For the past 15 years, Advance Memphis has worked to empower adults from the 38126 community to move up the economic ladder. We’ve helped folks find jobs, save money, add marketable skills. But for 15 years we’ve heard our neighbors ask us to help them start their own businesses. This year, Advance is finally taking our neighbors up on the offer.
Last year, while exploring ways to create new jobs, Advance sent a group of residents (grads from our program) and summer interns to Chattanooga for a conference on job creation. One of the conference sponsors was an organization called LAUNCH Chattanooga, which has helped individuals start over 50 businesses in the last four years by offering classes and other services in traditionally under-served areas. When our neighbors met the staff and some of the entrepreneurs of LAUNCH, they knew that they’d found a program they’d like to see come back to Memphis. And so with the help of LAUNCH Chattanooga, this spring Advance Memphis offered our first ever LAUNCH class for entrepreneurs.
Fourteen individuals signed up for the 10-week class that met every Monday for three hours. The main requirement was that each participant came with a business idea. Some came with existing businesses, others with ideas that they’d dreamed of but never acted on. In addition to two staff, the class also included six LAUNCH mentors and a half dozen guest speakers. This support team brought real world entrepreneurship experience into the class each week, as participants actively strategized about their businesses’ primary products, customer problems, value proposition, “pitch,” and financial projections. Each session, participants tested their ideas in class by talking to potential customers.
By the end of the class, eight folks graduated, representing the following businesses:
Just a few weeks after class, we’ve seen folks make, produce, and sell their first tutu or cut down their first large tree; register and license new businesses; book DJ gigs and purchase new sound equipment; talk to up to 42 different potential customers over the course of the class; show up at night in the rain to get a staff person’s keys out of their locked car; and register Facebook pages and emails. But most importantly, we’ve seen people light up with the excitement at seeing their dream, based on their gifts, abilities, and hard work, begin to become a reality.
Walking with our neighbors in entrepreneurship makes all sorts of sense for Advance. Not only economically, where small businesses can provide jobs for the owners and others (LAUNCH Chattanooga’s 52 entrepreneurs have hired an additional 32 people, for instance), as well as helping under-employed or under-paid employees bridge the gap between what they currently earn and what their family needs. LAUNCH makes sense because Advance has always sought to help the poor primarily by empowering low-income individuals to recognize and build off their own assets and abilities, to see themselves as image-bearers with unique gifts and talents. So often in our city and world the poor are treated as deficits and problems to be solved; what better than entrepreneurship to remind our neighbors, and us, that our neighbors can use their assets and gifts to reach their goals and give back to their communities? Furthermore, the Bible presents us with a rich history of God’s people seeking to ensure that everyone in the community has access to work and even ownership of assets to provide basic security, relative equity, and full-participation in the life of the community. Think of the Jubilee laws and the seven year cycle of debt forgiveness, or the prophetic vision that in the last days everyone would sit under their own vine and fig tree, with no one to make them afraid. There is no perfect silver bullet for the problems facing our community, but given our philosophical commitment to asset-based community development and our theological commitment to seeing God’s people use their God-given gifts to add value in the community, LAUNCH is an effort that’s here to stay in 38126.
Will you join us? Will you help us figure out how to support our first eight entrepreneurs and the next 800 after them? Will you consider empowering a neighbor to provide for themselves by buying from these businesses? Would you consider mentoring an entrepreneur, helping some of our entrepreneurs market their services in your network, or just pray for them as they move forward, gain confidence, make mistakes, overcome them, and move towards God’s dream for themselves and their city? Together we can work towards a community where everybody who wants to work can provide for themselves, their family, and give back to their community. Walking with our neighbors in entrepreneurship is one step in that journey. Let’s take it.