From the Deep South to the West Coast, these entrepreneurs are making sure jobs and dollars grow – and stay – in places hardest hit by hurricanes, poverty, and gentrification.
Our culture is obsessed with them. Often young, with a pioneering spirit, entrepreneurs embody a certain kind of American dream; come up with brilliant ideas for products or services that meet (or even better, create) a market need and a viable business plan, find investors, and make lots of money. OK, it’s slightly more complicated than that—but let’s go with it.
While everyone’s heard of Steve Jobs and the like, less known innovators and entrepreneurs are creating an economy where everyone has opportunities, no matter their background. They invest in businesses that provide well-paying jobs to English-language learners in Oakland, California; they create networks of investors to revolutionize the food system in Alabama; and they mentor small-business owners to help local enterprises thrive in Phoenix, Arizona.
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The Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE), a nonprofit that supports visionary local economy projects, chose 17 of these leaders for its third cohort of BALLE Fellows. For 18 months, Fellows will share strategies that have worked in their regions—like lowering interest rates on loans for small businesses that provide jobs to the formerly incarcerated; and developing “investor clubs” that make it easy to invest in communities. The goal is to strengthen local economies in every corner of the United States.
Meet 8 of them here.
José Corona – Oakland, California
José likes to say that his dad, who emigrated with José and the rest of his family from Mexico, was a social entrepreneur before it was trendy. José saw his dad grow a successful agricultural business in Watsonville, California, treat his employees well, pay them fairly, and provide benefits. His dad even helped a few of his workers start their own farms.
José now works with entrepreneurs developing businesses that do things like make natural nut butters, roast coffee, and sell local meat, as the CEO and president of Inner City Advisors (ICA). He feels like his work is exactly what he needs to be doing, practicing the values his dad instilled in him: integrity, trust, relationships, and “hustling in the right way.”
Although the Bay Area’s tech boom has caused an explosion of employment, José says it’s still difficult for many people to find employment—like people who have been incarcerated, are learning English, or have lower education levels.
ICA isn’t a training program for job seekers. Instead, it mentors startups and small businesses to help them recruit and train workers.
José works with Premier Organics, a company that makes natural peanut butters and other products. Premier Organics hired Mauricio, originally from South America, as one of their first employees on the production line. Mauricio was responsible for manually putting labels on jars. With advising from ICA, Premier Organics offered Mauricio long-term job training, which allowed him to advance from line operator to team leader—and then to manager. He is now the operations manager for the whole company.
ICA also launched the Fund Good Jobs initiative that invests in small businesses that provide living-wage jobs with benefits and opportunities for advancement. In 2013, ICA companies created almost 3,000 jobs—and the average wage for ICA company jobs is $14.50 per hour (twice the federal minimum wage).
Jessica Norwood – Mobile, Alabama
After years of working on political action committees and electoral campaigns in Washington, DC, and New York City, Jessica moved home to the Gulf Coast of Alabama for some much needed rest in the summer of 2005.
Two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit. The destruction caused by the storm was amplified by the already overstretched infrastructure and poverty of the region.
Jessica witnessed families and neighbors who had barely survived on minimum wage before the storm struggle to pay for the gas they needed to evacuate—and then for food and lodging once they left.
When people in the Gulf Coast started returning to their homes, Jessica saw families returning to public housing only to find the buildings padlocked, leaving many without other housing options. In low-income neighborhoods throughout Alabama, schools that had closed during the storm never reopened.
In the midst of these challenges, Jessica saw many reasons to hope. Online networks of people popped up to help separated loved ones find each other Neighbors shared tools like shovels and saws to assist in cleaning up damaged houses.
Through all of this, she said she learned that “we are innovators, we are producers and we are each other’s best assets.”
Jessica began connecting young people who were excited about rebuilding the South, and in 2007 founded the Emerging Changemakers Network.
After the first three years, Network members included town mayors, state representatives, and business owners, many of whom had less time to volunteer but were still looking for ways to improve their communities. They had other resources to offer, like disposable income to invest.
The Network decided to focus its investments on Alabama’s food economy. Before anyone put up money, Jessica said the Network first sought to understand the food economy as a whole, talking to everyone from grocery store owners to farmers to the bankers that lend to them.
