Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: VoxPop Q&A

December 3rd, 2008 · No Comments

The Center for the Urban Environment (CUE) found Vox Pop owner and CEO Sander Hicks through the Sustainable Business Network NYC, a network of businesses dedicated to building a vibrant, diverse and responsible local living economy in New York City. For more information on SBNYC click here.

CUE: Where are you from originally?

Hicks: I was born in Virginia and grew up in the DC area. But I have family roots in Long Island and NYC and have lived here since 1991.

CUE: When did VoxPop open and what lead you to start up the venture?

Hicks: Vox Pop in Brooklyn opened up almost exactly four years ago—we just had an anniversary party. I started it because I wanted a place for the people to come together, around free speech, fair trade coffee, good food, revolutionary ideas, cross-pollination, renewal, and community.

CUE: Community bookstores are often the seat of civic engagement for neighborhoods. Do you think that has changed in such a fast-paced-web-based era, or only increased their public role?

Hicks: The web creates more dialogue, and more virtual community, but virtual community is a new form of community. It doesn’t replace an innate need we all have for actual physical presence, for the power of feeling connected to others.

CUE: How did you choose the location of your business—and what do you like best about your community customer base?

Hicks: Four years ago, “Ditmas Park,” Brooklyn, which is really one part of the larger Flatbush area, was cheap and relatively unknown. The ethnic diversity was and still is a great part of the neighborhood. Really, I like the fact that it’s one of the City’s most affordable neighborhoods, artists and musicians and young families can enjoy a really pretty neighborhood with lots of trees, and these classic, Norman Rockwell, all American big Victorian homes, next to bigger co-op apartment buildings.

CUE: If you got together with other business owners what would the hot topic be?

Hicks: How to help Obama save the economy through a new form of green, public-interest venture capital. A new formula that also uses public equity markets and the attractive explosion of value in the IPO.

CUE: Tell me more about this twist on socially responsible investment…

Hicks: Well, I’ve got this crazy idea for a “green venture capital” fund, but instead of it being a private, small, left-wing affair, I think it should be a Federal program suited up with serious federal mega-capital. Instead of another $700 bailout top-down into the chasm of the corrupt financial organizations, or the decaying Big Three car companies, what if President Obama started a US Social Ventures Administration that used grassroots funding to say YES to green entrepreneurs. And what if, instead of the US Government “giving” away start-up capital to fund green business, the US Social Ventures fund took an equity stake in the companies, just like a traditional VC firm. You would have a government entity that actually has a revenue stream. It would help green ventures start, and some of them would go public, creating an opportunity for the US-SV fund to “exit” and make their money back, ten fold. Crazy ideas, but they just might work. I’m doing a whole article on this for Alternet, so stay tuned…

CUE: What are the salient challenges that face your business?

Hicks: We’ve never been all that well capitalized, something I’ve been rightly criticized for recently, because we opened up this new location inside the Bowery Poetry Club, and it’s been a bit of a struggle. But we’re making it work, and I’m behind the counter personally all day on Tuesdays and Fridays, for the time being.

CUE: What are its greatest rewards?

Hicks: All the live events we’ve done around radical hip hop, or progressive folk/rock, or traveling authors, or the production of Marx in Soho we produced, or when you think about all the fair-trade coffee we’ve sold, then that adds up to a social effect. Personally, one of the rewards that keeps me in the game is the value I am only now able to see in my equity. I haven’t gotten a lot of cash salary in four years, but I do own a part of this company. That part is currently valued at around $2 million. Companies are magical in the sense that you can create something out of nothing.

CUE: If you could pass a law tomorrow that would help small businesses locally, what would it look like?

Hicks: Get the City of New York off our backs! There are too many unthinking bureaucracies lumbering around looking to fine the small businessman every step of the way. Instead, the City of New York should start its own green venture capital fund, and make money that way, instead of being $50 billion in debt. Work your way out of this, NYC!

Interview conducted by Rebeccah Welch, Senior Associate Director of Communications at the Center for the Urban Environment. As a guide to a more sustainable New York City, the Center is dedicated to educating individuals about the built and natural environments. For more about our work visit www.thecue.org.

Tags: Ditmas Park · Urban Environmentalist