to grow, I just want it to grow consciously. And I think if we continue to educate citizens to empower their neighborhoods, if we continue to provide the tools … those communities will continue to build and revitalize themselves.”
These days, Stokes’ life perhaps is less glamorous than it was during his financial-brokerage career. But what he’s lost in terms of profit, he has more than made up for in purpose.
“You see these people change their lives and there’s just nothing like it,” Stokes said. “When I was in business for myself, I could never bring home that feeling, no matter how big of a payday or how big of a win it was for me.
“So I feel like I kind of found my calling. I want to go around and help people be free and watch their lives transform.”