Emerging Changemakers launched “SOUL’utions,” a network of investment clubs that pooled money from people in the same town or city to invest in solutions in their area. One group provided a loan for a group of small farmers to purchase a tractor.
Jessica says that while they don’t invest huge amounts of money, it’s enough to catalyze other funders, like the Department of Agriculture or the Ford Foundation.
Alfa Demmellash – Jersey City, New Jersey
During college at Harvard University in the early 2000s, Alfa was inspired by Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank, which pioneered a microlending model that helped alleviate poverty for women in Bangladesh.
The summer after she graduated, she spent time in the neighborhoods on MLK Drive in Jersey City, just a short drive away from the burgeoning downtown area. While volunteering at soup kitchens and other social service agencies in majority low-income and African-American neighborhoods, she wondered if this microlending practice could be applied there.
Alfa remembers people in those neighborhoods telling her that she and friend Alex Forrester were “do-gooder” college kids, and that they wouldn’t stick around. She said they felt an immediate responsibility to stay, listen, and learn.
Alfa and Alex met Harvey George, who ran Friends of Lifers Youth Corp, Inc., a youth program helping people who were formerly incarcerated find housing and jobs. Alfa was immediately inspired by the way he, who had spent 17 years in prison, mentored and counseled the people who passed through his soup kitchen. They were often distressed and hopeless. He helped them create their own opportunities.
The pair started raising money from family and friends to make small loans to people in Jersey City who were eager to start or grow their own businesses, from florist shops to accounting firms. They soon realized, though, that it was not access to loans that the entrepreneurs lacked, but the skills to manage a small business—and the social connections to grow it.
So they decided to shift their focus from offering loans to providing business education. They started Rising Tide Capital, Inc., and opened the Community Business Academy. Academy courses included customer service and marketing, and the program offered mentorship from established business-owners and a support network of fellow entrepreneurs. The initial class included founders of businesses that included a greeting card company, catering service, and cleaning company. Harvey George was one of the first students.
Since then, the program has graduated more than 1,000 entrepreneurs and runs courses in three cities in New Jersey, with two courses in Spanish.
Carlos Velasco – Phoenix, Arizona
Carlos grew up in Guayaquil, Ecuador. During those years, much of the country was experiencing 70 percent unemployment. But, he said, neighbors looked out for each other and there was a real sense of community.
When he needed something to eat, his grandmother would send him to the tiendita, the corner store. The owner would give him what he could, no questions asked.
“We didn’t have money,” he said. “But we didn’t have the issues we have [here in the United States]: disconnection, crime, diabetes, a sense of people not knowing who they are.”
He moved to the United States when he was twelve. At school, he felt the social pressure to do well and achieve something great. He says now, in many neighborhoods in Arizona, he doesn’t see that motivation in many young people.
In the area near Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, for example, there are Jack in the Boxes, several Circle K’s—convenience stores that are pretty different from the tiendita Carlos visited growing up—and other chain restaurants and retailers. Entry-level and management jobs at large chains are the only employment options many young people feel they have.
In addition, Carlos says the chain stores crowd out locally owned businesses, particularly Spanish-preferred businesses or those owned by people who have immigrated to the United States.
In response to these challenges, Carlos and his colleagues at Fuerza Local, a community organization that supports locally-owned, Spanish-preferred businesses in Phoenix, developed a Spanish-language business accelerator program. The program offers 12 classes on topics like customer service and marketing, encourages participation in an online, group savings tool, and, upon graduation of the program, provides a line of credit at MariSol Credit Union.
The accelerator program has supported restaurants, a cake-selling business, mechanic shop, and a coffee shop, among many others. The second cohort of business-owners graduated in July.
Aaron Tanaka – Boston, Massachusetts
Aaron has been organizing and learning from the residents of low-income areas like Roxbury and Dorchester in Boston for almost 10 years. In 2005, he helped start the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA), a community organization of unemployed and underemployed workers. They began work on the “Ban the Box Campaign,” advocating for legislation that bars employers from asking applicants if they have a criminal record.
The campaign won a key victory in 2010 when the Massachusetts state legislature passed a criminal record reform bill including a Ban the Box provision. Aaron learned two important things from the campaign: that organizing work must be led by those most impacted, in this case people with criminal records; and that even if this campaign and others like it solved discrimination in hiring processes, there still would not be enough jobs.
