Meet Houston White, who is using golf to spark conversation and change
Brooke Ross Photography
MINNEAPOLIS — Houston White can’t get off the tee box. About a minute ago he pumped his drive on the par-4 1st hole at Theodore Wirth Golf Course — easily clearing the hazard he hit into hundreds of times as a kid — but now he’s paused for a quick photoshoot, something for his social media channels and an upcoming feature on a golf website.
Then, another delay. A black SUV winds through Theodore Wirth Parkway, which intersects the clubhouse and the 1st tee. The car slows down and stops. The driver shouts out the window:
“White! How you doin’, brother?” he says. “Love everything you’re doing, sir!”
White waved and said thank you, and the car continued on its way. No, Houston White did not know the man, but the man knew Houston White. Everyone knows Houston White. And soon even more will. The 42-year-old entrepreneur has made a living ideating and creating, and more big things are in his sights. One of his latest endeavors is happening right here at Theodore Wirth — the Be The Change Golf Tournament. It’s an event White and co-founder John Baker started last year that places community leaders into foursomes with community members, usually with different cultural or racial backgrounds.
For White, golf has long been one of the strongest passions of a man who has many, and he uses the sport as a vehicle. His coffee line? Founded on the golf course. A golf clothing line? He has his own. An avid player? He just got back from Streamsong Resort. Now he’s trying to grow the Be The Change Golf Tournament and, in a few weeks, is taking on another role at the PGA Tour’s 3M Open.
Indeed, White is a busy man. But how did he get here? It started about 30 years ago, and in a basement.
Houston White always wanted to look good. As a freshman at Minneapolis North High School he tucked his shirt in and wore his backpack with both straps on his shoulders — a self-appointed “street nerd.” As he says, “best dressed was more important than winning valedictorian.”
His goal, he says, was to be the smart kid, to prove everyone wrong. And when he was about 13 he put his entrepreneurial instincts to good use and started cutting his friends’ hair for $2 a pop. When his skills improved, he increased the price and by 16 was charging $20 a cut and making $900 a week. Most of the cash he saved, although he sometimes splurged on clothes or studio equipment for music producing (another hobby). His sophomore year was when his design juices started to flow. His art instructor, Peyton Russell, showed him how to screen-print shirts after school, and soon White was making his own and selling them in the hallways.
Your presence is more important than your pocket book.
In 1996, his last semester in high school, he attended barber school, and a year after graduation he leased a storefront right next to Theodore Wirth. Four years later White and his late wife, Donise, bought their first home off nearby Theodore Wirth Parkway. Every night after work they’d turn on music and fix it up. Peter Tosh, Roy Hargrove, Jay-Z and others all took turns on the speakers as the Whites put in new floors, new windows, a new kitchen, turned the attic into a master bedroom and finished the basement.
Remodeling the house came easy to White. He was born in Mississippi but moved to Minnesota with his mom when he was young, yet he spent summers in Mississippi fixing up homes with his dad. That experience and those skills proved invaluable. The house Houston and Donise renovated wowed buyers. That led to more building, remodeling and flipping gigs — dozens and dozens of them. Business was booming — and then the housing market crashed in 2007.
The Whites, living in Golden Valley, Minn., at the time, needed a new plan. In 2008, they bought a building on 44th and Humboldt in North Minneapolis, lived upstairs and made the downstairs into White’s new business headquarters — H. White Men’s Room. He operated his barber shop there, but then came his other interests. In 2012 he launched his clothing line — Black Excellence. It now has three different divisions: Classicwear (New Classic), streetwear (Fresh) and sportswear (Victory). His Victory line debuted in April 2020 and focuses on the golf course. His coffee brand, The Get Down Coffee Co., is set to launch in 42 Minnesota Targets come August and will be a pivotal arm of the new H. White Men’s Room, which will reopen in October after a renovation and addition.
White has big plans for his new space and neighborhood, Camden, which he calls Camdentown. His goal is to rebrand and revitalize the area with a nod to its history, understanding and appreciating its urban culture.
“I was a Black dude who did well and left the hood,” White said. “I never came back to North Minneapolis, other than to get a haircut. Spending that time in the suburbs I felt disconnected from culture. When the market crashed I bought that building and said I’m gonna use that and take everything that I love and learn and build programming inside that building. So fashion, community, golf, I used that space for almost a testing ground to figure out what to do next. I tried a bunch of stuff. I figured out how to tell a story of me, then I found verticals.”
White didn’t start playing golf until he was 16 years old. He said he was the worst player on his high school team and quit after a month, but his love for the game was rekindled when, at 19, he watched Tiger Woods win the 1997 Masters. “Hell bent on getting better,” he took 50-some lessons and hit the range.
Two things happened. He got good — really good — and he learned the power of golf. How it’s humbling and maddening tendencies teach life lessons, and how it’s key for networking. It became a major part of his business strategy and what he wanted his brand to be about.
White used to be a 2 handicap, was a 6 a couple of years ago but doesn’t keep an official number anymore, which allows him to have more fun anyway. His swing is silky smooth with a slight pause at the top. You’d swear his baby draw tee shots travel a mile long. He dresses to the nines, with pearly white FootJoys. They match his white Golf Pride Tour Wrap grips.
