FLINT, Michigan -- Flint native Jonathan Quarles has always been interested in solving problems.
As a successful social entrepreneur, the ethos that he cultivated as a kid growing up in Civic Park was spurred to action in the face of the 2014 Flint water crisis. Quarles launched Quartz Water Source, an organization that views itself as a second line clean water solution that supplements, not replaces, municipal water anywhere it is needed. Quartz also has a donor-advised fund called Water to the People for people interested in helping fight the global water crisis. The fund is managed through the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Proceeds from an apparel line from Flint’s Eight One Zero brand support the fund.
“We want to be the hub for any community in the world to have clean drinking water and access to clean water,” Quarles said.
After graduating from Florida A&M University, Quarles worked in private and public sector jobs and founded The BTL Group, a business development and relationship management platform. Quarles has also been a fellow from the Aspen Institute, German Marshall Fund, and the
Global Entrepreneur Summit. He was honored by Ebony Magazine, Black Enterprise, D
Business Magazine as 30 under 30, and Crain’s Detroit Business as 40 under 40.
His first book, Making Dollars While Making Change: A Playbook for Game Changers, will be available on Amazon on January 7, 2021, and has already sold out pre-order copies.
“We’re going to be doing some cool things that are very Flint-centric,” Quarles said. “The first place we’ll be delivering the book to is Comma Bookstore downtown.”
Quarles talked with Flintside about his background, growing up in Flint, his career, and the process he went through writing his book.
Flintside: Tell me a little bit about your background in Flint. What neighborhood did you grow up in?
Jonathan Quarles: “I actually grew up in Civic Park and went to Sobey Elementary, which is closed now, Whittier Middle School, which is closed now, and graduate from Flint Northern, which is also closed.
“I turned 18 and went off to school in Florida at Florida A&M University and got my MBA there and from there started working and eventually moved back to Detroit.”
Flintside: How did the city shape you as a person and your career? What does it mean to you to be from here?
Jonathan Quarles: “It means a lot. Flint taught me grit, persistence, community. The idea that to whom much is given, much is expected. It also kind of set a bar high for me so that when I left, I realized that I have to come back but also that every day, everything that I do in life, it’s a representation of Flint. You don’t ever want to do anything to embarrass home.
“That inspired the whole start of Quartz Water Source and inspired the book. All throughout the book, I talk about lessons I learned growing up in Flint. I was in a gang. I lived kind of two realities. One part was, I grew up knowing that because my family came from humble beginnings, I realized the only way we could get out of poverty was to create ownership and be able to own our own future. That was one part, but in the midst of that, in order for me to get out and go to college and do things, I had to be safe. So in the late 80s/early 90s when gangs were really rampant, for me, I had to walk to the bus. So there were a lot of dangerous places I had to walk through and experience, so being a part of a gang gave me an association that protected me while I was going back and forth while my parents were at work.
“Flint taught me that having character, doing business and being a person of honor and integrity, are so important. Flint is not a big city, so if you’ve done something wrong, your reputation spreads throughout the community, so it’s important to be a man or woman of your word and do things honorably. You burn someone, you won’t ever be able to do business with anyone else or be friends with anyone else because people talk.”
Flintside: What was it that sparked that interest in business for you? You mentioned seeing it as a way to escape poverty, but just general interest-wise, what drew you to the business and entrepreneurial world?
Jonathan Quarles: “I’ve always had this ability to connect with people and I’ve always been a problem-solver. I always looked at business as solving problems. I might have been like 5 or 6 or something, and I started a detective agency. I made business cards out of cardboard and literally had binoculars and flashlights and would go around the community spying on people. That was, in my mind, solving a problem to help make the community safer.
“It really wasn’t until I was a paperboy. In my paper route, I had one territory and there was another person who quit, so I was given an opportunity to expand. So at one point, I was actually one of the highest grossing paperboys in Flint. So from that point, I started really seeing how to build a business, and started bringing in all my friends to kind of help roll up papers and deliver them in the morning.
“You had to interact with people too. Back then, you had to knock on doors and ask people to increase or have their monthly or yearly subscription. It actually developed a muscle in me. I learned how to be persistent at the age of 8, 9, 10.
“So it was just seeing how money could grow, and you could actually start from nothing and solve problems and close deals. The greatest feeling used to be when people would say, ‘Yes, I’ll get a new subscription.’ That was everything to me, and I just felt super accomplished.
“So I translated that into starting a t-shirt company, a printing company, I had a janitorial business, I had all of these different hustles. I love the idea of starting something from nothing and seeing it flourish, but also I wanted to have money. A lot of my friends sold drugs or did things that are illegal, but I didn’t do that because I had a mother and father that were very involved in my life. So I had to figure out other hustles in order to grow money. That was my way of trying to build wealth so I could get my parents out of the neighborhood we grew up in and then be able to provide for my future family.”
