In a sea of fashion mediocrity, James Proby stands out. As a professional and entrepreneur, Proby understands the importance of looking the part, and wants to help other men in the Pikes Peak region unleash their full potential — starting with their appearance. The Colorado native is in the process of launching his social enterprise, The Men’s Xchange, where donated professional attire can be purchased for a steal. Proby spoke with the Business Journal this week about his hometown, stepping up one’s game and giving the ladies in the city what they deserve.
Where are you from?
I’m one of those rare Colorado Springs natives. I was born at Memorial Hospital and graduated from Mitchell High School. My 30-year reunion will be this July. Growing up, I had very socially active parents. My dad pastored the same church for 37 years and was the state’s leading authority on civil rights. He was the first [chairman] of the Civil Rights Commission for the state and first [chairman] for the Human Rights Commission for the state and was the civil rights advisor to four governors.
And my mother was one of the first African-American schoolteachers in [Colorado Springs] School District 11. She was oftentimes the only black face in the district and taught a class full of nothing but Caucasian students during the civil rights period. That’s kind of awesome and amazing.
What happened after high school graduation?
I stuck around. I looked at a couple different schools and ultimately I went to Pikes Peak Community College, which was the best thing in the universe for me.
I learned in college that I was dyslexic. I had an instructor who identified the fact that I had acute dyslexia. It changed my passion for education. I know I learn in a different way and I actually began to enjoy learning. I was a glutton. I took as many classes as I could and stayed in school as long as I could and kept learning. …
I left PPCC and went to UCCS, where I was deeply involved. I played on the basketball team briefly, wrote for the school paper, The Scribe, I was student dean of minority affairs, I was the assistant director of the Pre-Collegiate Development Program, which focuses on minority kids. … It was at UCCS I got my degree in communication and psychology.
And what did you do after graduating from college?
I hadn’t even walked [for my diploma] yet but I’d finished my last classes and started teaching adults for a company called ExecuTrain which, at the time, was the worldwide leader in IT training. I was an applications instructor and started teaching Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Microsoft Project, Windows, internet, email classes.
Going in, I didn’t know a single thing about these. But I knew how to teach — public speaking and teaching were inherent. They found me through a friend of mine who was working there and I fit the profile of the kind of person they wanted to hire. They taught me the things I had to teach. For the first eight months, every week I had to learn a brand new software package and get up to speed on how to teach it. … I stayed there for almost four years teaching and then leading the training department and expanding new divisions including business and soft-skills teaching. I was teaching nationwide.
Me and one of my business partners who owned ExecuTrain here, along with two other partners, bought a bar. We bought Sticks Billiards at Austin Bluffs [Parkway] and Barnes [Road]. We owned it for about six years. It was a 180 [degree turn] in my life. I went from college to teaching professionals to working overnights in a bar. … We were really successful in that bar. In our first year owning the business, we took it from $600,000 in revenue to $1.3 million while cutting costs by about 30 percent. We got rid of products that didn’t work, added products that did. We reduced turnover. We bought the bar in 1999 and, at the time, we were the only bar in town that offered health care to its employees. If you worked 30 hours a week, you had insurance. We did some cool things for a pool hall.
What happened with the bar?
I had some irreconcilable differences with a business partner and sold my share. I left and became an auto broker … for two years. … I’ve done a few two-year stints at different companies. I love the challenge of new things and impacting the culture of a business. The last full-time position I had was with the Pikes Peak Workforce Center as head of the business-to-business relations team. I led a team of six that worked on the demand side of business and with employees to see what their needs were and to help them hire. We set some benchmarks there. We did more hiring events out of El Paso County than any other workforce center in the state. We increased those hiring events by 100 percent the first year and another 100 percent the second year. We doubled the number of employers at the job fairs. But in most places, the hierarchy is set and it limits opportunities to advance. It was time for me to leave and go on to the next thing.
