How one Haitian immigrant helps Brooklynites thrive in their home borough
As Head of Growth at BKLYN Commons, Johanne Brierre works to keep local entrepreneurs local.
Walking down Flatbush Avenue four years ago, Johanne Brierre noticed a billboard advertising a coworking space called BKLYN Commons, just open for business in the vast, clock tower-adorned building at the 495 address. At that point, Brierre had already been a resident of Prospect-Lefferts Gardens for a quarter century, having arrived from Haiti with her family at age 12. She frequently shopped at the Phat Albert Warehouse, a clothing store housed in the building prior to its closing, and had recently started a second career organizing community networking events.
Curious to see what BKLYN Commons was all about, what its arrival might mean for the evolving neighborhood, and perhaps for her entrepreneurial self, Brierre strolled inside and spoke to the company’s president, Jack Srour, who also happened to be the owner of 495 Flatbush.
“A lot of the time, when a developer comes into a space, we are not part of the conversation,” Brierre told the Brooklyn Eagle, referring to long standing residents in the myriad Brooklyn neighborhoods that have recently undergone development. “We are not part of the team, these resources are not available to us, we’re the last ones to know about it.”
Brierre asked Srour some probing questions about BKLYN Commons, at the time a 12,000-square-foot space with 53 offices, 16 desks, a conference room, common area and rooftop patio. She described Srour as “open,” and he quickly turned the tables on her, asking Brierre what she did with herself.
After obliging Srour, she told him BKLYN Commons needed a neighborhood liaison. To be a profitable business in the area, she said, “You have to know what’s happening in the community, you have to know what the needs are, you have to know what are the services you [should] provide.”
“She sold herself hard,” Srour told the Eagle. “I was very skeptical.”
But he offered her a gig, with “a very, very minimal salary,” Srour said, as BKLYN Commons’s head of growth.
“‘Show me you can fill it, and I’ll pay you,’” Srour recalled telling her. “And she came in and she killed it.”
Brierre described the arrangement as a “win-win.”
“For them, it’s like, ‘How do we work with the community and still make money?’” she said. “This is where I come in.”
Since knocking on Srour’s door, Brierre has continuously conducted community outreach and curated programming at BKLYN Commons, geared toward aiding the businesses housed inside. Such events have included happy hour networking soirées for its renters and a pop-up called “Open Desk,” where the small business owners of BKLYN Commons — lawyers, accountants, marketers and more — promote their work by giving locals free access to their services for a day.
Brierre’s efforts helped spur an in-building BKLYN Commons expansion of 30,000 square feet six months ago, with more space expected to open up there this summer. A second BKLYN Commons location at 7 Marcus Garvey Blvd. in Bushwick also opened in 2017.
BKLYN Commons welcomes any entrepreneur in need of its resources — with the ability to pay for them as well, of course. Srour believes the coworking space fills a void in the Brooklyn market, and told the Eagle it offers appealing value to its tenants. Operating costs are held in check in part because, according to Brierre, as the BKLYN Commons president and the building’s owner, Srour doesn’t pay rent to himself.
Brierre also celebrates the fact that nearly all of BKLYN Commons’ small businesses are run by locals who provide services to the surrounding community, and hopes its model will inspire other spaces like it.
“There is a lot of talent; innovative things are happening,” Brierre said of the business activity in the area.
Such an outcome at BKLYN Commons falls in line with Brierre’s personal and professional mission to address economic displacement, both in her home neighborhood and in Brooklyn more broadly.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” Brierre said. “It’s a dream come true to be able to work, to build an impact in my neighborhood.”
She says she shares this life goal with many other Brooklynites, some of whom have engaged with Brierre in her two other current ventures.
Brierre is the founder of TrendyMrkt, a marketplace based out of the BKLYN Commons Bushwick location for local vendors who can’t afford traditional commercial retail space. She also produces the podcast “Inside Brooklyn,” which spotlights small business owners from the area and offers insights to prospective entrepreneurs on how they can get started.
“Entrepreneurs sometimes don’t have the means [to do] outreach through the media, and the media might not know where they exist, where they’re from,” Brierre told the Eagle, calling “Inside Brooklyn” a solution to such a problem.
Try as Brierre might, solving the more troubling issues that come with the borough’s unprecedented economic growth, particularly economic displacement, won’t be the work of a single individual. She says she’s doing all she can to boost opportunity awareness and access to resources for her ambitious neighbors, but ensuring that those who’ve helped weave the fabric of Brooklyn’s culture remain in the place they call home over the long term is going to take added effort on their part as well.
“Gentrification, the way I look at it, some of these changes are going to happen,” Brierre said. Developers should operate in good faith, and be sensitive to the wants and needs of the people who live where they want to build, but, like Brierre did that day she walked into BKLYN Commons four years ago and left in a newfound position of influence, both within its confines and beyond, she added: “Everybody has to do their due diligence.”
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