Jonathan Quarles is a Flint, MI small business owner who received a $10,000 grant from LISC and Verizon to help weather the pandemic's economic crisis. His business is a story worth telling: Quarles harvests and distributes clean water from the atmosphere, creating jobs, opportunity and "empowering the city that raised me" in the bargain.
As a native son of Flint, MI, Jonathan Quarles knows the hardest, and the greatest, truths about his city.
At the age of 12, he saw his best friend killed, a casualty of violent crime that has plagued Flint since deindustrialization and disinvestment overcame the city in the 1980s. His father was a mortician, which provided further education about the toll of poverty-born crime on Quarles's community. In high school, he founded a group called "Students Against Violence Everywhere" that worked to tackle the social, emotional and financial fallout of violence—the kids even raised money to pay for funerals. “I’ve always been a problem solver,” said Quarles. “When I see a problem, I activate.”
That trait has fueled what he calls his “serial entrepreneurship,” too, which began when he was eight years old and picked up his first job—a paper route for the Flint Journal. He went on to operate a T-shirt business, a color-printing firm, and a vending machine company. And that was just for starters. After college (applying for scholarships was another line of work, he jokes), he worked for talk show host Tavis Smiley and in a slew of corporate positions.
When the Flint water crisis came to light in 2015, Quarles knew he had to do something. The upshot was Quartz Water, an enterprise that seeks to bring cutting edge water generation technology to the communities that need it the most. In addition, Quarles wanted to create jobs, but he didn’t expect the company to be the key to his personal mission of “eradicating poverty through entrepreneurship.”
“It dawned on me that this right here might be my life mission,” says Quarles. “It’s one of best things I’m ever done.”
“The journey started in my hometown of Flint, MI, which was decimated by a water crisis, starting in 2014; in 2018, four years in, the city still hadn’t turned the page on the crisis and I grew increasingly tired of sitting on the sidelines as the city cycled through one “Band-Aid” solution after another. Most of the efforts were about the bottom line. A lot of people were trying to make money off the community and the crisis. I had a first-hand view since my dad was at the helm of the grassroots water efforts at First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, known for its partnership with Jaden Smith.
My frustration brought me to cutting edge water generation technology that operated on the level of scale and sustainability that I felt like the people of Flint deserved.
When Quartz first started, we wanted to generate water using this technology and bottle it – we also set up to donate a percentage of our proceeds back to water-related challenges in marginalized communities. Then the COVID pandemic emerged and stopped everyone in its tracks. But COVID also spotlighted the true importance of water – short of a vaccine, the best weapon we have against the virus is personal hygiene. Personal hygiene is a luxury for those that don’t have access to clean water.
As stories of water shut-offs in cities started to appear, our team evolved its thinking and decided that, instead of focusing on bottled water, we could be providing empowering water technology to municipalities and the institutions in them. And while Quartz’ creation will always be inspired by Flint, its impact had to be bigger. Today, Quartz thinks of itself as a ‘second line’ clean water solution – we can’t compete with municipal water but we can supplement it at scale – like a water “insurance policy.”
We feel indebted to the time, space, and necessity that COVID gave our team to align with the company’s core mission; so instead of a pivot, I’ll call this more of an alignment.
The $10,000 grant will crucial – the repositioning has come with a much-needed rebrand across the board – website, marketing collateral, social, media, you name it – because our end clients are now totally different. Quality content creation that does justice to our mission and to the potential of our solution definitely takes resources and we are happy that we now have this additional money.
This grant means a lot to me professionally because I view Quartz as an embodiment of my entire journey and a culmination of all the professional experiences in it. Water is linked to so much – it’s linked to health; it’s linked to hygiene; it’s linked to self-confidence and the list goes on.
So if I can help Quartz put even a small dent in the global clean water supply, then I’ll feel a small step closer to my goal of uplifting and empowering communities, first and foremost in my hometown.