Tracey Syphax found himself in prison again, only this time he had decidedly nicer digs. In 1988 Southern State Correctional Facility in Cumberland County was still new.
“It was more like a country club,” Syphax says. “We had nice trailers, juice, snacks.” He was, in fact, so content with the place that he contacted his cousin, who was incarcerated in the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility. GSYCF, otherwise known as Yardville, was where Syphax had spent his first prison sentence in 1980, and he wanted to bring his cousin to the country club, where life was better.
“Unfortunately, he was a hothead,” Syphax says. A scrape with a guard ended with his cousin running for the fence. Syphax, who had done nothing, yelled for him not to run. For his efforts, he was given an institutional arrest charge for assault and transferred to Rahway’s East Jersey State Prison and put in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for a year.
This was the point at which Syphax says he shifted from convicted drug peddler to businessman. He had been a businessman in 1985, when he ran a roofing company in Trenton. But that business, he says, was just a front for his drug business. This time he meant it. And since his release in 1992, he has never been arrested — oh, and he managed to build three businesses in Trenton, each worth more than $1 million.
On Saturday, September 3, Syphax will unveil the cover of his forthcoming book, “From the Block To the Boardroom,” at 8 p.m. at the Masonic Temple, 100 Barrack Street, in Trenton. Cost: $25. Call 609-433-9772.
The event is no mere book marketing party, though. It also is a gathering of state lawmakers, Trenton dignitaries, and those Syphax has mentored, and a showcase for the nonprofit movement he is launching to teach ex-prisoners “how to fish for themselves.”
#b#The hard way#/b#. Syphax was born in Asbury Park but grew up in Trenton. As a kid in the 1970s he saw something a lot of African-American kids in Trenton these days do not get to see very often — black-owned businesses thriving and serving the community. “I’m very fortunate in that I grew up knowing what an African-American entrepreneur looked like,” Syphax says.
Today, much of Trenton is where it has been since the city’s economy bottomed out (and became a drug-poisoned mess) in the 1980s — broke, vacated, and unproductive. As a result, the city’s kids do not see successful black entrepreneurs. No one has been around to guide them and no one has shown them something to aspire to.
Syphax mentors kids in the Trenton school district, teaching them about financial literacy and entrepreneurship in their middle school years. But everything he knows, he learned by doing himself, he says. He counts himself among the lucky, meaning those who had enough exposure to African-American prosperity to know it was possible.
As a young man, Syphax was already an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a legal one. By 1980, at the age of 18, he had fallen in with the wrong crowd, been exposed to street life, and gotten involved with drugs, taking them and selling them. He had also been shot. To this day, he carries a bullet one inch from his spine.
In 1980 he entered prison for the first time (where Trenton Central High School mailed him his diploma), serving about two years at Yardville. In 1985 he put his entrepreneurial skills to use by founding Capital City Roofing, which he says did less roofing than drugs. He did another couple years in prison, only to go back for more of the same in 1988.
That transfer to Rahway allowed him time to connect with himself, which was his only option anyway. What he found was that a lot of guys in prison come to the same conclusions about life behind bars. “They don’t want to go back,” he says. “They want to do the right thing. But it’s hard to do the right thing when you have so many things stacked up against you.”
#b#Con game#/b#. Someone leaving prison faces challenges most people will never have to contend with. There’s the stigma, of course, but more than that there is the practical. When Syphax came out of prison in 1992 he was exactly what everyone like him is — flat broke, directionless, mistrusted. He didn’t have any property and he didn’t even have a driver’s license.
Such daunting challenges manifest themselves in statistics like this: the unemployment rate for ex-offenders in their first year out of jail is 85 percent. Syphax asks a question he knows the unfortunate answer to — “If they’re not employed for a year, then what are they doing?”
Syphax says he was lucky to get a job with a roofer upon his release. But while he was working for the company, and revisited his prison epiphany, reconsidered his entrepreneurial bent. His resolve steeled in 1995 when he attended the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., and heard Louis Farrakhan say something that resonates with him still — no one is going to do it for you. If you are black and poor and want to fix yourself and your community, you need to start and operate your own business.
“It was a life-changing experience for me,” Syphax says. He got back off the bus in Trenton and founded Capitol City Contracting, a construction firm that he operated while still working as a roofer. In 1996 Syphax left the roofing company to devote himself to his newly founded business. “The first year we made $30,000. The next year we made $80,000,” he says. By 2009 Capitol Construction had made $1.5 million.
In 2000 he founded Phax Group, a real estate development firm that started out buying deteriorated properties owned by the city of Trenton and renovating them. Today he owns more than $3 million worth of property in Trenton.
Since the 1990s Syphax has been as much motivational speaker as entrepreneur. He became deeply involved with Minding Our Business, a community outreach program developed in 1997 by Rider University. The program teaches Trenton middle schoolers what it takes to start and operate their own businesses.
It’s the operating part that Syphax wants most to impress. There are a lot of African-American entrepreneurs out there, he says.
Many of them take the plunge and start their own companies. But they close down a year later “because they don’t know what it takes to run a business.”
About a year ago the thought struck Syphax that if he can get the message through to kids, then he can get it through to inmates. He spends a sizable amount of his time talking to inmates in the state’s various correctional facilities, wearing his suit and telling them that not long ago he was sitting right where they are now.
“The response I get is unbelievable,” Syphax says. “When I grew up, I had an image of what a black entrepreneur looks like. When I put on my suit and start talking, I show them what a black entrepreneur looks like.”
So far, Syphax is not teaching workshops for inmates. Rather, he says, he is trying to ignite a spark in them.
“These guys are 34, 36 years old and they’ve never had any background in business,” he says. “They don’t know it’s not just about running the business, it’s about social skills as well. You have to put on a shirt and tie, you need to know how to communicate with people. It’s a total package.”
Back in the community, Syphax takes his message quite literally to the streets. Through Capitol City Contracting he helps ex-inmates earn some money by sub-contracting to guys with pick-up trucks and plow attachments. It’s a small step, he admits. But it’s a step forward, not one heading back to a prison cell.