This article is part of a series celebrating the 10th anniversary of Horn Entrepreneurship by highlighting alumni, their stories and accomplishments.
Bryce Fender and Joel Amin for a long time have wanted to improve the world, and they were well into making their impact when they learned that changing the world involved doing the dishes, and getting dirty at times.
The pair, friends since middle school, acquired life-changing skills through Horn Entrepreneurship. With friend Demetrius M. Thorn, in 2017 they created Wilminvest, which buys and renovates houses, ultimately renting them to families in unstable housing situations while being connected to the social services they need for the duration of their stay.
“In high school, I thought I wanted to be a politician to create laws to make the world a better place,” Fender said. “I always wanted to change the world, but it wasn’t until Horn that I realized you can change the world a lot faster through business than you can through politics.”
“If we all have an unwavering mindset and belief that we truly can accomplish social good, then we truly can change the world,” Amin said. “And by changing systems, we hope to make the world a better place.”
Wilminvest has been profitable since Day 1 and has a high success rate of getting its families into long-term permanent housing, getting them jobs and connecting them to the resources they need, Fender said.
Wilminvest is small enough – 13 houses so far – that they also function as property managers, with Amin leveraging his background in plumbing and property management. They also leverage their other careers – Amin working in real estate finance and Fender in real estate sales – to build Wilminvest. Thorn now works for Equity Residential, one of the largest Real Estate Investment Trusts in the country, and uses his experience gained to assist Fender and Amin on finance matters from afar.
“I’ve been embracing my inner tradesmen, but I realized you also need to understand the numbers and finance behind the projects you touch” Amin said, adding that his day job as an underwriting analyst working on some of the most prominent developments across the state has taught him “how to pitch complex investments, speak to lenders in their language and understand underwriting requirements which is key to accessing capital.”
After a tenant reported the presence of insects in the home, Fender learned that the tenant – third-generation homeless – needed to be taught to regularly wash the dishes, to avoid leaving food that attracts bugs.
Amin’s assets and Fender’s fortes
Amin’ father founded Joel R. Amin Plumbing LLC, so he was exposed to entrepreneurship early on. He started working in the family business when he was 15. He chose St. Georges Technical High School, where he studied plumbing and was involved in student government and other activities.
In high school, he co-founded his first “business,” Joel & Nick’s Power-Washing.
“I was always learning and doing things with my hands, kind of getting dirty,” he said. “That’s what really gave me the passion and the skills to renovate the properties and manage all the hands-on maintenance.” Wilminvest has a contracting license and subcontracts work to licensed professionals, like Amin’s father. Amin continues to do plumbing work on the side to keep those skills sharp.
Fender’s grandfather exposed him to entrepreneurship (he founded Capitol Buildings Inc., now operating as Shed Crazy in Sussex County, Delaware’s first shed builder). His parents taught him self-reliance by owning and operating an on-call private jet repair company. And his 14 years in Scouting formed his first management training. “It’s the best leadership teaching in the world,” he said. “Camping is just a vehicle in which the leadership is taught,” he said, recalling how a group of 11-year-olds coped together in one winter camping trip. Scouting “taught me how to interact with adults as a kid, plus the importance of executing and teaching by doing, not just by reading.”
His LinkedIn profile lists almost 20 activities at the Conrad Schools of Science, including Boys State and Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership. “I got introduced to the Delaware entrepreneurial ecosystem in high school,” he said.
That’s when he also created his first venture: Red Clay Interscholastic Student Government, to unite the district’s sometimes-clannish schools. “We put it on dances, talent shows and community service activities, in the spirit to bring all the kids together,” he said. It was so successful that Delaware’s secretary of education wanted him to expand the concept statewide. Fender chose instead to attend the University of Delaware and focus on his career, which had already shifted to business.
Amin applied to UD in engineering, but didn’t get in that program. So his major was undeclared when he took an introductory entrepreneurship class from Steve Boerner. “He really inspired me, and got me moving in the right direction by the end of freshman year,” Amin said. “Once I found Horn and found this passion, I really hit the ground running and took advantage of every opportunity that I could.”
