Founder of The Laundress of Boston
I tell people all the time, ‘if you have an idea – you'll never be this young and this broke again – why wouldn’t you at least take the risk of trying it?'
by Heidi Legg
One of the great things about the gig economy is that when you jump into an Uber, Lyft, or hire someone on Thumbtack, you’re more likely to ask people what they do with the rest of their lives. It’s a funny thing because the person who makes your coffee at your local haunt or drives your bus or teaches your kids also has “the rest of their lives” to share and yet, the gig economy is more fleeting. We think of it as a moonlighting and therefore suddenly all become voyeurs looking for a story.
Last month, I took an Uber in Cambridge and asked my driver if he knew of GenXers that he thought were changing his community. He didn’t miss a beat. He suggested Jacinth Cooke, Founder of The Laundress of Boston, community leader in Dorchester, a graduate of East Boston High School, and a former Varsity Squash player at Smith College. There is a great deal to admire here.
We sat down to discuss what she is experiencing as an ambitious entrepreneur starting out after winning a $10K business plan competition back in 2012. Fiver years later, she hires retired people and single moms going back to college to launder the clothes of busy office workers, families, and companies around the city. It’s a luxury service that she sees as filling a void for one of those annoying to dos in our busy lives.
These are still very early days for Cooke. She works out of Manny's Laundromat on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester, where she’s collaborated with the owner to have a designated space. For a share in the profits, she hand delivers all the perfect piles her team washes and folds, and sounds driven by a dream to go nationwide and become a role model for others in her community more than for the money.
As we sat in a warm leather booth in a cool Dorchester restaurant, locals kept stopping by our table to chat with her, curious about our interview, her business. If they didn't know about it yet, she gave them her card and told them everyone needs a hand. With her big dreams of a franchise that goes nationwide, it’s hard to put a price on the hope she conjures up for those around her, including me.
I love that you’re showing me popular Dorchester spots. You know everyone.
Something like that. Something like that.
How did decide to quit the gig economy and go all in to launch your startup as a full-time gig?
The Laundress of Boston is a pickup and delivery laundry service. When I graduated from college, like everyone else around me, I had a hard time finding a job and dibbled and dabbled in some things. I have my insurance license and worked for State Street. I then worked as an event manager with Team Enterprises, but I really knew that I didn't want to work for anyone. I didn't like being at a desk. So, I thought about what kind of business I could launch where eventually I could control it from a distance, maybe make it nationwide, and also recession proof. That was always the biggest thing for me. What is a necessity for people? If in ten years, your business isn't a necessity, is anyone going to be interested in it?
Where did you get this thinking?
Probably my mother. She owned her own business and she has done a mix of everything. She was a general contractor, she had a nightclub, and she talks about all the ups and downs and the paperwork, and about how you have to make sure this stuff is legitimate. I look at my mom now and, beside the fact that she's retired, why isn’t she in business anymore? Why are people who start a business not in business anymore? Even being younger, I was able to quickly learn from people's mistakes fast.
It takes a great deal of confidence to start something and go at it on your own at a young age and stay committed. Where did you learn that?
I don’t know. I watched people that decided not to go to every single class in high school – just basic things. I ended up playing Varsity Squash for Smith College. People didn't show up to practice on time helped me realize there are consequences whether they're good or bad, and so you have to almost predict what those consequences are going to be ahead of time.
Where'd you go to high school?
East Boston High.
And then to Smith College.
Yes. It wasn't exactly my plan but it all worked out.
What does that mean?
Well, I thought I was going to go into the private high school and I got in and I knew I was going and thinking, it's going to be awesome but I wasn’t given financial aid and my family said, ‘look, we're going to give it to you straight. We can either pay for high school or we can pay for college, but we can't pay for both.’
I was like, ‘okay.’ So, I did a day of crying and then called Boston Public Schools and they were like, ‘yeah, we're putting you in East Boston,’ which is an hour away from where I lived. I went there for a year and I thought, ‘maybe some miracle will happen and I'll end up anywhere else but here,’ and it didn't happen. I just made the best of it and involved myself in everything. I go back there now and speak at graduation. So, I just had to make the best of it. And then I ended up at Smith. It worked out.
Smith is known for producing and attracting strong women. How has it influenced your work?
That is true. That's me. I had a full ride and Smith, or as close to a full ride as you can get. My Squash coach from a summer camp at Princeton contacted me said he’d love for me to come out and meet the team to see if I’d like it there.
