When George Taylor heard about the teenager shot and killed in his town of Wilmington, N.C., he was shaken to his core. At the time, six years ago, he was running Untappd, an online beer community, and hadn’t realized there were gangs in Wilmington.
“That’s sort of how oblivious I was,” he told me over a Zoom call. “But when it happened it angered me, and I wanted to understand what was going on.”
In 2018 Taylor, a serial entrepreneur who exited a handful of companies over the last three decades, launched TRU Colors, a Wilmington-based brewery that employs 65 active gang members. They work in the brewery, beginning with a two month training, and also participate in outreach on the streets, aiming to reduce violence based on their knowledge of rising tensions between gang members.
TRU Colors operates out of a 58,000 square foot warehouse in downtown Wilmington and produces about 1.4 million cases of beer per year. Its beer, TRULight (“light on calories, heavy on impact”) is sold across North Carolina. The company plans to expand sales into nearby states, such as Virginia and Maryland, next year.
Each employee starts on a salary of $30,000 per year with full healthcare, which increases to $35,000 after two months of boot camp and to at least $37,000 after another 90 days as an intern. Taylor, who also employs 20 non-gang members, including his sons, has raised over $15 million from investors such as Molson Coors.
Taylor’s conception about gang members was that their role in life is to sell drugs, carry a weapon and sometimes use it. But as he began to spend more time with members in his own community, and then in the state and around the country, he recognized that it’s more complicated than: The violence is driven by a lack of economic opportunity and social exclusion.
Taylor remains committed to TRU Colors, even after a shooting last year rocked him. Over the summer, Koredreese Robert Tyson, who worked at TRU Colors, and Bri-yanna Emily Williams, were shot and killed at the house of George Taylor III — Taylor’s son and TRU Colors’ COO– where Tyson was living. Three people have been charged.
“I feel that his program, what he said was supposed to help, actually ended up hurting people,” Williams’ mother Adiran Dixon told Star News following the shooting. Taylor said some of the media coverage was inaccurate.
“I don’t know if we ever get to zero,” Taylor wrote in a statement following the shooting. “You see, violence comes from exclusion and a lack of opportunity, and so until all of us can come together and prioritize grace and understanding over blame and divisiveness, it will never go to zero. For peace to happen, it takes the whole city uniting and committing to change.”
He remains confident in TRU Colors’ method, but told Wilmington reporters that he nor family members will have gang members live with them anymore.
“This correlation that America has with gangs and violence is just not true,” Taylor said. “You take a bunch of people, you carve them off and put them into a housing project, and they have no opportunity to rise above any of it, stuff happens.”
Taylor first connected to Wilmington’s gangs through the police force’s Gang Task Force. The gang leaders were reluctant at first, thinking he was a cop.
He learned many gang members see their roles as building up and sustaining their communities. “That’s not to say that there aren’t some people in gangs that do bad things– I’m not trying to say that,” Taylor said. “But the vast majority of guys that are involved in gangs are not doing anything illegal and want to uplift their own lives and that of those of the community.”
Jumping Out of Airplanes
He reckoned the solution to reducing violence had to be economic.
In the beginning, he asked three gang members to join his salesforce at Untappd, starting with the three-month training process required of new hires. There was a cultural gap — the rest of the room was white millennial college grads, Taylor said — but the three men thrived in the course, all ending up in the top 50th percentile.
So he expanded the idea, and that’s when TRU Colors was born — pivoting into the brewing process from the software side. He recognized he couldn’t hire every gang member in Wilmington, so he focused on recruiting gang leaders in hopes that would reduce the violence faster. When they accepted the position, they had to agree that there would be no violence during their two month training — an ask to see if it would work. “That was a big ask, because back then we were seeing one to two a week, the streets were really hot,” Taylor said.
During the bootcamp, and even for a while after, gang-related violence disappeared, Taylor said. The Wilmington Police Department would not confirm the data without a public records request, and a spokesman noted that any crime reducation involves effort from the entire community, including police, the faith-based institutions, nonprofits and businesses.
Taylor asks new hires to jump out of an airplane to complete their onboarding process. The goal is to reset his team’s brain of what they think is possible. “If you put people in really difficult and sometimes frightening situations and help them overcome that, it completely changes the way they think about their future,” he said.
“It’s not a perfect science,” Taylor said. “We’ve had three gang related shootings this year, which sucks. But it is much, much, much, much better than in the past where we’re seeing one or two a week.”
“If you’re doing anything that’s really very important in the world, and you’re making decisions around and moving forward, you’re gonna have haters,” Taylor said. “If you don’t have haters and you’re probably not trying very hard. It’s just sort of part of it.”
Form meaningful community relationships: TRU Colors began with outreach to gang leaders. These relationships and earned trust are the backbone of the business.
Challenge your biases: Taylor learned about the complicated systems that harm low-income Americans and checked his stereotypes. “The more I learned, the more I realized,” he said.
Important work is high stakes: “It’s just a very real environment,” Taylor said. “In the software business, if we make a mistake, you know, we put out some buggy software. And that sucks, we hate it for our customers. But it’s not that hard to fix. In this world, if you make mistakes, somebody might get hurt, someone might get killed. It’s very serious.”