On the course he’s usually listening to Drake, but his music selection changes as the round (and his mood) evolves. A soul seduction playlist is perfect for the morning. He also likes Bootsy Collins and The Temptations. His current favorite is Summer Madness, a 1974 hit from Kool & The Gang.
For White, golf is everything, and it’s golf that came to mind in the summer of 2020 when a pandemic and social justice issues collided head first.
When George Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, suddenly Minneapolis was the social justice capital of the world. Tensions were high in the Twin Cities, and across the U.S. At the same time, kids were home from school and couldn’t visit parks due to Covid-19 precautions. John Baker, a friend of White’s and fellow entrepreneur, had an idea.
“He said, ‘You know man, it would be really fun for us to do a tournament, because none of us can get together,’” White said. “And our kids need resources.”
The initial meeting for what would become the first annual Be The Change Golf Tournament was in July. Forty-five days later 110 golfers teed off at Theodore Wirth and raised $30,000 for four benefactors: two North Minneapolis high schools; Sprayfinger, a graffiti art business that offers classes and camps to youth; and the Heritage Youth Sports Foundation.
Using Theodore Wirth as the tournament host was not an accident. The course opened in 1916, is believed to be the oldest public golf course in Minnesota and was home to a large population of Black golfers. Weekend greens fees are $36, and the view from the 3rd tee — with the Minneapolis skyline framed in the distance — is still one of the best among Twin Cities courses.
“This is my city; I grew up here, I used to ride my bike around here,” White says. “When you become prominent, unfortunately a lot of Black people just kind of get up and go and throw money back, but your presence is more important than your pocket book. I don’t give a damn how big this tournament gets — it has to be here.”
But this tournament had to be different. And White admits it would have never happened if not for Floyd’s death, which spawned divisiveness. So this is where White and Baker thought they could raise money and awareness. The Be The Change Golf Tournament is unique in that each foursome consists of three tournament entrants plus a community leader, a format that organizers dreamed up to group people from different backgrounds — culturally, economically, racially, etc. As White puts it, if you sign up for a golf tournament with your buddies, you’re likely to spend the majority of the time with those same friends, not meeting others.
“The golf is secondary, really,” White says. “We’re making sure we talk about what we are trying to do, which is get different people to mesh up. Different backgrounds, different walks of life to just build, to just talk, to have conversations and hopefully spark some relationships.”
Last year, players included city chamber members, CEOs of major Minnesota corporations, local leaders, including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, and more. Jonathan Weinhagen, the president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, said golf tournaments are a dime a dozen, but he liked that White’s was unique.
“It captured the history and legacy of golf as a connection point and leveraged it onto connecting community,” said Weinhagen, who was grouped with Bryan Tyner, now the new chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department. “Any opportunity to bring community together is important. Leveraging an event like this to connect people from all walks of life is critical and should be replicated all across the country.”
Now, with some of the groundwork already set and more time to plan, they are thinking bigger for 2021. White hopes to raise enough to give $100,000 away. He’d love to morph the tournament into golf plus an entire weekend of activities with a festival in downtown Minneapolis.
“Without these men that took the time to play golf with me on summer nights, my life could have been a lot different,” White says. “I know the power of building relationships on a golf course. Even as a designer, even as an entrepreneur, I would not be where I am without this game. This game just unlocks so much, so that’s why I do it. I want to expose more kids to it, and I want people to come to North Minneapolis and not talk about negative stuff.”
Houston White sits on a bench outside the Theodore Wirth clubhouse, talking about change, his visions and eating some of the best lemon pepper wings you’ll find — courtesy of Baker’s JLD Eats, which handles the on-course vending at Theodore Wirth and some other courses around the city. Today, June 25, is the Whites’ 17-year wedding anniversary. Donise died in November 2018 from a rare stomach cancer, but White says she still impacts everything he does. Donise, like Houston, loved golf. She had a natural swing and great hand-eye coordination. White remembers her presence and swagger.
“She invested in me, she believed in me,” White says. “I said at her funeral, I’m gonna take all my grief and burn it like jet fuel, and my grind just got intense and focused, and it’s just a way to honor her commitment to me.”
A few months from now at the second Be The Change Golf Tournament, a DJ will man the balcony above him, shuffling through tunes and giving the event the perfect soundtrack. The smell of BBQ will dot the air. Sponsor signs will hang proudly. Conversations will commence.
But Houston White is just getting started. Next on his plate is Executive Women’s Day at the 3M Open on July 19 (Monday of tournament week), where he’ll be dressing hosts and staff in his own golf-specific clothing line, a way for White and tournament organizers to try and increase the game’s appeal in urban communities. Then on Tuesday he’ll help with a clinic for kids from The First Tee and Urban Ventures. White plans to talk about his relationship with the 3M Open and how fashion and golf have a unique tie, which he hopes will generate more interest among kids.
“The reality is, if I can have one kid read about me and say, ‘That guy shook s–t up; he just didn’t line up and do it as is, and I want to be more like him and do it like him,’” White says. “I wanna live with purpose, with intent. That’s really all it is. At the end of the day what difference does it make if you are on the right trajectory but not making a difference? I lost my wife, right? It puts it in perspective, the whole point of your legacy and life. I wanna have an impact man, and get some kid to just pick up a book and read about me and say, ‘Damn, yeah, I’m gonna do that.’”