I never thought I'd be at an all women's college. My cousin Shanita also played Squash and I was like, ‘I need you to apply to Smith,’ and so she applied. I was like, ‘if we both get in, we'll go together,’ because there was no way I was going there by myself. We went together. We both played varsity squash at Smith and it was great. It was great.
An Uber driver told me about you and said that The Laundress is taking off. How is your business growing?
A lot of it is word of mouth. Sometimes I'll have my shirt on or they'll see me carrying my laundry bag and ask ‘what are you doing?’ or ‘what is that?’ And I explain that we are a personal pick up and delivery laundry service. No one really has time for laundry. It's a necessity. It has to get done. It's not one of those things you can put off forever.
What areas to you serve?
We're all over. Boston, Dorchester, Brookline, Mattapan. I have clients in Jamaica Plain. I have clients in Cambridge. I have a few in Malden. I have some downtown, like Women's Lunch Place and the women's shelter. I have a few local churches, hair salons, barber shops; we are all over the city right now.
When did you see the first real growth from gig economy to full-time?
My business mentors, advisors, and my mom said, ‘if you really want this to take off, you are just going to have to leave your job.’ And that is hard! You have to leave your benefits and your salary, and I was getting good benefits. I left last August, and I also left my apartment and moved back home with my mom. I minimized all of my expenses and downgraded my vehicle. I did everything I possibly could, so that all I had to do was focus on my business. It has grown more since August than it had since I started.
You said you’d like a national chain and I notice that your bags, t-shirts, and cards are all very strongly branded. Have investors shown up?
I won a business plan contest in 2012 when I was still figuring out what business means. The contest was here in Dorchester and my mom kept coming home and telling me there are these people doing this business contest, and I really had only started my business: it was literally a concept. We had maybe two or three clients while I was still working a full time job.
Where I come from, you don't get people to just give out money. That just doesn't happen in Dorchester. Finally my mom was like, ‘You're going to go meet these people.’ I went, I met them, and literally the very next day was the deadline to apply.
I met the woman and she said, ‘please just apply’ and I entered the contest, but what they didn't tell you is that by entering the contest, you had to go through this rigorous eight week business plan writing course that's like two days a week for three hours a day!,I had to rearrange my job schedule and I did everything they told me to do. I went to the business library downtown. I did all the research. I did all the work, and it paid off.
I came to a place where I thought: What do I have to lose? I want to grow this business. I want to try it.
We hear less about the struggles of entrepreneurs and more often the successes. Then successful people create their own narrative that can make people feel an unrealistic pressure. What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
You definitely will have to make compromises and there's always this fine balance. Even trying to get your foot out of your full time job and into your business is a leap of faith. I tell people all the time, ‘if you're already broke, if you're already at a job you don't like or you're not making a lot of money and you have this idea – you'll never be this young and this broke again.’ If you’re already telling me that you're not making enough money, you don't like your job, and you're not happy, why wouldn’t you at least take the risk of trying it?
Most people I know usually don't have a hard time getting a job. It might not be the best job. It might not be the job that you like, but if you don't have a hard time getting one of these jobs, then what's a year of your life to try something that could finally bring in the same amount of money? That's your final line.
You could fail and lose the money that you invest, but the biggest thing is you tried something. And if it actually made you happy for that year, then it was worth the risk even if it doesn't necessarily work out. I have definitely re-launched The Laundress a few different times.
Would you explain those restarts?
Oh, boy. When I first thought of my business, I started as an LLC. That's all I kept hearing: you're reading all these books that say you need an LLC. All right. I wasn't exactly sure how to do it and then tax time came around and my accountant asked, ‘did you pay your $500 fee?’ and I was like, ‘what fee?’ I began to realize it was not really what I needed. So, I dissolved and started over as a sole proprietor.
I always equate time with money. If there's something you can do on your own and teach yourself how to do, it's going to save you money; anything you decide not to do on your own you’ll have to pay for. But you can easily go on IRS.gov and learn how to do your own taxes. It's the same thing in business. If you're going out and you're learning how to get a permit or get registered with the city or become a registered woman-owned business, you can easily pay someone to do those things or you can do it yourself and save yourself some money. But it will require you to invest the time.
At what point did you decide to delegate?
Right now, I have a staff that actually does the laundry. I do the pickup and the delivery because I have keys to people's homes and businesses, and I'm not quite ready to hand that off to somebody else.
Are you close?
I'm hoping by the end of the year I'll be hiring a full time delivery person and then I can move into bringing in more business. All the people who help me are trained – they do my laundry and they do my mother's laundry. So, when it comes home and something doesn't look right, I go back and say, ‘this isn't really right. I didn't like this.’
