John Henry ’91, P ’23: A Catalyst for Change
During Family and Alumni Weekend 2019, John Henry ’91, P ’23 and his friend and mentor Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine took the stage as part of a panel discussion to explore and celebrate the school’s theme for the year of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” Over the course of the conversation, Henry shared the story of how he came to Mercersburg: he was accepted in the late 1980s with the stipulation that he repeat ninth grade in order to strengthen his academic skills. As he says, his ego wasn’t interested in that.
Henry’s father and a family friend “helped me see that in the end, it would be a better journey for me to repeat so that I could focus academically, and it worked out,” he says, “and it was the best decision I ever made. Sometimes you need shepherds to take you to where you need to be.”
One of those shepherds for Henry while at Mercersburg was faculty member Tom Rahauser ’74. “He forced me to look at myself in the mirror, and he stood with me and challenged me,” says Henry. “I ran out of excuses and accepted what I needed to do and became the man that I have become. He never gave up.” Henry served as class president, president of the John Marshall Literary Society, and a Peer Group leader. He earned numerous varsity letters and was founding vice president of what would become Mercersburg’s Black Student Union. His involvement in the BSU is part of how he found himself on that stage at Mercersburg in 2019: the school was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the group's founding.
“[The creation of the BSU] was an outgrowth of being at Mercersburg at that time and finding our voice and celebrating who we were as a group from varied and disparate geographic areas, but sharing the common cord and cultural threads of being Black in America,” says Henry. “It was a very, very, very proud moment for me [to be back for the 30th anniversary] because at the time when you are doing it, you do not think of legacy. At that age, you’re not thinking of tomorrow, much less 30 years down the line. It was an absolute proud moment to see that it continued. That seed we planted continued to grow and evolve and change over the years.”
In many ways, Henry has built his career on his unique ability to see that seed of potential and build connections to success, while helping others along the way. After graduating from Mercersburg, he attended Bucknell University and Washington and Lee University Law School with the goal of becoming a real-estate developer. Through his work developing affordable housing, he says he “saw that low-income folks had to choose between paying their rent, the energy burdens, or medications. Because their relative incomes are smaller than most, they are paying a higher percentage on the energy burdens.”
A social activist at heart, Henry took that observation a step further and focused on the idea that people who live in affordable housing also live with technologies (like 1G or “no G”) that cannot keep pace in the 21st century. “If you really want to fight poverty, you’ve got to deal with those things on various fronts in an integrated way,” he says. “That’s the hard part, but that’s what my companies have set out to do. I started an infrastructure company, so we touch real estate, and we touch energy through partnerships with energy companies like Ameresco and others. That said, our bread and butter is our technology business through Grace3 Technologies and our partnership with Dejero Labs.”
Today, Henry is chairman, founder, and CEO of Chariot Companies LLC, a minority-owned, mission-based, diversified social-impact organization focused on revitalizing underserved communities throughout the United States. Henry is also one of seven new members of Mercersburg’s Board of Regents, and his son, Austin ’23, is a member of the school’s 10th-grade class.
“In many ways, in the spirit of Ernie Green, I’m trying to go after the last bastion of inequality, and that’s the wealth gap and economic limitations in certain segments and industries,” Henry says. “Telecommunications is a small group. There’s not a lot of players in that space, and the bulk of them don’t have a social impact goal behind them. Twenty percent of our net profits go into helping the communities that we serve so that we can continue to grow STEM and education programs to help low wealth communities and build a sustainable model that doesn't rely on philanthropy.”
Henry’s also using his connections to help students in his community of Philadelphia and around the world. Two summers before the global coronavirus pandemic, Henry began partnering with Mercersburg’s Summer Programs to sponsor students from inner city schools in Philadelphia to attend Adventure Camp and STEAM Camp. “We call them Chariot Scholars, and they have an application process,” Henry says. “They have a wonderful time. I’ll never forget one child as I drove him back one summer, he said, ‘Mr. Henry, my life has changed forever.’”
This experience is something Henry wants to take to students all over the globe. In May 2019, as one of a handful of African-American leaders selected for the American Israel Education Foundation fellowship, Henry traveled to Israel and began to see parallels between being an Ethiopian Israeli and an African-American living in the United States. Through connections made on that trip, he has a goal to bring 10 Ethiopian Israelis from Israel to Mercersburg Adventure Camp for two weeks and then have them spend an additional week in Philadelphia, which has the third highest population of Ethiopians in the United States.
As an added component, he is looking to partner with Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia and others to create virtual STEAM opportunities for students all over the world, and he wants to include faculty member Dave Holzwarth ’78 in this plan “because he is Mr. STEAM,” says Henry. “He’s the academic. I’m not. I can connect the people to make it happen.
“I have to sell technology as my day job, but through selling the technology, I really get a lot of satisfaction with coming up with ways to creatively link the technologies with various communities and have a meaningful impact.”
Henry found that creative spark at Mercersburg. He credits his success today to the decision he shared on that Family and Alumni Weekend stage when he swallowed his pride and enrolled at the Academy. “The advice that I have for current students is for them to take advantage of all the resources that Mercersburg has to offer,” he says. “Get outside your comfort zone. Try different things because there’s no downside to giving it a shot and discovering things you may be interested in. It’s the time to try everything because as you get older, your options aren’t quite going to be the same, and you never want to say, ‘What if?’”
Henry has certainly taken every opportunity, and he’s trying to make it possible for others to do the same.