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Updated: March 2, 2020 Business Leaders of the Year

Randolph’s mission remains steady as his company adapts

Photo | Matt Wright Brandale D. Randolph

In the stories businesses often tell about themselves, pivot often shows up as a buzzword, suggesting the flexibility and agility to adapt to a fast-changing world. But there are few entrepreneurs who truly embody this ability better than Brandale D. Randolph, founder of The 1854 Cycling Co.

Randolph began his career in the finance world, trading commodities at a hedge fund. When the fund went bust, he shifted gears entirely, becoming an activist, speaker and writer with a focus on fighting poverty. That anti-poverty work led him to bicycles.

“I have no background in cycling,” he said. “My background is in poverty alleviation.”

Back in 2012, Randolph said, he created an algorithm to pinpoint specific populations affected by poverty in any given geography. It turned out, formerly incarcerated mothers are particularly likely to suffer from poverty. The situation is a vicious cycle. Employers are often reluctant to take a chance on people who’ve been imprisoned, but living without a decent income can result in going back to jail. A mother without a good job may miss an appointment with her parole officer as she doesn’t have transportation or a babysitter.

“There are a lot of little things that poverty puts in the way in terms of their freedom,” he said.

That’s the source of the company’s name, a reference to a meeting of abolitionists in Framingham in 1854. The organizers were fighting the Fugitive Slave Act.

“It was all about not allowing those who had established their lives outside slavery to be taken back into slavery,” Randolph said.

Randolph’s original vision for the company was a repair business, comparable to Bikes Not Bombs, the Boston nonprofit rebuilding broken bikes and training young bike mechanics. He knew building bikes was a skill to allow formerly incarcerated women to earn a living wage. Over time, the company shifted to assembling new bicycles.

“That’s how the brand got started,” Randolph said. “We also started making sweatshirts, T-shirts.”

The attractive brand and inspiring company mission led to the company being discovered. A 2017 Bloomberg profile brought 1854 national and international notice. Soon, it was shipping its single-speed bikes around the world. In 2018 Randolph was accepted to the accelerator program MassChallenge.

Behind the scenes, though, the company was hitting a stumbling block.

“The margins started to shrink because the cost of the parts that we were using for our single-speed bicycles was steadily increasing,” Randolph said.

Between international competition, tariffs and other financial pressures, the company needed a different path.

1854 is now in the process of opening a full manufacturing facility in Hopkinton, where it will build entire bikes rather than simply assembling them from parts. Randolph anticipates starting operations as soon as this summer, hiring 146 workers – including at least 80 formerly incarcerated people – and paying them a living wage.

The bikes 1854 builds will be something new – mobile communications systems for community policing. After consulting with police departments, Randolph learned about the demand for bicycles equipped with computers. An officer on one of these bicycles would be able to print resources out to hand to a homeless family, scan IDs, or pull up information to find a missing person.

Ian Barrett, creative director at Media Boss in Framingham, said he’s been continually impressed with Randolph’s ability to roll with the punches.

“Everything that could happen to him to wreck his business has happened, and yet he is able to pick himself up, dust himself off and get right back into it,” Barrett said.

The two men met years ago, when they were part of the community group Framingham Downtown Renaissance. Barrett said he was impressed with the vision of marrying the bicycle – a technology symbolizing freedom and independence – with a way to support freedom for vulnerable people.

“He’s actually trying to give society a way to right a wrong that they’ve committed,” he said.

Randolph is working with partners in the manufacturing, technology and education worlds to ensure the security of the bikes’ computer systems and create training plans for its employees.

“A lot of the equipment here there are not formal training courses for,” he said. “We’re literally going to have to bring in the people who make the robotics.”

Read about the other 2020 Business Leaders of the Year

Large Business Leader of the Year: Harry Kokkinis, president, Table Talk Pies, Inc.

Nonprofit Business Leader of the Year: Stephanie Page, executive director, Abby's House

Innovative Business Leader of the Year: Paul Sellew, CEO, Little Leaf Farms

Family Business Leaders of the Year: Edna, Gregory & Miriam Hyder, co-owners, Ed Hyder's Mediterranean Marketplace

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