Photo by Sarah Walor
From left: Velma Johnson and Lester Johnson, co-founders of Mama J’s restaurant; Tommy Nicholas, president and co-founder of Knox Payments; and Rebecca Hough, CEO and co-founder of Evatran
How local CEOs dress for success these days and even how soon after college they take the corporate helm would baffle the time-traveling businessman visiting from 1950s Richmond. Meet some of our region’s emerging entrepreneurs whose social, cultural and technological savvy are the currency of today’s commerce.
Lester Johnson and mother Velma Johnson, co-founders of Mama J’s restaurant
A homecoming is about more than just coming home: That’s the memory that Lester Johnson has from his family’s holiday meals at his grandmother’s house. The gatherings were regenerating occasions of togetherness and down-home Southern cooking.
So, five years ago, when Johnson and his mother, Velma, were looking to expand her part-time catering business, a chance encounter with a vacant restaurant space in Jackson Ward suddenly made perfect sense. “I walked in and kind of fell in love with it,” he says.
Soon, Johnson, his mother and family friend Jonathan Mayo (not pictured) opened Mama J’s Kitchen on North First Street. Velma’s Southern-infused menu, prepared with her sister most days, is a direct extension of their cooking tutelage under their mother’s wing.
The Johnsons’ backgrounds are a bit atypical for restaurant founders. Lester graduated from Virginia Military Institute with a degree in engineering and went on to earn an MBA at Virginia Commonwealth University. Velma’s previous job was working as a sheriff’s deputy for the City of Richmond until she retired.
In a district that’s central to the emergence of black entrepreneurship thanks to the trailblazing of Maggie L. Walker, the Johnsons carry the fire of a community’s history and future opportunity. “From our standpoint, what we’re trying to do is keep a culture alive,” Lester Johnson says, adding, “We’re just trying to bring to the masses a simpler time.”
Longtime soul food mecca Croaker’s Spot left the neighborhood in 2010, but Mama J’s serendipitously filled the void, an establishment entirely suited to its time and place. Says Johnson: “I’m not sure if that same narrative would fit if we were in Short Pump.”
Tommy Nicholas, president, Knox Payments
As Richmond-based tech startups go, Knox Payments may have more darling factor than most. Its product — an online system that enables merchants to accept secure payments straight from a customer’s bank account — fits well with the region’s banking DNA.
The company already had raised $900,000 when co-founders Tommy Nicholas and Thomas Eide kicked it off last year at the Launch Festival in San Francisco before an audience of nearly 10,000; before they took home the event’s “best enterprise” award. Then they picked up another $700,000 in venture capital later last year. A year after launching, Knox has signed up hundreds of businesses to its payment system and has 37 employees.
Knox’s early stages — drawing funding from San Francisco, New York, Charlottesville and here — were a far cry from Nicholas’ first startup, which the 26-year-old company president launched several years ago, straight out of college at the University of Virginia. “It did fine. It had a lot of traction and a lot of good stuff going for it. But I wasn’t able to make it a profitable business … because it’s virtually impossible to raise venture capital in Richmond.”
A natural next move after his failed venture, Nicholas says, would have been to shop his skills in a place like San Francisco and join an early-stage startup. But “I have a strong affinity for this city,” he notes, and “I thought, also, you don’t really need a lot of money to live here. So, when you’re doing a startup, when you’re going to be cash-poor at some point, being able to live on very little money is critical. … You can chase after something big without being overly concerned about not being able to pay rent.”
Nicholas says that other cities would be much more receptive to a company like Knox, but Richmond offers startups ready access to able minds. “We’ve got the highest concentration of high quality university talent in the world within 100 miles of here. … The team we have here is impressive — people are impressed by it.”
Rebecca Hough, CEO, Evatran
Even with gas prices easing down, Rebecca Hough, the 28-year-old CEO and co-founder of Richmond-based Evatran, is betting on the day when more people charge car batteries than fill up gas tanks at the pump.
Evatran makes and sells wireless charging stations for electric vehicles (EV), a technology that allows a battery to juice up merely by proximity to the unit, which retails for approximately $3,000.
The company began shipping its first charging units last year, marketing to owners of popular EV brands such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf.
The plugless charging technology for Evatran arose from a power transfer application developed decades ago, but it was further adapted for EV charging five years ago when Hough and her father and co-founder, Tom Hough, worked at MTC Transformers in Wytheville.
Two years ago, as the Houghs worked to bring the plugless power technology to market, Richmond emerged as a logical home base for the company, which has operations in North Carolina as well as an existing facility in Wytheville.
Rebecca Hough notes that Richmond’s business mix is such that Evatran is something of an outlier because it makes and distributes a consumer-ready item that has global marketability. “I think Evatran represents the front end of that wave, that small-product development is something that can be done here by a small company.”
Jeff Rock and Garrett Ross, co-founders of Mobelux
Apple’s iPhone was just becoming the rage in 2008 when Jeff Rock and Garrett Ross sensed the moment was upon them. Mobile apps were about to get big.
The two friends had spent years working alongside one another at two different Hampton Roads companies where they developed computer software. As they entered into the proposition of starting Mobelux, they landed in Richmond purely out of necessity — Rock’s wife was entering medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It didn’t really matter where you were. It mattered whether or not you could make something,” Ross says, adding, “We thought, let’s just make something and see what happens.”
With Ross as CEO and Rock as creative director, the company has grown, collecting talented employees from any number of creative disciplines to take on nationally notable clients who need any array of web or mobile applications for their businesses. Millions of smartphone users are swiping through apps that Mobelux has turned out.
In Richmond’s business landscape, the company is still among a small set of technology-startup pioneers, businesses whose bigger ambitions might normally draw them to a place like Silicon Valley rather than downtown’s Manchester district.
Companies like Mobelux still must push against the tide of the region’s traditional business culture to get afloat. “There are smart people who are starting to break down walls and investors who are willing to change mindsets,” Ross says, “but we’re definitely not there yet.”
Nevertheless, he seems emboldened by the challenge of bringing the future home. “We want to prove that national competing companies can come from cities like Richmond and continually compete and out-produce national-level companies.”