My mom is awesome. She'll tell me, ‘I didn't like how my sheets were folded.’ So the team and I go back and discuss materials, and we’ve learned a great deal about detergent and materials and what can be washed. It's taboo, but you can wash anything, even wool! But not leather. Do not wash your leather. [Laughs]
What are your biggest headaches?
I think it's moving into the next transition where I bring in enough clients so I can actually position myself to bring in more clients, if that makes sense.
When you won the business competition, did you gain investors?
I received $10,000, which went toward my uniforms, bags, and the vehicle that I had before this one. It was a lot of me learning, ‘How do I pay for marketing? Do I pay for a fancy website that maybe I don't need right now? Do I get an app right now?’ And then you have to decide. I think that's the biggest thing one learns. What do I pay for first? What do I need right now? And what can wait? Business mentors tell me, ‘your business will tell you what it needs. You have to listen to it. Don't hire a delivery person until you need to hire a delivery person. If you listen to your business, it'll tell you when it's ready to go into the next step.’
That competition money allowed me to keep it afloat while I took some risk and left my job, but that was in 2012. Now it's 2017.
Any recent investors?
I’ve had people talk about investing. We are talking to Madison Park Development: they're doing work in the Dudley area, and we're talking about possibly putting a laundromat there. I know they want a dry cleaner. I'm not sure if I really want to get into dry cleaning because the chemicals aren't that great. Many local dry cleaners don't dry clean on site. Most of it is sent out. So even if I add that, it'll be outsourced.
It sounds like you have a very clear view of what The Laundress of Boston can become in the personal service business?
Exactly. I want my personality and I want my vision to remain in every component of the Laundress. Any investor who would want to come in, would have to understand that.
Why is that so important to you?
I've seen businesses and nonprofits that people cultivate, and then all of a sudden this vision that you woke up with in the middle of the night, that you dreamt about, is starting to dissipate. You’re losing pieces of it. I don't want that. I've seen it, and I've talked to other business owners and nonprofit founders, and they say that at the end of it all you're trying to chase this dollar and lose the focus. I want to find the fine line between that.
What attracts you to this venture? It seems it's more than money.
Absolutely. I want to be able to hire people. I want to be able to hire elders or people who are past that retirement mark – like Pearl who you met at the Laundromat. She's amazing and it gave me an idea that I'm working on – how do we hire people who are past retirement age but still need a little additional income? They're not top hires in companies because companies want to hire younger so they can pay less. They don't want the person they have to pay a full salary to because of all their experience, but those people are still in need of job and a lot of times they teach me things about laundry. They've been doing it forever and they can tell you about times when they washed stuff out by hand or they used Borax. We're in the process now of creating our own detergent, so I'm learning a lot from them. These older retired workers have a lot to offer. I definitely want to be able to hire, that’s a key driver. I want to hire more people like Angelica Ortiz, a single mother going to community college who needs flexible hours. That matters to me.
I also want the Laundress to go nationwide. I want to be at this looking glass, looking down and creating new marketing strategies for the business and, eventually, I want to be on the outskirts of it all looking in.
I know from my Uber driver – who also hosts a TV show in Malden, Let’s Talk Malden, where he once interviewed you – that you're active in the community. What are your top social issues?
Education. One of the first books that I read when I went to Smith, where I majored in math and education, was The Lie My Teacher Told Me and this other book Doing School. Those books are so old now but looking back it really makes me think about the things that you need in day-to-day living, like balancing a checkbook or doing your taxes. Today, you don't get any of that in school and it's hard to believe because those are the things that you actually need to know. If you were to walk out and ask any eighteen year old ‘how do you open a bank account?’ they probably couldn't give you the process from start to finish. That's a problem because how are you going to be an active member in society if you don't have the basics down?
What do you think of movements like Match Schools and Year Up? Is enough happening?
No. Enough is not happening. A friend of mine, Jessica Tang, is running to be President of the Boston Teacher’s Union, and I cannot wait until she makes it because we have a lot of the same views. She literally rides around with books in the trunk of her car and gives them out to kids. When you see kids in the streets, say hi. You just don't know what kind of spark that'll put in someone, especially our young people because a lot of them are angry and they don't know why.
I don’t think they are alone. I think a lot of Americans are in a similar place, today. Have you checked Twitter?
