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Teen ‘Diddy’ protege works himself to exhaustion: Behind the Sixers’ groundbreaking ‘Buy Black’ program | Marcus Hayes

How two businesses were chosen from among 700 applicants to receive more than $100,000 in advertising and marketing services and guidance.

Trey Brown is the founder of SPERGO, a multimillion-dollar business.
Trey Brown is the founder of SPERGO, a multimillion-dollar business.Read moreCourtesy of the Philadelphia 76ers

Trey Brown almost worked himself to death before his 15th birthday.

Brown started his apparel line in 2018 with $178 in money from his 12th birthday and had 14 T-shirts made with his SPERGO logo. Brown and his 10-year-old brother, Amir, walked into a couple of neighborhood barbershops in West Philly. They sold all of the shirts in one day, 20 bucks apiece. Trey took that $280, made 32 more shirts, sold them all, and so on. By his 13th birthday he’d sold more than $40,000 worth of shirts and other gear.

As his brand grew, he attracted attention. Last summer he received a surprise $25,000 grant from his hero, Sean “Diddy” Combs, on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Brown immediately sank that money into a bricks-and-mortar store in northwest Philadelphia, with an office on top and a warehouse below. Brown ran a successful three-day pop-up shop in 2019 at the Cherry Hill Mall, and now he was planning a second pop-up shop, this one set to be in Atlanta’s Cumberland Mall.

Then he collapsed. Total shutdown.

“I wasn’t able to walk and talk. A lot of my chemicals in my body were off. A lot of people say I worked myself to the hospital,” Brown said. “I’m glad I was able to come out. Some people don’t come out of things like that.”

Brown was admitted to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He had a seizure his second day there. He spent the next four months recovering from what his mother, Sherell Peterson, says must have been exhaustion; doctors never fully diagnosed the illness: “I was never so scared in my life.”

Peterson was terrified that her young CEO might never run his company again, but she didn’t really care about SPERGO. She just wanted her baby back.

“He wouldn’t eat, drink, or walk for weeks,” she said. He would recover a bit, then collapse. “It took about four months for me to wean him off the medications they gave him.”

It was just as hard to wean him off his hustle. SPERGO quadrupled its gross in 2019, to $176,000, and despite Brown’s collapse and the coronavirus pandemic, grossed $825,000 in 2020. But there would be no business without Brown.

Before the collapse, Brown, with help from his mother, controlled the endless cycle of travel, promotion, and the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of designing logos, marketing the product, dealing with manufacturers, tracking and shipping orders, and selling the items themselves -- everything from sweatsuits to scarves. After the collapse, Brown, who turned 15 on New Year’s Eve, hired 15 employees, most of them family and friends.

“Quarantine” was the 2020 Word of the Year. For Trey Brown, the word of the year was “delegate.” It’s working. Brown is his ebullient self again. And Peterson estimates SPERGO will gross $2 million this year.

All of which made SPERGO the sort of business the Sixers were looking for.

Buy Black?

In January, the Sixers moved on a program called “Buy Black”, a contest for Black-owned businesses whose two winners would receive more than $200,000 in free marketing and advertising, as well as education on how to grow their businesses further. Really, the value of such a program is impossible to gauge: having your company name on the floor of the top seed in the Eastern Conference as MVP favorite Joel Embiid loped past?

The Sixers have long invested in minority business communities in Philadelphia and Camden, and they always had a strong presence in social justice initiatives, but the team’s front office was startled to see how the coronavirus pandemic ravaged Black-owned businesses in particular.

In March, the Sixers finalized a partnership with Philadelphia’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the team began a “Spirit of Small Businesses” promotion in January that is open to all small businesses, but the Sixers contend that Black businesses have always faced historical challenges other segments of the population have not.

A government survey last year revealed that, of the 1.1 million Black-owned businesses operating in America in February of 2020, 440,000, or 40 percent, had closed by April, many of them for good. That number was 41 percent in Philadelphia, Gould said. The Sixers know that they sell themselves perhaps better than any team in any sport, so they figured they would help by doing what they do best.

The prizes included signage in the Wells Fargo Center, digital ads seen on the game floor, the sidelines, and the basket stanchions during games; a presence on the Sixers’ digital marketing initiatives; as well as free commercials during game broadcasts. No start-ups need apply: “Buy Black” winners had to be ready to blow up.

Girl Contracting fit that bill. It is a woman-led remodeling and construction company that began in West Philly. They were a no-brainer.

But a 14-year-old kid selling T-shirts?

“It’s something we talked about,” said David Gould, a Germantown native and the Chief Diversity and Impact Officer for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the Sixers’ parent company. “Trey has a lot of momentum behind him right now. He’s ready to grow and scale his business.”

