Two years ago, Dave Christopher knew something had to change.
COVID-19 shut down his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky in the spring of 2020. Many businesses in his town did not survive while others barely made it with the help of grants and loans from the Protection Program pay checks.
Christopher looked closer and saw a deeper problem.
Statistics compiled by Louisville showed the city’s black population was 23.4%, but only 2.4% of its businesses were black-owned. Those numbers roughly mirror national numbers, where black people make up 12.4% of the US population in a country where just 2.4% of businesses are black-owned, according to research by LendingTree.com.
Even more troubling: 8 in 10 black-owned businesses fold in the first 18 months, according to CNBC.com.
A Black Air Force veteran with 12 years of service and an entrepreneur since childhood, Christopher couldn’t understand the statistics he was reading.
“It made no sense, and the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became. And the more I worried, I thought: what can I do?” Christopher told Zenger.
The Rockefeller Foundation via Zenger
Raised by a mother with undiagnosed Parkinson’s disease and a father who lived with a fused twisted spine, Christopher learned to look beyond problems to find solutions. His first move was to construct a 17-page plan that he shared with friends who encouraged him to continue helping people of color achieve the American Dream.
Launch of the educational initiative
After raising $3 million in nine months, including a significant contribution from the Rockefeller Foundation, Christopher launched the Russell Technology Business Incubator in January 2021. Named after the neighborhood in which he is based, the incubator offers a program focused on what Christopher considers to be the three essentials. elements necessary for a successful business: capital, networking and education.
The incubator welcomed its first class of 34 students last year. All have graduated and 27 companies are now in operation and doing well, Christopher said. A second promotion of 34 candidates follows the one-year program.
“I knew there wasn’t a startup community for black people,” Christopher said. “If you have an idea and have gone to a bank or funding source to get money for your idea, you are almost always asked what you have done so far? idea of a startup. A startup is: I really have this great idea and I need something to help me prove the concept of the idea. It doesn’t exist for black people, so I wanted to create this.
The program is divided into four terms. The first term is devoted to discovering or understanding the business idea and its needs. The second term is focused on education, teaching business fundamentals, such as accounting, marketing, and branding.
The third quarter deals with financing and how to obtain capital to support your business, while the fourth focuses on launching the business.
Each entrepreneur in the incubator is also assigned a wealth strategist coach whom he meets once or twice a month.
“We believe everyone who walks through our door is capable of doing what they choose to do. They just don’t have the resources,” he said. “We are grateful for providing the resources, so that they can do these amazing things.”
Russell Technology Business Incubator via Zenger
The main requirement to consider is that each candidate must have a specific business idea. “If someone came up with an idea on the back of a napkin, they could walk into the incubator,” Christopher said.
The waiting list to apply is 500 people, ranging from those with just one idea to others struggling to stay afloat after eight years in business.
The incubator offers the kind of resources most minority entrepreneurs don’t have access to, including lessons and experts in networking, business presentation and mental health. “Every day you bang your head against a brick wall that you don’t even know is there,” he said.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer acknowledged the need for the incubator at a press conference in July 2021. “We recognize that we are not going to reverse the effects of redlining, divestment and deprivation of the right to vote overnight,” Fischer said. “It’s going to take time and money.”
The incubator meets for two hours every Thursday. There are workshops and mentoring sessions after graduation. “We’ve had great successes,” Christopher said. “People are so much better off than they were a year ago.”
Take on the challenge
Placing legitimate businesses has not been easy. A recent groundbreaking ceremony for opening a restaurant three times the size of its previous location was cause for celebration, but it was not without its hurdles. Christopher recalls being confronted with blatant racism, with one of the tenants saying, “We don’t think you’ll make it here.” Other tactics include forcing potential black homeowners to pay an excessive down payment.
“This incubator removes all the obstacles, problems and concerns they face,” said Christopher. “We’re not asking people to change the rules unless it’s systematically racist practices, which some are. I’m not asking you to rent it to me for less than you would at no anyone else. I’m not asking you to make concessions. I just want you to do it the way you’re supposed to – and do it fairly.
Christopher hopes his program will become a national model to help bridge the financial gap between white people and people of color. The LendingTree.com report shows that while 86.5% of all businesses in the United States are white-owned, whites make up 72% of the American population.
“The wealth gap is the same for black people across the country,” Christopher said. “We’re all at the bottom of the pile. This is something that’s going to change that.”
This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.