It's true. They can't piece together why they’re angry: you woke up angry. You stubbed your toe. Then you were late for work. There are all these ripple effects as to what makes you angry and you can't pinpoint any of it. So, no, enough is absolutely not being done in education.
I can't say that I have all the answers but I do know it's going to take more than one person. It's going to take more than money, more than time, more than energy. It's going to take a collective of all of those things to figure out the problem.
We recently had our students walk out at Roxbury Latin. Not just any kind of school, but a school that they literally had to take an exam in order to get into. Supposedly they work harder than any other students across the city and they walked out because they were fed up as students. That's a problem. We're failing our children and it's not okay because but we put so much pressure on them at eight years of age.
Some people in the nation point to Massachusetts as a leader in education. What do you think?
Then why aren't we doing better?. Top in hospitals, top in schools, but our students are still failing. That's a problem. So, you can say that because test scores look good, but how many of those students are going to colleges or starting businesses or having options?
Is one of the solutions local people in communities like you running businesses and setting an example?
I think it helps. When I was a camp counselor at this political camp, Democracy Lab, one of the things I made sure the students were doing was going to black-owned businesses. That way they saw people that look like themselves owning something, running something, and making day-to-day decisions for themselves. That was extremely important and they loved it, and it was real learning. Some are saying business ownership is the way to go; it gives them an option. College isn't always the way to go every time.
Are there other financing options besides bank loans available to entrepreneurs like you today?
Yes and no. I feel like it's this magical realm that no one knows anything about. They say that there are grants, but then how do you really get the grants and who qualifies and what if you are a commercial enterprise?
Yes. It seems grants are for nonprofit. We see that same problem and I have been asking around for ideas.
Exactly, well sometimes they're for businesses. It varies. You can find grants for businesses but usually it's once your business is already established, you can get a grant to do your signage or your lighting or your security system and things like that.
Do you know why I’m interviewing you?
For us, you represent the generation bridging GenX and Millennial who need to be funded in a community to make impact. You're educated and driven. You hire older people and single moms. Are people trying to give you money yet and help?
What is going on?
That's a good question. I think that's why these interviews and conversations are important and why telling these stories are important because, yes, there are people trying to make change and I'm not the only one. I'm not the silver lining. There are plenty of other people that have amazing ideas and are starting up, but need to get their foot in the door without having a high interest rate and without having to go to the banks. And if you already have student-loan debt, that's another big thing too.
You graduate college with a ton of debt and then you get that first job and you're making maybe $35,000 a year, which you and I both know is absolutely no money after taxes, and what do you do? Young people go and finance a brand new car because they have this vision of what they want their life to look like and when your income isn't really meeting that vision, that's a difficult thing.
What is the solution?
At the end of it all, you want to be able to take care of your family and live; not just survive but thrive. You want to go on a family vacation and afford the basics. As a matter of fact, these are the things that they tell you that you should be able to do when you're in America. They tell you this is the land of the free. You can do absolutely anything. You can own a home and pay for it and not foreclose on it. You can put your child through college. But the truth of the matter is that's not happening. I don't have all the answers, but it could be saying ‘hey, we're your citizens. We're out here figuring it out and trying to make it work, but we need some help.’
What would help look like?
More business or word of mouth to help get the Laundress out there. If I'm able to rev up the money that I need to get into my own owned- laundromat and if I can do that without going into debt or having a loan, I'm fine with that.
Favorite restaurant or place to hang out?
I love Cesaria here on Bowdoin Street where we're sitting right now. [I took home the most delicious Cape Verdean buffet lunch that cost me $8.] They have a buffet lunch during the day, which I think is great and then they do a large lunch on Sundays. Dinner is great too. It's affordable and the service is good. You can literally enjoy a full meal for twelve bucks.
Norvia's is re-opening in Roxbury. I believe it's now named Fort Hill Grill. It's another brand new spot. She redid the entire thing. I'm super excited about it. I was there before they opened and I saw the menu. It's going to be my new favorite place and she knows it.
Where do you go to escape?
A nap. Naps for me are a big deal. I know it sounds like a cliché but if a girl can get in an hour nap in the course of a day where you're doing 16-18 hour days, naps are great. Or the Cape – I have family in the Cape, so I usually try to get out of here and go to sit by some water and reflect.
I hope the Laundress grows.
Yes. She will and look for her nationwide. She'll be there. Go to www.thelaundressofboston.com.
You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Or call us: 617.888.2239 If you want a personal touch and want to be able to speak to someone picking up their laundry, you'll get me in a flash.
I'm rooting for you.
Thank you so much for having me.