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Feed the Game

 Street Roots (USA) 28 May 2019

(Originally published: 09/2009) Deonté Randolph wouldn’t mind being the next Jay-Z, the rap star with the philanthropic heart who pledged a million dollars to help people made homeless by Hurricane Katrina. And these days, he can’t deny his life is on a good track. But a few years ago… well, that’s hard to talk about. Rosette Royale learns how this aspiring businessman is using his street skills to move up the market.  - Rosette Royale

If everything works out, Deonté Randolph wouldn't mind being the next Jay-Z. Not the hip-hop rhyming, he-saw-Beyoncé-and-put-a-ring-on-it side of the Grammy winner. No, Randolph means the entrepreneurial side of the rapper, the one who co-founded the urban clothing line Rocawear; the one with the philanthropic heart who, together with fellow hip-hop artist Sean "Diddy" Combs, pledged a million dollars to help people made homeless by Hurricane Katrina. Yeah, Randolph thinks that would be all right.

Being an entrepreneur at 17 isn't so easy. But Deonté Randolph found a little help. He knows if you want to turn your life around, you need to take a step back and see the big picture. Of course, being lucky doesn't hurt either. "I think for myself, I'm both," says Randolph. "That's why I'm trying to be self-motivated and make a change." Which means he's planning, putting things in order, while the big picture comes into focus.

Right now, his sights are set on Feed da Game, the clothing company he started with his brother, Terrell Hill. (Randolph serves as president, Hill acts as CEO.) Together, he and his 27-year-old brother want to give back to the community, to "feed" the people, just as the first part of their business name implies. As for "da Game," that's simple: "That means the game of life," Randolph says.

Life. Hmmm.

These days, Randolph can't deny his life is on a good track. But a few years ago… well, that's hard to talk about. A lot of bad stuff went down then.

Here in the present, Feed da Game consumes his thoughts. For a good while - a year, maybe more - he gave clothing design a lot of thought: what might look good on people, what they'd like to wear. T-shirts struck him as the best idea, so, with the help of friends, he crafted a logo: a pit bull, standing over a dog bowl full of money. That money feeding the canine meant something: Randolph wants a portion of the proceeds from the company to benefit homeless youth.

Of course, starting a business isn't easy. Having an investor helps. Randolph found his in Youth Venture, an organization that supports young people - 12-20 years old - who want to launch a sustainable business that benefits their community. Launched in 1996, the organization has helped youth-inspired start-ups in more than a dozen countries. One of Randolph's friends, a young man named Marquelle, told him about it. Randolph decided to check it out.

Several times a year, the local arm of Youth Venture convenes a panel to screen applicants, who come armed with a business plan. With his brother's help, Randolph put together a 23-page proposal: projected revenue, potential consumers, material costs and more. All of it, right there, for the panel to see. The panel enjoyed his presentation and were impressed with his wanting to funnel some of the profits to a homeless youth shelter. Randolph decided his company should help young people on the streets because he's been there. He went through it himself. "I was homeless," he says, his voice almost a whisper. "When I was 12 to 15. Yeah."

And then he starts thinking about what happened.

For a time, he'd been living with his grandparents, Scott and Annie Randolph, in the Central District. His brother, Hill, lived with them; so did a younger sister. His mother had left the three children because she couldn't care for them. Cocaine: It had a hold of her. Wouldn't let go.

As for his aunts and uncles, most of them were no better off: drugs and liquor put a hurting on them. The grandparent's house, with its four bedrooms, that was the safest place. So Papa and Mommy - that's what Randolph called his grandparents - they raised the three kids. Seemed like he lived there forever.

Around the time Randolph was 12, Papa, a longtime pipe smoker, got sick. Throat cancer. After treatment, it went into remission, and he started feeling better. And then - the cancer returned, worse than before. Treatment stopped working. Months later, Papa died. "I didn't know how to feel," remembers Randolph. He and his siblings and Mommy kept moving on.

Papa had a will, leaving everything to the kids. But the will also named an outside party to handle the estate, and this person, someone Randolph can't really identify, delayed the distribution of the estate. Mommy tried to figure out how to get out from under the legal bind.

What nobody knew was that Mommy was sick herself. Cancer again. This time of the bladder. Treatment didn't seem to help. And, not long after Papa had passed, Mommy died, too. Within a year, Randolph lost both of his guardians. "After that," he says, "stuff started falling apart."

Hill, Randolph's brother, couldn't find work. Bills mounted. One of his aunties, Yvonne Nelson, had just gotten into a program for cocaine and alcohol addiction. She came over to the house to check on them, but at the time, that was the most she could do. Mortgage payments on the Central District home piled up. The house went into foreclosure. His brother gave him the bad news. "We had to move out," Randolph says. Hill was 22; Randolph, 12; their little sister, 7.

But where would they go? Hill managed on his own. His auntie Nelson and an uncle worked to get custody of the little girl. But Nelson already had two boys. She didn't know how many more people she could fit in her North Seattle home. With custody granted for Randolph's sister, the young girl moved in with Nelson. Randolph moved in with a cousin's girlfriend in Columbia City. He slept on a couch.

After three months in Columbia City, he lived with someone in Des Moines, further south. He had to commute to school in northern Seattle. There, he didn't talk about being homeless. But he had a comrade of sorts. Marquelle, the friend who would eventually tell him about Youth Venture, was also homeless, living in a Tent City. They never really talked about their situations, but they knew. They knew.

In need of places to stay, Randolph kept migrating south. He wound up in Tacoma, in the University Place neighborhood. Then he moved to another place in Tacoma, but the neighborhood? He can't recall. His emotions all bottled up due to untreated depression, time blurred before his eyes. Months became a year; one year became two; two became three.

Nelson, his auntie, never forgot about him. She kept tabs on Randolph the best she could, but the more he moved, the harder he proved to track down. Finally, when she heard about where he was living that last time in Tacoma, about the situation there, she made a decision. "I just went and got him," Nelson says.

Randolph moved in, rejoining his little sister. His 15th birthday had already come and gone.

Shuffling from place to place, couch to couch every six months or so, Randolph didn't really think of himself as homeless. After all, he had always had a roof over his head. But in his auntie's home, with the stability it provided, he could focus on school again, on a future that provided new opportunities. When he considered his recent experiences, he understood that, perhaps with a little luck on his side, he might be able to turn his life around, send it in a new direction.

He kept in contact with his brother, Hill, who'd wound up in Minnesota. Hill communicated with Randolph about starting a business together, maybe one to keep young people out of jail. Together, they birthed the idea of a clothing line. Randolph took the notion and ran. "I added the part about homeless children," he says. "I wanted to keep them out of jail."

And then he got connected with Youth Venture, and the rest, as they say, is… the future.

At least, that's what Randolph hopes. Youth Venture has paired Randolph with a business-savvy ally. The two meet twice a month, to discuss issues such as getting a business license (Randolph had already procured one) and state tax laws.

And while it's true that so far, Randolph hasn't even sold 30 shirts, at $20 each, he's got plans. "I want to take this somewhere," he says. "I want to get Feed da Game well established, in at least Seattle. Maybe bigger, in the major cities." Then there's the dream of studying video game design, going to business school. To be an entrepreneur.

But that's down the road, in the future. Right now, he thinks - he hopes - Feed da Game is a good start. One that will take him somewhere. Because Randolph, who's hoping to get his diploma next year, already knows one thing, which he plans to pass on: "The only person who can really feed you is yourself."

Which is a thought that makes the past not feel so bad.

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