Doing well by doing good How one ‘Camdentown’ business is staying connected despite COVID-19

Houston White with two neighborhood kids in front of the mural on his HWMR shop. The mural has the "Black Excellence" logo shown under a painting of White's late wife Donise White.

This article was written by Ry Edwards

To a stranger, the black awning at the corner of 44th and Humboldt only has four enigmatic letters: HWMR. When walking by, the design on the windows looks like the coat of arms for a royal family. Only the swirling colors on the recently installed barber pole let people know that they could get their hair cut inside; but that’s not all he has to offer. Not even close.

“HWMR started as a barber shop,” said owner Houston White, “but the greater purpose was always to be a gathering place for the community.” White uses the shop to host business meetings with local collaborators including residents, business owners, law enforcement, and even politicians such as Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. HWMR is the epicenter from which White propagates his vision for the future of the community; a vision he calls “Camdentown.” 

More than a barber, Houston White considers himself a “fashion culturalist.” He started an award-winning men’s clothing line called “Black Excellence” initially to give young Black men a label they can wear that promotes pride in their identity. The community has since grown to embrace the brand so that it’s not uncommon to see both men and women wearing Black Excellence. Another, even more inclusive, clothing line of Houston’s alludes to a famous Gandhi quote and uses the acronym of Black Excellence to encourage people of all colors and backgrounds to “BE the Change” they would like to see in the world. 

Houston White proudly proclaims his message through any means possible, be it through hosting or sponsoring events through HWMR; mentoring Black youths, men and business owners; partnering with government officials and local organizations; or simply providing the classiest barber shop experience of your life.

Since 80-90% of HWMR related business was designed to be experienced on-site, the COVID-19 virus and quarantine has drastically changed his focus. Now, nearly 100% of HWMR business is online. However, it hasn’t stopped White from focusing on the community experience.

Houston White uses separate Facebook pages for different aspects of his business, including his barber shop (HWMR), his clothing brand (Black Excellence by HWMR), his grooming products (HWMR GROOMING) and even his community leadership (Camdentownmpls).

In the past, HWMR has hosted entrepreneur days to support children who have business ideas and even awarded some of them scholarship money. Post-COVID-19 quarantine, he invited people to support the community affected by COVID-19 by donating a week’s profits from his “BE the Change” clothing to a local restaurant, Soul Bowl. The community raised $1,100 for Soul Bowl and got the T-shirts to prove they are the change.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he can’t currently sell tickets to exclusive HWMR-hosted music release parties highlighting Black music as he has done previously. So instead, he created an Apple Music playlist of afro-beat, hip-hop and rap, called “Coming to America” hand-picked to accompany his next clothing line. 

White’s next clothing line is premium handmade sportswear designed to celebrate Black culture in sports like tennis and golf. In preparation for this major culture-crossing release, he was scheduled to fly to Ivory Coast, Africa on March 8. However, he decided to cancel his trip in light of the COVID-19. He is still releasing the new brand online as of April 25.

Last summer, Houston organized the first annual Camdentown Blues and BBQ festival. He brought in a towering stage to the parking lot of the neighboring North Market and filled it with BBQ businesses, blues musicians, and hundreds of happy people. Sadly, COVID-19 has officially cancelled the 2020 blues and BBQ festival. White’s response? “More time to plan for 2021!”

Houston White went through the economic collapse of 2008 and learned much from that experience. He will attest to the importance of paying down debt and re-investing profits back into your business during the good times. But for times as hard as these, he keeps these ideals in mind:

  • Be nimble. Cash flow is king. Get creative to keep the pilot light burning for the business. 

Take advantage of any assistance through grants and loans. 

  • Use this time to re-imagine and re-develop the business strategy. Rethink what is essential and what is the baseline of operations.
  • Times will be good again. Remain optimistic and forge ahead intelligently.

“I believe in doing well by doing good,” says White. “As we keep learning, we strive to continue being a great business and drawing other great businesses to Camdentown.”