That eventually led to his 2019 bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship and a competency in real estate finance. Amin credits Horn scholarships, the David J. Freschman scholarship, and victories in various competitions, such as Hen Hatch, as being critical to his success as they gave him a clear indication that he could accomplish great things and that his venture was gaining traction. While at UD, he earned extra cash doing occasional maintenance work for local landlords around Newark and for his father’s plumbing company.
Fender’s first collegiate pitch was for Thought Cloud, which he now calls a Reddit imitation. He patented the concept but did not take it further.
He liked the opportunities at the Venture Development Center (“This place is really cool”) but didn’t yet think of himself as an entrepreneur (“I just wanted to be a business person”). Then Amin pleaded for him to be his teammate in Horn’s Startup Experience class (“We knew we were hustlers”).
“The more that I got involved at Horn, the more that I saw that it aligned with what I wanted to do,” Fender said. “There’s a ton of problems out there, and if you can solve any of those problems, you change the world.”
So he added a social entrepreneurship minor to his 2019 bachelor of science in management and marketing, along with a minor in Spanish.
After college, Fender co-founded Better Puzzles, which partners with established artists to make jigsaw puzzles. He also runs a marketing firm. One client is Maestro’s Classic, and he’s also a satisfied user of their beard butter.
Fender and Amin’s first joint concept was Trade Link Pro, an app that would smooth interactions among landlords, property managers and the college students renting from them. That might have been frustrating, but it wasn’t a significant enough problem, they learned. So using the evidence-based entrepreneurship that’s emphasized at Horn, they asked landlords what problem they did have.
It turned out to be trash. Specifically, trash accumulating after parties that too often led to code violations issued the next morning. Their final pitch was specialized trash collection, but they chose not to pursue that business.
Then Amin connected some dots – a house that he and his father had repaired but had trouble renting; homeless veterans suffering from mental illness and substance abuse; and nonprofits that subsidize rents for the needy – that inspired their new business model: buying vacant houses, fixing them up and renting them to some of the deserving Delawareans who needed housing. “I truly believe we are at the forefront of developing what social impact real estate investing is,” Fender said.
Following work at 2017’s Hen Hatch (Horn’s premier startup funding competition) and Summer Founders (Horn’s pre-accelerator for students to earn a stipend and work on a venture), they hit the streets for two years of networking and researching for Wilminvest.
The support poured in from the likes of Paul McConnell, half of the Paul & Linda McConnell Youth Entrepreneurship Initiative at Horn, and from Newark real estate broker/agent Eddie Barksdale, who brokered their first houses – until Wilminvest started to hire the newly trained Fender as its real estate agent.
Amin and Fender realized that a lot of nonprofit and government housing organizations try to help the needy, but their partner landlords were not aligned with or invested in these efforts. The pair thinks this is why the national average for success in a housing program is lower than the rate that they’re seeing in their homes. That’s gauged on a continuum of care for housing, nine arrangements going from on-the-street homelessness to homeownership.
They defined an empty niche that they would fill: “There is no real estate company that says we’re going to align our property management infrastructure with that of the social workers and case management missions to help their clients who are our tenants,” Fender said.
Wilminvest invests in Wilmington
Of course, Wilminvest’s business model has evolved. “We have listened to the needs of the community and its leaders to provide the type of housing that is not only most needed but truly impactful in the long term and that is to encourage permanent housing and home ownership opportunities,” Fender said. “We can’t just insinuate that we know what a community needs, so we engage them directly.”
“If you’re showing that you’re taking the steps necessary to help yourself, we’re going to invest in you, we’re gonna help you,” Fender said. “We can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. We tried. It just doesn't work.”
Wilminvest today owns 13 rowhouses, and has housed 25 families in Wilmington’s East Side, its northeast section and its Browntown neighborhood. They plan to keep the properties until they build enough equity and appreciation that it makes sense to sell – so that they can buy more houses.