There is such a need to organize around issues that are directly and immediately impacting people’s lives, like minimum wage and paid sick leave campaigns, Aaron said. So it doesn’t feel like there is time to take on the underlying causes of economic inequality and injustice.
Aaron began to find ways to support civic leaders and organizers in long-term visioning about what an economy that benefits all kinds of people could look like. He co-founded the Center for Economic Democracy.
Last year, the BWA campaigned for the allocation of $1 million of the city of Boston’s budget for a youth-led, participatory budgeting process. Aaron and the Center for Economic Democracy supported the process, in which dozens of youth participated and decided to fund the renovation of a park and playground in the Franklin neighborhood, provide laptops to three public high schools, and create “Designated Free Wall Space” for graffiti and other visual artists to showcase their work, among other projects.
Aaron says this process was just one way to open the conversation about democratizing the economy and alternative approaches to public finance.
Jay Bad Heart Bull – Minneapolis, Minnesota
Before moving to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Jay thought that most people in the Twin Cities would have plenty of employment opportunities at one of the many Fortune 500 and biomedical companies in the area. He had completed high school and tribal college on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota and the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, and witnessed widespread unemployment in rural regions.
When he arrived in Minneapolis, though, he soon realized that the Native community in Minneapolis was not benefiting from the city’s wealth and opportunities. Further, he saw that the money coming into the community, through grants or social services, quickly left.
When Jay became the president and CEO of the Native American Community Development Initiative (NACDI), he set out to change that. In 2008, he and the team at NACDI recruited the Woodlands National Bank, a Native-American owned bank based in Hinckley, Minnesota, to open in South Minneapolis. He says this move was a message to the community that people could keep their dollars circulating locally.
NACDI then bought an office building in South Minneapolis by raising grant money and financing the remainder through the Woodlands Bank. Owning property in the neighborhood where they work opened many more opportunities. NACDI began leasing space in the ground floor of their building to a Native American man to run a coffee shop, which provides jobs for youth from the South Minneapolis neighborhood.
NACDI also opened an art gallery, All My Relations, featuring Native American art. Now, NACDI and other community organizations in South Minneapolis use the art gallery space to host events, like fundraisers and candidate forums during local elections.
Euneika Rogers-Sipp – Stone Mountain, Georgia
Just before starting high school, Euneika and her family moved from a rural community in North Carolina to the suburbs outside Atlanta. From there, she left for college in London in the mid-1980s. Euneika says her experience leaving the rural South—and then, the South altogether—is typical of the exodus that has been happening in largely African-American, poor, and rural communities for decades.
The difference is that Euneika returned. She felt pulled by a love of family, tradition, and place, but also an urgency about the environmental degradation she saw when she visited. She started Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families to help restore the social and economic fabric of the South’s rural areas.
Her first project was in Gees Bend, Wilcox County, one of the poorest counties in Alabama. For years, the women of Gees Bend have been making vibrant and colorful quilts. Euneika saw this as one example of the gap between rich cultural heritage and the lack of economic opportunity in the rural South. So, she helped turn the quiltmaking into a cottage industry, and supported the town in building up a cultural tourism economy.
She has since been working with other towns across the Southeast to encourage cultural tourism there, collaborating with other local craft makers, and people who want to open restaurants, open their homes for homestays, or lead tours. In addition to bringing much needed economic opportunity to the region, she hopes cultural tourism will restore a connection to place—for the people who grew up there, and for others who want to experience and understand the history of the South.
Andrea Chen – New Orleans, Louisiana
Andrea started her career as a high school English teacher in New Orleans. She soon realized that many of her 11th- and 12th-grade students were reading on a fourth-grade level. While developing teaching strategies to bring them up to level, Andrea also dug deeper to figure out why.
There are a lot of factors, like an underfunded education system, that play into it. But, she said, a lot of the problem came down to poverty.
She and some friends started Propeller, a business incubator and co-working space designed to bring together social entrepreneurs and policymakers inspired to tackle problems like blighted land, failing schools, and food shortages.
Propeller runs a 10-month fellows program that supports entrepreneurs starting businesses with a social goal, like providing healthy food to schools or offering doula and childbirth education services to low-income women in New Orleans.
To find out more—and meet BALLE’s other fellows—visit bealocalist.org.