By: Brian Zwerner, Founder and President of W3 Studio
Published: January 24, 2023
This week we announced the launch of W3 Studio, a non‐profit entity that will support diverse founders in Atlanta. I want to share why this new initiative is so important to me. I was raised to see the privileges I was afforded as something that ought to be shared with others. I’ve always tried to use my resources to help people less fortunate. I’m finally at the stage of my personal life and career where I have the time to devote myself to something bigger.
I’m going to start a good bit further back in my own history. Some of you might have heard this before, but for others it might be new. My family comes from Poland, and my Jewish grandparents were there when Nazi Germany rose to power. It was a miracle that my grandparents made it out of Europe and got to the United States. My paternal grandmother’s family left early, so they avoided the worst of it. My paternal grandfather, who we called by the Yiddish name Zaydee, often shared the story of being forced to split up from his large family on a series of trains out of Poland at the start of the war. He and a few of his siblings made it out, but the rest did not.
My mother’s parents beat shocking odds to get to America. My Nana Ann was a teenager when Germany invaded Poland at the start of the war. Her family’s house was destroyed, and she watched her father being taken away. Her brother’s joined what they thought was the Polish Resistance but were betrayed and handed over to the Nazis. I was told as a kid about the kindness of a Polish Christian family that helped hide my Nana, her younger sister, and my great grandmother Rifka throughout the German occupation of Poland. This family saved lives while risking their own.
Like countless other Holocaust survivors, my mother’s dad never really spoke about his experience during the war. Late in his life, my Grandpa Abe finally shared some of the details with my Uncle, who wrote a beautiful article on it here. It turns out my grandfather, along with his brother and father, were chosen among the 1,200 people to be on “Schindler’s List” and worked in Oskar Schindler’s factory in the Brünnlitz concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The family had been shoemakers for generations, and we believe they were saved because they made boots for the Nazi war effort. The three of them survived the war, while much of their large family did not.
My mom’s parents met and married in my grandfather’s Polish hometown during the immediate aftermath of the war. Poland was not a safe place for Jews after the war, so my grandparents moved to a displaced persons camp in Frankfurt, Germany where my mother was born. They later immigrated to the U.S. with my infant mother. They wanted a better life for their family. They had nothing at that point. They wanted to be somewhere safe with opportunities to advance from their meager status. This was their American Dream.
Grandpa Abe first worked a street side kiosk selling items like umbrellas and other dry goods. He managed to save a small amount of money and later opened a tiny shoe shop in Spanish Harlem where he used his shoemaking knowledge to sell shoes to his Puerto Rican and Black customers. It was no picnic. He and my Nana worked long hours in the shop. His young children, my mother and uncle, also worked at the store during the busy times at Christmas, Easter, graduation, and school opening. He was robbed, and the store was looted and set afire on a day when he received delivery of new Converse sneakers. Even still, Grandpa Abe and Nana kept at it to put their kids in a position to attend two of the prestigious public feeder high schools in New York and then college.
My father’s dad ran a bakery in Brooklyn in Sheepshead Bay. Zaydee’s day started around 4AM when he had to start baking bread, and the day extended into the evenings. He built a legendary business that became synonymous with the neighborhood and is fondly remembered to this day. People from the old neighborhood where I was born still talk to me about his chocolate cakes, which my father used to eat in one sitting, and his Rugelach (a Jewish crescent shaped pastry). Zaydee’s success, along with the work at home of my Grandma Ruth, put my dad and his brother in a position to excel in life and business.
It was not an easy life for my grandparents or parents, and they had tons of people help them get established and settled here in the U.S. in ways big and small. My parents were first generation college students, and I am a second generation American. I was taught the value of helping people, all people, as I was growing up.
I know the work I’m doing with W3 Studios will never have the type of impact that Schindler’s List had on so many families. I’m not able to save lives the way that family did for my grandmother by hiding her throughout the war. However, I also know we can help many diverse individuals here in Atlanta achieve their own version of the American Dream. Our goal is to fund 100 startups over the next decade and help them reach liftoff. If we do, we’ll impact thousands of lives. In so doing, I honor my grandparents’ legacy and look to make my own parents proud.