The Men’s Xchange is a social enterprise. While working at the Workforce Center we would do Dress for Success events. We did a month of it in September. We would have women come through who needed professional clothing and we would refer them to the Women’s Resource Agency. I sit on the board of directors for the agency, but there was nothing like it for men. … It dawned on me that this is something we need.
We take donated clothes — nothing but business apparel for men — suits, sports jackets, dress shirts, ties, belts, slacks. Then we create a shopping experience. It’s specifically designed not to feel like Goodwill or Arc. It is an urban thrift environment.
Right now we have a Pinterest page and an Instagram account. We’re on Facebook to make sure men can dress in an appropriate way and not spend a ton of money in the process. Everything in the shop is $40 or less.
Every item donated we make sure is appropriate and usable. After that we pay to have it dry-cleaned so you can head straight home and wear it.
We also have a couple tailors we work with who give us special rates. We can tailor for about half the price.
When did you start the business?
It’s been in process for six months. We’ve been in the design phase since October 2016, started a GoFundMe page in November 2016 and we’ve raised about $3,000. The goal is about $25,000.
Have you already provided service to clients?
We have. We don’t have a retail space yet but are in the process of getting one. We have folks in the community trying to help us out, but we need a space.
But we have started servicing clients. Our first story was a great success. A young man was in need. He operates an art gallery in town, has gone through a divorce, had cancer and recovered from both, but took a financial hit. He needed clothing to professionally impact his own career. We consulted with him, picked out some outfits … and got him dressed and ready to go. He looked amazing at the events he had to attend.
It’s a great feeling.
Are there other areas in which The Men’s Xchange will help men?
The intent is to stay a social enterprise that is connected with a 501(c)3. We’ve applied for 501(c)3 status and are waiting to hear back. But they’ll be connected. We’ll generate revenue by selling the clothing and the revenue from that will go to fund operations and programs. Programmatically we want to work with men to make them better. Beyond dressing men, we want to have parenting classes for men, taught by men. … We’ll have a relationship class as well so men can talk about relationships honestly and unfiltered. … I’m also a certified Who Owns the Ice House entrepreneurial trainer, so we’ll do entrepreneurial training. We’ll also have a men’s mentoring program in conjunction with some leadership institutes in town. We want men who are senior in their career to mentor men who are in the mid-stages of their career, and those in the mid-stage to mentor those just starting out.
How do the social components of your background weigh into your business decisions?
Heavily. I’m a capitalist at my core. I believe in competition and providing a better product, service and responsiveness. Being a small business owner, those are inherent. But I also believe, socially, we have never achieved the ideals we could as a country. We need to constantly address those and figure out how to get better. … One thing that’s interesting is we’ve rejected the opportunity to be involved with court-mandated programs right now. We’re dealing with men who are opting in. I don’t think anyone gets better by being told they have to get better. Everybody gets better by wanting to be better.
Since you’re from Colorado Springs, what’s your assessment of some of the issues facing this community?
In a couple of positions I’ve had I’ve gotten to travel nationally. … Every time I go someplace else I view the city from the mindset, ‘Would I want to live here?’
Outside of St. Thomas of the Virgin Islands, I haven’t found another place I would want to live.
I choose to live here. But the one thing I don’t like about my hometown: the way men dress.
Looking around right now, the way men are dressed is horrible. It’s a nightmare. When you travel to other cities, men, of course, dress appropriately for their jobs. But in social functions, they dress a lot better than we do here. I want to change that.
First off, the women in our community deserve better! The ladies in our community are dressing a lot better than the men. Go to a social function and look at the ladies and the amount of time, energy and effort they put into looking good. … The man they showed up with put on his good jeans and his clean flannel. It’s an embarrassment.
And it’s important for young men. When they’ve had no one to model physically what you should look like, we’ll continue to create future generations of men who don’t know how to dress, how to groom themselves. … We continue to set the bar lower and lower and men keep finding ways to limbo underneath it instead of jumping over it. It needs to change.