Gerard Adams grew up in a stable, loving, two-parent home. But when he started high school in Belleville, New Jersey, he was immersed in a destructive environment: drugs, violence and street gangs like Zulu, Bloods, Crips and the Latin Kings. Many of the troublemakers were from the neighboring city of Newark, where Adams’ grandparents and parents had lived for decades before his parents fled for what they thought was a safer town.
“I just started hanging out with the wrong kids,” Adams said.
Adams spoke of his time hanging out at The River, a set of abandoned buildings along the netherworld border of Newark and Belleville, generally a cop-free zone. There, Adams and his friends took part in underage drinking, smoking, fights and street racing. One day someone approached Adams and offered him the chance to sell marijuana.
“I was young and I didn’t know any better,” he said. “Next thing I know I just caught up with this guy who was just leveraging me because I was friends with all these people in high school. I had amazing parents, I had an amazing foundation so it’s crazy that that could happen anywhere. I ended up being this kid who was surrounded by the wrong people at the wrong time.”
Through his natural entrepreneurial instincts — what he calls his “hustler mentality” — he became a natural drug dealmaker. Eventually, this recklessness caught up with him. When he was 17, the police pulled him over. Ahead of him, the police were arresting another person who Adams said was committing grand theft auto.
“At that moment, my life flashed before my eyes, and I thought I would be a failure to my parents and everybody,” Adams said.
It was the jolt he needed to start over.
After his brush with the law, Adams transferred his hustler mentality from drug dealing into learning business. Inspired by his father, who worked at Prudential, he started studying the ins and outs of online trading. Eventually Adams would go on to sell a media empire for the eye-popping sum of $50 million.
“The Internet is what saved me,” Adams said. “I was able to get away from hustle to now studying stocks and studying investing and using the Internet as a way to educate myself.”
Adams said his family had always wanted him to go to college, but after a semester at Caldwell University, he dropped out to lead marketing and Internet public relations for an investor relations firm.
“I was never a book smart kid; I was a street smart, charismatic, creative,” he said. “During my first semester, I was shocked at how much I looked at it like a broken system.”
After plunging into his role helping promote investment firms, tech startups and other businesses, Adams found himself a millionaire by age 24. But he lost about 90 percent of his fortune during the financial crisis as his investments in the stock market tanked. He launched a financial literacy project, the National Inflation Association, to help arm young people with the facts around their money.
“I had a huge ego check, and right in that same moment my father got laid off, my friends all graduated and coming to me for a job, and we’re all paying attention to the Kardashians and The Jersey Shore [reality TV shows],” he said. “Nobody is paying attention to what really matters. I built the site out of frustration — somebody needs to be educating our generation about our national debt crisis, student loan debt crisis.”
As he struggled to determine his next step, Adams began mentoring an 18-year-old boy whose father was in jail.
“All I’ve ever done is surround myself with mentors because I didn’t have the education,” Adams said.
His protégé transformed into a business partner as the pair concocted the idea of what would become Elite Daily. The news and cultural site and social media platform exploded over time as they grew a strong culture on college campuses. They did this without any journalism experience or outside funding from the start.
“Nobody thought we could build a real publication,” he said. “We were able to build a team and learn as we go. No matter what anyone said, we were able to be passionate as hell about the project. We didn’t care what anybody thought about us.”
That passion and authenticity grew Elite Daily into what Adams reports as an eventual readership of more than 80 million visitors per month. The site’s hockey stick growth caught the eye of The Daily Mail, which bought Elite Daily in 2015 for $50 million.
But, Adams admitted, the sale was a forcible exit, and a sudden one sprung on him by the board.
“I started asking myself a lot of tough questions,” Adams said. He fell into depression as he wondered how far he could have grown the firm. “It gave me a chance to step back, which as Millennials we don’t usually do. We just want go, go, go.”
Adams said his goal was to get to New York City, to build a company thriving on the energy of Manhattan. With Elite Daily he nailed that goal. But he hungered for something more.
“For the first time, I had this exit and what does this all really mean?” said Adams, unsatisfied with the payout that would have enabled his younger self to indulge in the cars, travel and bottle service he thought symbolized success.
That’s around the time Adams became friends with colleagues of financial guru Tony Robbins, who Adams heard speak in Seacuaus, New Jersey. Adams was struck by his mantra that “success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.”
“I was blown away by this man,” Adams said. “That’s when I found my why, my purpose … I put it all together into studying these ecosystems that were supporting entrepreneurs, how to create new jobs, how to get the education they need to succeed in this new economy that I felt was not being taught, especially in underserved areas … I started to see the potential and the change and it wall just kind of came together for me.”
And so Fownders was born. The incubator accepts startups with what Adams and his team deems “a proven market fit,” placing them through a proprietary 12-week program called “Seed to Scale.” The training is meant to lead startups from the initial idea towards profitability and scalability using Lean methodology. While Fownders is still in its fledgling stages, based on Adams’ track record, it’s likely bound for success.
Originally published at OpportunityLives.com.
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding POLITICO reporter, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes and wrote editorials for The Washington Times. After earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, she managed credit risk at Goldman Sachs and researched for Edward Conard, Bain Capital founding partner and American Enterprise Institute scholar. She earned a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.