Emory program jump starts small businesses

An Emory University research study on entrepreneurs and their support systems uncovered a gap: Small and micro businesses often lack the resources to succeed. It also revealed that many small start-ups are in low-income or minority majority communities.

“Our thought was, ‘Let’s close the gap,’” said Brian Goebel, who has led Emory’s initiative to train and connect entrepreneurs with the resources for forecasting, planning and growth since 2014. “The best way to do it is to find those already in the community, or looking to be, and set up an accelerator program to help them.”

That’s the goal of Start: ME (microenterprise), a 14-session, 11-week program offered each spring at three locations around the metro area. A competitive application process provides about 50 small business owners the chance to explore topics from how to write solid business plans to understanding fundamental financial and management skills.

“We keep it close to where people live and work so it’s accessible,” said Goebel. “We have meetings in Clarkston, the East Lake and Kirkwood area, and south Atlanta. Each session covers the core business skills owners need: storytelling and pitch development, financials and projections, how to access capital, customer discovery and identification.”

The program also includes focus groups from the community that offer owners insight on how well they’re doing with their business models that cover a range of areas.

“We’re looking for promising business in an array of industries, but the most common ones we see are focused on artists and makers of things like dresses and jewelry,” he said. “Another big area is food entrepreneurs with small catering operations who are looking eventually to have a food truck or a brick-and-mortar location. Another area that’s growing are businesses focused on home repair services. Those owners often have very strong technical skills, but we give them more of the formal business structure around how to market, sell, build a team and expand.”

Since Start: ME launched, 208 small business owners have gone through the program, and their stories indicate a strong success rate.

“We do survey our alumni every year, and as of 2018, 91 percent are actively operating,” said Goebel. “They’ve created 295 part-time or full-time positions and have had revenues of $6.3 million. We also take a lot of pride in the fact that 69 percent of our ventures to date have women founders, and 85 percent are people of color. That’s a big part of our work because those groups haven’t always had an ecosystem of support around them.”

Among the recent program grads are owners who specialize in pressure washing, educational materials, residential and commercial cleaning, clothing and accessories.

And popcorn. Keith Forrester, owner of Poppa Corn’s Gourmet Popcorn in Kirkwood, completed this year’s course after hearing about it from another business owner in the neighborhood.

“I was surprised at how much it helped,” said Forrester. “I was a corporate animal all my life, and this is the first time I’ve done anything entrepreneurial. It was very helpful to talk to other people about what problems they’re running into and to know that they’re going through the same types of things.”

Forrester’s 1,300-square-foot shop on Hosea Williams Drive has been opened for more than a year, but after completing the Emory program, he’s ready to expand.

“We know we can’t make it on the walk-in business alone, so we’ve upped our game with our internet site,” he said. “Through the program, we were awarded $2,500 to kick start that side of the business where we can really grow and focus on corporate sales.”

Information about Start: ME, including applications for the next session, is online at startmeatl.org.

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