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Interview: Jacob Henley of Salemtown Board Co.

A Tennessee-native changing lives with skateboards

by CH Contributor in Design on 01 July 2013

by Madison Kahn

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Last November, all that Tennessee-native Jacob Henley had was a tank of gas, some reclaimed wood and a big idea: to mentor inner-city Nashville youth by teaching them how to build one-of-a-kind skateboards. Now, six months later, Salemtown Board Co., named after the low-income neighborhood where the company is based, has sold nearly 100 hand-painted, solid-oak skateboards—and employed one very special high school senior named Kendrius. Working in the shop has not only given Kendrius an income, but has also bestowed him with carpentry skills and a positive role model. Henley and his woodworking partner Will are building their own wood shop in the heart of Salemtown with a generous donation of a 3,000-square-foot indoor and outdoor space. They hope to continue growing, in order to keep employing more people like Kendrius.

Henley’s top priority for the company is to inspire change—and in a neighborhood with one of the country’s highest infant mortality rates, where 70% of the kids in lower-income homes are without fathers, and where the public school has some of the lowest testing scores in the nation, Salemtown Board Co. is doing just that. We caught up with Henley to learn more about how he’s changing lives with skateboards.

 
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What was the inspiration for Salemtown Board Co.?

I grew up in and around Memphis. I was an addict for about 10 years and I spent a lot of time in the inner-city and the projects. I got to know a lot of lower income folks and interacted with a lot of young men whose role models were gangster rappers and pro athletes because their fathers were nonexistent. I saw the depravity and the brokenness of a lot of people, and a lot of it had to do with these kids not having fathers in their lives—not having positive role models. So ever since that dark phase of my life, I’ve take up the philosophy of loving thy neighbor and making a difference wherever I go. And my wife and I found out about Salemtown—this neighborhood that’s becoming very gentrified though the majority are lower income families. We both felt compelled to move there because we felt like it was somewhere we could interact and get to know and love our neighbors and hopefully make a difference in their lives.

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How did the business start?

It’s not like I’m a businessman who had a business idea and said, "I want to find a cause to exploit in order to make people feel better about spending money on whatever product I have in mind." It’s a natural part of my life and my heart. So, I had this idea to create a business in the neighborhood to employ young men and maybe teach them something and just establish a relationship with them and be a positive person in their lives. We thought about leather goods and flipping old bicycles and screen-printing. But when we had the idea of a skateboard company, it just felt right. I got my buddy Will, who has a background in woodworking, on board. And my dad had an old wood shop and access to some free wood. So, I mocked up a board shape in Illustrator, and Will and I went out there and figured it out.

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Why did you choose to create skateboards?

Skateboarding culture is so transcendent. It surpasses all races, genders, ages and cultures. It’s also a beautiful, functional piece of art. But honestly, I don’t really care what we're making. I just want it to be handmade, excellent, beautiful, and functional. As long as we’re making cool stuff that people enjoy and use, and we’re also getting to help people and have a positive impact on people’s lives—then I’m happy.

 
Who are the young men you employ at Salemtown Board Co.?

Kendrius is our main employee. He’s 17 and lives in the neighborhood with his mom and two sisters. I knew him from playing basketball at the community center and he was an obvious choice. We took him to the woodshop with us the second time we went and he helped us assemble the very first board we ever made. Kendrius is a rising senior, but even though he’s an A-student, he had never thought about going to college until we started talking to him about it. So we started a fund for him and, depending on how things go, we’ll either have a little—maybe a giant—college fund for him by the time he graduates. We always say that if everything stops tomorrow and nobody ever buys another board, it was totally worth it just for the impact we’ve been able to have on Kendrius’ life.

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How has the business grown since you launched last winter?

We launched the first video around Thanksgiving, and within a day we had sold our first board. We could tell something about it was special. Something was moving people. It was something people could get behind because of our story and because we were making really beautiful, functional art. We sold more than 30 boards around Christmas. Then we ended up on Vogue.com. And then a couple guys from Quiksilver emailed me. And it’s been going slowly uphill since.

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What big-namers have you made boards for?

We’ve made boards for Brad Paisley, Jeremy Lin, Bubba Watson and Lecrae. And Kendrius just got to deliver a board to one of the Tennessee Titan football players, Michael Roos.

Tell me about the design and build of the boards.

The first shape we did was the cruiser board, which is a shorter board, about 27 inches long. I love the '60s—the beginning of the skate era—when they made solid wood, flat, surf-style skateboards. I have a picture of John Lennon riding one and that was my inspiration. But I’m also a child of the '80s, and I really like the rad style that was happening then too. So the first shape was a combination of the two styles.

The boards are all made of solid oak, sourced from a privately owned lumberyard in Nashville, so they’re impossible to break. This is something that you can ride for as long as you want to and put it in the closet and give to your kids to ride it for another 20 or 30 years.

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Where do the designs come from?

The art is just inspired by surfboards and '60s skateboards. A couple of pinstripes down the board and the rest is wood. A lot of it is the beauty of the natural wood—all you have to do is put one stripe down the center and it’s a piece of art. Think about it: the creation of the wood, the uniqueness of the grain, and the beauty of the stain sinking deep into the wood. I also have a little bit of Native American blood in me, so you’ll occasionally see an arrow or an arrowhead or a howling wolf.

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What are your long term goals?

I like to try to dream big. Our goal was to sell 100 boards, and once we do that, I think we’ll be able to bring on one more employee, another kid from the neighborhood. I would love to sell 1,000 boards in the next year because that would mean I could hire another five to 10 kids. And we could get more equipment to make the process faster, and we’d have the money to make T-shirts and hats and have other cheaper things that people can buy if they can't afford a skateboard.

The five-year dream is for something similar with hundreds of kids and all kinds of different businesses going on. Maybe our landlord will give us another 10,000 square feet in this giant building, and we can bring in other people who have similar arts, like handmade leather goods or a bike shop. And we collaborate with them to start another pocket of Salemtown Board Co.

   
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What kind of impact do you hope Salemtown Board Co. has on this community?

If we were able to help one young man because of his time with us—if he went to college, or became a good father to the children he has, or was a good husband, or a good neighbor—that woud be world-changing. That changes the trajectory of a family forever. Man, being able to have that impact on one person is incredible, but the thought of doing that for a hundred or a thousand people is almost too much to wrap my head around.

Check out the Salemtown Board Co. online shop for longboards, cruisers, T-shirts and more.

Images courtesy Jeremy Mitchell

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