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Avi Telyas: “Never assume your solution is obvious, especially if it is obvious”

Makerhoods’ key innovation is realizing that we can achieve positive social impact by creating a built environment that supports low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. We propose urban and city design policies that create more affordable shop and living space, backed with business support services, so that micro businesses can thrive and help raise […]

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Makerhoods’ key innovation is realizing that we can achieve positive social impact by creating a built environment that supports low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. We propose urban and city design policies that create more affordable shop and living space, backed with business support services, so that micro businesses can thrive and help raise the take-home income of working families.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Avi Telyas , Founder and CEO of Makerhoods.

Avi Telyas is an American real estate developer, serial entrepreneur, and pioneer in lean manufacturing and large-scale modular construction. His passion for architecture and craft entrepreneurship has led him to found Makerhoods.org, an organization that advocates for urban land-use policies that foster self-employment and self-sufficiency through affordable working and living space.

Mr. Telyas is a 1986 graduate of the Harvard Business School and a former trustee of Pratt Institute. He is also principal of Seaview Development where he has worked over 30 years running complex projects and operations. An innovator and inventor, Mr. Telyas patented a technique for high-rise modular building systems, which is the basis for the tallest modular building in the world in Brooklyn’s Barclay Center.

The Makerhoods program brings together his lifelong interest in entrepreneurship and urban development. He embarked on his own entrepreneurial career by acquiring a small manufacturer based in New York City while still in graduate school and proceeded to grow the business by applying the techniques of the Toyota Production System. Mr. Telyas devotes his free time to pro-bono consulting for various charitable and nonprofit organizations in the metropolitan area such as Literacy, Inc., a literacy promotion group; The Waterfront Alliance, a NY-based organization protecting and enhancing the water’s edge; Grameen Bank, a micro-loan innovator targeting low-income entrepreneurs; and Urban Pathways, a developer of supportive housing.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The Makerhoods concept started seven or eight years ago. It was born out of the realization that too many Americans do not share in America’s bounty, and successive efforts to fix this problem have not produced demonstrable success. We observed that our social contract is fraying and cautioned that, in the words of David Simon (creator of “The Wire”), sooner or later “someone is going to pick up a brick.” Little did we know that such a time would arrive sooner than anyone could imagine, as the Summer of 2020 has shown.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when first starting? What lessons were learned from that?

As I began describing the idea of Makerhoods, I was all too proud to extoll its innovative approach to urban design and economic development. I thought I was a trailblazer. Very quickly, I learned that my conservative investing audience froze at the thought of being the first to try anything new. I revised my pitch, but more importantly, I realized that I would have to build the first project to gain more acceptance. It lengthened to time to realize the project.

Please describe how you and your organization, Makerhoods, are making a significant social impact.

Recent studies by the Association of Enterprise Opportunity (AEO) found a 10x net worth improvement for self-employed African American women vs. those who earn their income from wage labor. Makerhoods’ key innovation is realizing that we can achieve positive social impact by creating a built environment that supports low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. We propose urban and city design policies that create more affordable shop and living space, backed with business support services, so that micro businesses can thrive and help raise the take-home income of working families.

Can you tell a story about a particular individual who has been impacted or helped by your cause?

To be sure, there are many who supported our mission at various stages of our work, each contributing at critical moments. Two individuals do stand out, however. The first is Mr. Reuben Teague of the Impact Investing Team at Prudential Life Insurance Company. The other is Mr. John Hanson of the Hampshire Group. Reuben expressed support for our project when all others were waiting to see who would be the first to invest. We had a classic “first penguin” problem where, as they stand at the edge of an ice shelf, no penguin wants to be the first to jump in for fear of getting eaten. But, once the first one jumped, they all jump in at once. Reuben was our declared “first penguin.” John has offered countless hours of advice and acted as a mentor throughout the project. As one of the most successful and largest developers in the state, his input (and occasional perfectly timed calls to relevant parties) was instrumental in the success of our work.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root problem you are trying to solve?

Our work is described as “Employment Oriented Development,” or EOD. The theory is that the urban land can be developed with a priority of creating employment opportunities for the very citizens living in and around this land. Based on extensive research, the impact that small scale entrepreneurship has on a community is higher than any other social or economic development program. To successfully deploy this model however, all parties need to collaborate and contribute their expertise and guidance: for the community — it is important to gather and advocate for all microbusiness; for society — a general understanding that when we shop small or shop local, we are helping our neighbors and fellow citizens to make a better life for themselves and their children, and that their purchasing significance goes beyond the utility of the item purchased; and for politicians — they must reject the notion that only attracting a large corporation will lead to higher economic growth. Nurturing, supporting, and directing tax incentives to micro enterprises will, in the long run, do more to raise living standards than any giant package deal to a large corporation.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is defined by its very name — to go ahead, sometimes alone, often at great risk. Ironically though, leadership can only exist when others choose to follow. It is a fantastic co-dependent mix of singular and plural; a power to envision and instill a vision.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

I have 3 worth mentioning:

1) Never assume your solution is obvious, especially if it is obvious
2) Always add 2 more years when dealing with cities/politicians
3) Always add 25% more cost

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what an idea can trigger…

My dream would come true if city planners would adopt and prioritize the idea that the built environment can support micro-entrepreneurship and self-employment. Cities are not a “luxury good.” They can be a source of livelihood and dignity for all its citizens. We need more small-scale affordable shop space. That can be done. We need more affordable living space. That, too, can be done. We need more business support services. Check that box too because it is absolutely possible. What we do not have is a way to deliver all three in one integrated and efficient program. That is what Makerhoods solves: Cities for the rest of us.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how it has been relevant to you in your life?

I do not have a Life Lesson quote, but I do have a small story about my father. As a young truck driver in Israel, he would arrive every morning at the dispatch office ready to take on any driving assignment available to him. He was 23 with three children so working to support the family was a must. He would wait as choice assignments were given to others whose families were more connected and of lighter skin. His heart rate would escalate as the stack of assignments grew shorter and his name was yet to be called. “I have to work. I have three young children to feed,” he told me of his thoughts years later. Sometimes he would get an assignment and sometimes he returned home without one.

There are many men and women like my dad who are ready, able, and willing to work but who suffer the indignities of unsurmountable barriers and insufficient opportunity. We, who are more fortunate, must make it our life’s work to reduce barriers and enhance the opportunity for our fellow citizens so that they too can climb up the economic ladder and provide for themselves and their families.

Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, any why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Hon. Ben Carson, HUD Secretary: I’d like to discuss Makerhoods and Employment Oriented Development (EOD) as a national housing and economic development policy;

Hon. Tim Scott, US Senator, South Carolina: As the sponsor of the Opportunity Zones legislation, I believe he would understand the power of Makerhoods. I’d seek his help in promoting it.

Mr. Richard Florida, Author — A thought leader on Urban Planning and City Design, Mr. Florida could help integrate Makerhoods into the options of City Planning.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

On Twitter, Facebook, Instagram @makerhoods 
For specific focus on Newark, follow along at @NewarkMakerhoods on Instagram

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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