Best In The Citi | Innovator: Harold Hughes

Harold Hughes, Best In The Citi Innovator for 2022

Harold Hughes is on a mission to connect people.

“I’m Jamaican. First-generation American and from a culture standpoint, there’s a lot of communal sharing, whether it’s of food, conversations,” says Hughes. “I’m a community-builder.”

“Anywhere I go, I’m trying to find my people, and when I think about how to make that easier to make people feel connected and bring people together,” it’s all about helping people find comfort and support in community, he says. 

I’m a community-builder.

Hughes, who grew up in the suburbs of Columbia, South Carolina with four siblings, was used to having to fight to get ahead. His family was on public assistance, and his dad worked an out-of-state job in New York, commuting down to spend time with the family on weekends when he could. It was instilled in him from a young age that money is the root of all evil, says Hughes, but from where he sat, money “gives you access to a lot of things, particularly time. As a Black person, we don’t have the luxury of time and the flexibility to dream,” he says.

In particular, money was needed to fuel his dreams. 

Six years ago, Hughes was fired without warning from his corporate job where he was making a six-figure salary and had stable health insurance. The blow came as he and his wife Tiffany were expecting their first child, and he says he made up his mind right then that he would never allow another executive to have that much power over him and his family again. 

Though the decision to leave corporate America wasn’t mine, the decision to not go back was. In those moments, I decided that I’d never put my family in a situation where someone else can decide my employment and subsequently, my ability to provide for them,” he wrote in a 2018 blog post reflecting on the growth of his company, Bandwagon Fan Club.

But the road to supporting his family as a full-time entrepreneur wasn’t lined with roses, either. In his first two years, he went unpaid at least 70% of the time, and the family had to suspend some of the luxuries they’d previously enjoyed, like international travel. In Greenville, South Carolina, where he was living at the time, Hughes was finding it difficult as a Black founder to generate the support he needed to grow his company. 

He recalls one meeting in particular in which an angel investor had committed to backing the platform – until he realized Hughes was the CEO, not his Asian colleague. 

“This guy who had just committed to investing said, ‘I’m just not sure this company has the right leadership to take it to the next level’” and backed out, Hughes said. “I’m black, a first-time founder, didn’t have a Stanford or Harvard pedigree, and then I was in a small market.”

In January 2018, he was accepted into Capital Factory’s Tech Startup Accelerator. Eighteen months later, he relocated his family to Austin – instantly creating a satellite office for Bandwagon Fan Club. Now, he’s continuing to grow the company he started in 2014 right out of grad school and re-learning what’s important. 

As my wife and I began to think through family planning, I knew I wanted to create a level of work-life prioritization that allowed me to be present and engaged in my kid’s life while accelerating my career and providing for my family,” he wrote early in the pandemic. 

Hughes says he absolutely sees Austin as their family’s forever home. His wife Tiffany is enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin’s Higher Education Leadership Ph.D. program, and the couple is looking forward to putting down roots in the capital city, though they still expect to travel plenty. After all, that is the beauty of the lifestyle introduced by the pandemic and the omnipresence of virtual dealings.

I’m going to let you know that I’m here and I belong here

“Being here has been interesting because it’s a pretty big city, but I’ve already gotten to know people and am already an unofficial ambassador to Austin,” says Hughes, who says he’s gotten to meet “dozens of Black founders and Black entrepreneurs,”, particularly in tech spaces, and who is working on additional ways to build community and serve as a conduit to connect all of these individuals together. 

“Having just left Greenville, my opinion is I don’t care what’s happened here before I arrived here, I’m going to let you know that I’m here and I belong here,” he says. “We belong here, and this is ours.”

 

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