Fred Calhoun grew up in East Elmhurst, Queens, and his grandmother, who was raising him, sent him “down South,” he says, from the age of 10 to 13, to live with his aunt and uncle.
“She felt it would be a good change of scenery,” says Calhoun. “I was coming home from school late, getting into fights at school—but it wasn’t affecting my schoolwork.”
Calhoun has come a long way since that time, as have his parents. His father was incarcerated twice when he was growing up, and his mother struggled as well.
Now, he says, “My Dad is living and working in the Bronx; he pieces work together to keep his head above water,” and his mother has a solid office job with a City agency.
He moves forward in his chair, when he talks about his father. “Me and him didn’t see eye-to-eye for a lot of years,” he says, “but my anger issues were really about him not being there—till one day it just came out in a rage. I forgave him that day.”
In a sense, he has forgiven himself, as well.
“I’ve made my fair share of mistakes,” he says. “We went down the same path, me and him.”
That path included a year at the New York State Department of Corrections facility in Albany for “criminal possession of a forged instrument,” Calhoun says. “I used a fake ID and a fake credit card to buy a phone and gift cards for Christmas.”
He blames no one but himself, for that choice.
“No one put a gun to my head and made me do it,” he says. “I did the crime so I did the time.”
At Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, Calhoun was a pretty good student.
“I would say math, English and government were my best subjects,” he says. “The only thing I was really bad at, was Spanish.”
He also excelled on the basketball court, playing junior varsity in 10th grade, and varsity in his junior and senior year.
“It felt like a brotherhood,” he says. “We still hang out sometimes and stay in close contact.”
The pinnacle of his basketball career came in 2004.
“We played at Madison Square Garden, the City Championship against Abraham Lincoln [High School], which featured Sebastian Telfair who plays for the NBA now. And they won by only six or seven points.”
Basketball opened a few doors, Calhoun says, but he ended up choosing others.
“I had a couple Division II scholarships that I decided to decline,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave New York and I was also in a relationship at that time. But that summer I had a graduation party that opened the door to what I do now, which is hosting club events. I do that in Miami, Atlantic City and New York City.”
He also markets a line of clothing, The Acdmy, that offers hoodies, T-shirts, caps and other items, and evolved out of the club events.
“The clothing line started collectively, with a group of us who went to high school together,” says Calhoun.
Those friends included Christopher Bellamy, he says, “who was the main investor at first. I’m more of a good marketer.”
It was marketing vision that led them to ask, “Why make money once a week, through our club events, when we could make it every day?,” he says. “The same people who came to our events could support our clothing brand.”
They market their events through social media, he says, “and we realized, people didn’t care about the title of the event, they care about the people throwing it.”
When the same people producing the event introduced a clothing line, it was an instant success.
“We get great reviews for the products on our site,” says Calhoun. “They say it’s a really clean site. We try to cater to all sizes, from small to 2XL.”
He’s also proud to announce that The Acdmy will offer a new line of “beanies,” or stocking caps, in 2013.
The teenaged entrepreneur
“In high school or maybe since I was even younger, I always had the business mentality," says Calhoun. “I was always into making a profit.”
In high school, he says, he worked in the Au Bon Pain restaurant at LaGuardia Airport, and instead of throwing out food at the end of his shift, “I used to make extra wraps with what was left over, and bring them to school and sell them. At one time, demand got so big, people weren’t buying the cafeteria food. Even the teachers would order their wrap a day ahead with me.”
Now instead of doing business, he studies business.
“My grades at BMCC are decent,” he says. “I’ve learned I can’t overload myself. I can’t go full-time to school and be successful with my classes. With more than four classes, and working—I just can’t do it.”
Like many students, Calhoun learned the hard way what happens when he “overloads” himself.
“When I got incarcerated, I was on academic dismissal from BMCC,” he says. “I was doing bad with my grades in the fall of 2009, and in the spring of 2010 I did significantly better—I wasn’t working at a job like I was in the fall, so that was helping—but I still got dismissed. I was one point off, for my GPA.”
Finding a “niche market”
“I know people with bachelor’s degrees in political science and they work retail,” Calhoun says. “I know people with masters degrees who can’t find work of any kind.”
Wary of education’s promise in today’s economy, he is also building his experience as an entrepreneur.
“This is the time for small businesses,” he says. “You can study the economy and if you find a niche market, you can build on that.”
Another factor in his goals is paying off his school loans.
“It sucks when you have thousands of dollars in debt and you’re working minimum wage,” he says, and explains that his tuition loans from Nassau County Community College, which he attended before BMCC, “went into default status when I was incarcerated.”
This makes him ask, “Do I pursue my bachelor’s after I graduate, or do I take my associate and run with the business? I promised my mom I would get my associate’s degree.”
Sticking to a plan
“Me being locked up, it put a lot of things in perspective," Calhoun says.
“You go in with no plan. If you had a plan, you wouldn’t have gone in. But once I was there, I made a plan and I stuck to it,” he says.
“Everything I said I would do, I did. I didn’t sleep all day. I read newspapers, magazines, whatever reading material I could find.”
He also took to heart, advice from fellow inmates.
“A lot of the older guys who’ve been in there two, three times, they’d say, ‘Oh man, don’t come back here. It gets harder each time’. Usually, they’re dealing with drug addiction. At least I didn’t have that working against me.”
Also, he says, “I took that year and I positioned myself. I kept in touch with my friends and when I got home I had a support network.”
That network included family.
“My mom helped me out a lot as I got back in the flow,” he says, and reflects on the slippery slope that led him so far off track.
“It started out, ‘I’m only going to do it today’,” he says. “Then you’re doing it every day. I got arrested once, and that was a semi-wakeup call, but before you know it, you get comfortable again, and then you’ve got a judge telling you your bail is a quarter of a million dollars—and finally, you get it. You get it so deep, so fast.”
Shaking his head he admits, “It’s easy to do the wrong thing. It takes much more to do the right thing.”
Doing the “right thing,” he says, includes pursuing his education.
“Sometimes, on days when you don’t have motivation,” he says, “you find it in those words, ‘I got myself this far. I have to keep going’. It took me a long time to get where I am in school but I’m getting it done. Your degree doesn’t say how long it took to get it—it says you finished.”
He looks forward to graduating, and walking across the stage with his class in 2013.
“The walk signifies the journey,” he says. “A lot of people don’t go through what I did, and still get their degree. Like one of my friends told me, doing the ‘walk’ signifies what you’ve overcome.”