The team announced the contest in late January -- a contest that will happen for at least each of the next five seasons, Gould said, with the value of the package increasing. They sought established companies ready to pop off, so start-ups need not apply. More than 700 businesses entered. A panel that included Sixers general manager Elton Brand quickly winnowed the field to 30, then cut down to four finalists. Sixers starters Tobias Harris and Danny Green sat on the panels that chose SPERGO and Girl Contracting from the finalists.

“Seeing their game plan -- they were all impressive. It was hard to choose,” Green said. “I loved their energy. I loved where they were coming from. I loved the hustle.”

A lifeline

Hustle only goes so far in a pandemic. Brown’s business, done mostly online with international clientele, grew by more than 450 percent in 2020. Girl Contracting, however, operates in an in-person industry that was shut down for much of 2020, and its revenues fell 33 percent. Lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time: the contractors’ contract season.

“March, April, May -- people are getting their IRS refunds, thinking about spring renovations, making plans,” said Lynette Sutton, the 44-year-old managing partner of Girl Contracting. “It was devastating for us. We were just getting some traction.”

Sutton, a Bronx native, came to Philadelphia in 2007 to take part in an executive education program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, so she bought a duplex in West Philadelphia, gutted it, rehabbed it, and flipped it. That was the first of several flips she did in the city; on her first one, she met her future husband and business partner, Malhon Sutton, a master electrician from North Philadelphia and, now, the company’s president. Lynette has a degree in reproductive biology from Johns Hopkins University, but she found the construction business a more compelling career.

She and Malhon began the company in 2018 and grossed $334,000 and nearly doubled that in 2019 -- a big deal, since, according to Sutton, only 2 percent of all contractors are women. They expanded the business to include 10 female contractors who oversee all projects, which are performed by a workforce that Sutton says, by design, is 87 percent Black, including two female subcontractors. A federal report released in January indicated that less than 11 percent of all construction workers are women and just 6 percent are Black.

Race knew no bounds for Girl Contracting. Job sites spread from South and West Philly reclamation missions to Center City condominium remodels and even a suburban school project. Things were going great this time last year; the ladies were prepared to start commercial and residential construction projects from the ground up.

“We were really on our way, with some nice traction,” Sutton said.

Then, COVID.

Revenues fell to $438,000 in 2020.

Buoyed by the Buy Black program, she expects revenues to rebound this year. “We’ve already gotten some nibbles.”

Girl Contracting got its first radio ad during a recent Sixers game. SPERGO found itself on the Sixers’ floorboards.

Dropping names

Trey Brown knows it’s about who you know: “Relationships are key.”

After Diddy posted him on Instagram in 2018, Brown badgered him until Diddy showed up on Ellen with the cash -- then invited Brown back to his home. Brown met sportswear billionaire and Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin at Jay-Z’s 2019 “Made in America” music festival in Philadelphia. Brown listens to every Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos public address or podcast. These are his “Heroes” in SPERGO -- his combination name of SPorts, HEroes, and GO-getter. He designs the logos, too.

Brown says he formed the company to show kids like him -- kids who spent years moving from rental home to rental home in Philly’s roughest neighborhoods -- that crime isn’t the only way out, and that hope lives in everyone’s mind. Some of his mentors helped Peterson improve her credit, which led to the family moving to Lansdowne in August of 2018, eight months after the business started. Within a year, SPERGO was shipping overseas, and Brown needed help, so Peterson quit her job as a third-grade teacher at Wister Elementary in Germantown.

“I retired my Mom at 13 years old!” he says -- but not really. As an unofficial Chief Operating Officer, she handles contracts, transportation, and of course, media requests.

Between the publicity and the front man, SPERGO always had a leg up on the rest of the “Buy Black” contestants. He already had Ellen and Diddy cred, and rapper DaBaby rocked his gear last month . But those were just nods of the head. The Sixers fully embraced him.

Brown met Sixers corporate partnerships manager Marquise Watson in 2019 through Brown’s participation in a 2019 Innovation Lab session, a program in which the Sixers boost fledgling businesses. Watson called Brown to encourage him to apply for the “Buy Black” awards.

Brown didn’t take Watson seriously. He considered the 76ers an untouchable brand, a $2 billion fantasy land he sometimes visited as a spectator, built on the backs of Wilt Chamberlain and Allen Iverson and Embiid, his favorite players from their disparate eras.

“We didn’t know how serious and valuable it was. I was surprised that they even called us back,” Brown said. “It’s priceless. The exposure. The connections. The networking. Never in a million years did I think I’d be partnering with the Sixers.”

Brown talks on the phone from his store, where he is re-packing product and promotional materials. He just wrapped up a three-day pop-up store in Atlanta during All-Star Weekend, and he’s preparing for a three-month storefront stint at the Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, Va., which begins April 1.

And then?

“Then,” he said, with a sigh, “I’m gonna get some rest.”