Flintside: With your book being available in January, what was it like for you sitting down to write your own story? Did you learn anything from that process?
Jonathan Quarles: “I had actually been, in my mind and kind of casually, been writing my book for about three years. Because of COVID-19, it allowed me to sit still. Previous to COVID-19, the work that I do requires a lot of travel internationally and domestically.
“In 2017, I wrote in my journal that I want to be an author, but I don’t have time and I don’t think I’m a great writer. I struggled with those insecurities. But being stuck in a house in February, I started just journaling. I had an outline for Making Dollars While Making Change, and what I found is I just started getting in a flow.
“Writing also became therapy. I was having some anxiety issues from being stuck in a house and not being able to go anywhere. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually been in the house every day for a whole week without leaving. Writing let me release myself.
“The book is half memoir and half playbook that intersects business and social impact. The first half, I talked about seeing my best friend get murdered when I was younger. I talked about things that I’d never really opened up about publicly and allowed myself to be vulnerable and even talked about my anxiety I was dealing with for the first time in my life. I talked about how important mental health is, and how I started seeing a therapist.
“The book to me, when I got in a groove with it and started finding my voice, I just couldn’t stop writing.”
Flintside: Things like mental health are topics that just don’t get talked about, especially in poor cities or in majority Black cities like Flint. How important is it for you to share your experiences in the book with not just a wider audience, but also an audience in your hometown?
Jonathan Quarles: “That’s probably my favorite part of my book. For African Americans, particularly in poor communities, historically mental health has been something that’s really taboo. We don’t really talk about it or address it, or we’re not really informed about it.
“I talk about mental health and how to address it, as well as the things we should be putting into our bodies. I talk about my diet, and natural plants and herbs that stimulate our bodies, drinking a lot of water, exercising. I exercise 4-5 times per week, but as I’m getting older, I’m realizing that my body is functioning better than a lot of people my age because of overall health and wellness being a priority.”
Flintside: Your book sold out of pre-order copies. How did it make you feel to know there’s so much interest in your story out there?
Jonathan Quarles: “It feels good. I sent my manuscript to a few people just to get their thoughts and feedback, and everything has been positive. Reading the reviews has really touched my heart, because again, I never thought I was a good writer. I had to find my voice. Because I’m a business person for the most part, I usually write like business documents. The book is not just a business book, it’s an overall personal development book. I had to be more creative, more descriptive, talk about how I felt, what stuff tasted like, what did I see.
“In writing a book, you have to expand and provide more details and be creative.”
Flintside: One of the things about Flint in every generation of people from here, there’s always people who have big dreams and big goals. Now that you’re established in your career, what advice would you give to young people growing up here now, who are sitting in some of the same spots you were and have their own big dreams?
Jonathan Quarles: “I think there’s a couple of things. One, it’s so important to have a good support system. People who support you through good and bad, and who celebrate small wins as well as big wins. A lot of times we get so busy trying to accomplish these bigger goals or vision, but every day has small wins to celebrate and a support system is important.
“I also think health and wellness is certainly important. The reason why I eat the way I do is the work I do every day requires a lot of thinking. So I need food that is a helping hand or complement to those tools I need for peak performance.
“Discipline is extremely important. Every morning, I have the same routine. Every night before I go to sleep, I meditate and reflect on the day. I’m always intentional about creating magic in peoples’ lives, whether that’s through my work or whether it’s just being outside.
“I would also always say persistence. When you’re thinking about game-changers or entrepreneurs, you’re going to fall, there are going to be a lot of no’s, a lot of peaks and valleys. But being persistent in the midst of triumph or disaster is something that defines those that succeed.
“Success to me is not money or awards or accomplishments. Success to me is love, is having a family that you can appreciate and spend time with, is doing something that’s bigger than yourself and impacting the world. You may not actually reap the rewards from it, but generations to come will.”
Flintside: You have a passion to do things or contribute to things that have some societal or public good attached to them. You don’t always see that in the business world, where a lot of the focus is just on how much money you can make. How did you blend those two passions?
Jonathan Quarles: “At a very young age, my dad always instilled in me to whom much is given much is expected. He said that he needed me to never work for anyone, because I always had this mindset of ownership and a little bit of stubbornness. I have my way and I want to figure out how to make it happen.
“You never forget where you come from. I want to be successful so that I can help more people. Jay-Z said, ‘I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them.’ So for me, my motivation for being a successful businessman is to make a profit, because you obviously have to be profitable so your business lasts. But for me, I want to be as successful as possible so that I don’t have to ask the government or someone else to do something for my community that I can do myself.
“‘What are you doing for others?’ That’s what I learned in the church I attended growing up. What’re you doing to serve people? For me, my life’s mission is to be thoroughly used. When I die, I want to be remembered as someone who was thoroughly used. What you do for other people is what lasts.”
Find Jonathan Quarles on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and his website.