The Bicycle Maker That’s Creating Good Jobs for Ex-Cons
The 1854 Cycling Co. wears its influences on its grease-stained sleeves. The bicycle company is named for the year Franklin Pierce, who had become the 14th president thanks in part to a promise to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, began pressuring officials in free states to arrest former slaves and return them to their owners in the South.
One such young former slave, 19-year-old Anthony Burns, was arrested in Boston and sent back to Virginia, leading to a protest in nearby Framingham, Mass., led by abolitionists Sojourner Truth, Henry David Thoreau, and William Lloyd Garrison. There, Garrison held a match to a copy of the Constitution, calling it “a covenant with death, an agreement with hell.”
“It was a symbolic act that divided the country between those who supported slavery and those who didn’t,” says Brandale Randolph, the owner of 1854 Cycling, of Garrison’s actions. “And it set the wheels in motion for the Civil War. At the end of the Civil War they add the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery nationwide.”
The bicycles themselves are sturdy and sleek and sport old-timey aesthetic touches such as vintage-inspired handlebars and leather saddles. More pointedly, they’re named after figures who fought for abolition—there’s the flagship Garrison and a pair of road bikes named for Ellen and William Craft, who famously escaped slavery in 1848 to become authors and lecturers.
“People were passing around my blog posts about why I was naming the bikes after certain people,” says Randolph. “My post on the Crafts—people were more interested in the story. I wish I had sold 70 bikes from that post, but even that getting passed around is a win for me.” At the beginning of November the company will unveil the Thoreau, a 500-watt electric mountain bike, at the Philly Bike Expo.
Randolph’s plans for 1854 Cycling, currently seeking an initial funding round of $1.5 million, go beyond historical references and into the implementation of social action in direct response to the 13th Amendment. Inspired by Toms Shoes and StoryBikes (which donates a bike to a person in need for each one sold), the company’s blueprint includes hiring those who were recently released from prison, plus a training system that will eventually bring all the manufacturing in-house and teach the staff valuable skills. Randolph also vows to pay his employees competitive wages—all leading, he believes, to a lower recidivism rate.
“I’m not just talking the talk, but I’m walking the walk,” says Randolph. “I’m actually hiring the people I say I’m hiring. I’m actually paying living wages to the people I say I’m hiring—I’m not just sticking them over in the shipping and distribution end of the business, like a lot of companies do, or sticking them in the back.”
Randolph has a story almost as compelling as the historical figures the company is based on. Raised in South Central Los Angeles, he was plucked by the A Better Chance program for inner-city kids and placed in the prestigious Thacher School in the quiet town of Ojai, Calif. After graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, he flung himself into the brokerage world. He worked his way up to handling gold and oil commodities at a major hedge fund, but he says the company went bust in the Bernie Madoff scandal.
Randolph moved with his wife to what he calls “Ted Cruz country”—Lubbock, Texas—where she sought her Ph.D. at Texas Tech. Now out of the financial game, he began Project: Poverty, a nonprofit that researched poverty alleviation solutions. “That’s when I became a whole do-gooder type of guy,” he says, laughing. After Randolph’s wife graduated, they moved to Framingham for her new job as a lecturer at Babson College, and she persuaded her husband to get his entrepreneurial gears turning.
In bicycles, Randolph saw an emergent, clean industry. As cities cater more and more to cyclists, and millennials continue to ditch cars for on-demand services such as ridesharing apps and alternative transportation, Randolph thinks the bicycle market has the potential to grow exponentially in the next 10 years, particularly in the e-bike arena. But he’s not aiming for his business to get too big, preferring to compare his operation to that of a craft brewing company.
“In the future, while I believe we’ll always have the section giants, like Trek and Specialized, we’ll also have the niche brands, like in craft beers,” he says. “I believe you’re going to see a lot of companies that are only going to have to sell a couple of their $6,000 bicycles [a year]. I’m trying to fit somewhere between the two.”
For Randolph, who also plans to expand the apparel side of the business—merino wool cycling sweaters are available to preorder on 1854’s website—the smaller scale will allow him to concentrate on the company’s stated goals.
“The beauty of all that is that I’m not under pressure to sell 70 or 80,000 bikes a year [like the major companies],” he says. “My success will be in creating and sustaining jobs for the formerly incarcerated. That’s how I will gauge my success.”