It has so far raised approximately $750,000, Amin said, for a portfolio now worth more than $1 million. They are considering expansion, particularly in Dover. “There’s need all across the state,” he added.
Aphorisms and business advice decorate their office is the CSC Station, a co-working space on the Wilmington Riverfront. And there’s the school of hard knocks.
Some tenants have had to learn crucial life stills, such as responsible rental behavior and dishwashing. “We saw that some families needed to learn how to live in a house,” Fender said. “I feel that society has failed the underprivileged families.”
Wilminvest’s compassion shows with the whole business model, and sometimes the founders go further, with below-market rents. And sometimes – just once so far – they have to be realistic, in kicking out a tenant associated with drugs and gang activity.
Paying it forward
Although they’re investing in housing, they are both still building their own lives. Amin just got married. And Fender said that he needs to build up the length of his self-employment history before getting a mortgage.
A key force in their success has been Vince DiFelice, faculty director of Venture Support.
“He always made time to sit down with us, really talk,” Amin said. “I felt like he pushed us to be uncomfortable a lot,” with that discomfort involving the pressures that entrepreneurs face. “You have to do good, but the business also has to take care of itself, and you have to take care of yourself. He always challenged us to find that balance between impact and profit.”
“Vince taught me that you can change the world through business, and that’s the point of entrepreneurship,” Fender said. “Every time you spend a dollar, you’re investing into the solution to a problem you have.”
Their praise continued for Dan Freeman, founding director of Horn. “He's a visionary,” Fender said. “Always very encouraging and supporting,” Amin said. “Always made sure we took advantage of opportunities.”
Other shout-outs went to Jennifer Workinger, their first angel investor; Vince Episcopo, of NCALL, their first institutional investor (“It really allowed us to get on our own two feet,” Amin said); Stephanie Raible, Horn’s faculty director of social entrepreneurship (“She made sure that our story was being told and that we were being connected,” Fender said); and Horn academic adviser Tricia Monnig (“She was like Horn’s mom,” Amin said. “She helped me stay on track.”). Lastly to Ben and Thère du Pont of the Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation, for supporting Wilminvest´s development through their Reinventing Delaware and E3 programs.
The many skills of Vince DiFelice
They have also given back to Horn.
Fender has helped out with Summer Founders, speaking to classes, giving feedback on pitches and serving as a panelist on the Diamond Challenge (Horn’s innovative entrepreneurship competition for teens around the world). Outside Horn, he mentors high-school entrepreneurs via Schoolyard Ventures.
Amin has mentored the Diamond Challenge and plans to help with Summer Founders.
Heeding the career advice of DiFelice, Amin and Fender’s other jobs offer synergy to Wilminvest and give them applicable skills. Fender has that real estate license (and a thriving business in brokering homes), and Amin works as a low-income housing tax credit analyst for Cinnaire, a community development financial institution that lends equity to developers to create large-scale multi-family apartment style developments across the county. Amin also serves on the advisory board of True Access Capital, another local CDFI focused on small business lending.
“CDFIs have been the kind of tool that has allowed us to do everything that we’re doing. NCALL, our first institutional investor, is another CDFI, of which there are only three total in Delaware,” Amin said, adding that his work analyzing affordable housing for Cinnaire has “tripled, maybe quadrupled our skills in analyzing deals.”
CDFI is an idea created by DiFelice before he started working at Horn, Amin said. “It was ultimately the inspiration behind our thinking that community development and finance can go hand in hand. With the knowledge of leveraging capital, we can truly accomplish what others look at as impossible.”
About Horn Entrepreneurship
Horn Entrepreneurship serves as the creative engine for entrepreneurship education and advancement at the University of Delaware. Currently ranked among the best entrepreneurship programs in the US, Horn Entrepreneurship was built and is actively supported by successful entrepreneurs, empowering aspiring innovators as they pursue new ideas for a better world.