Retail

Nonprofit Supports Community Entrepreneurs Amid Pandemic

Nonprofit Supports Community Entrepreneurs Amid Pandemic

It’s understandably an anxious time for Main Street businesses, even as downtowns prepare to reopen. But what about the entrepreneurs who are still hanging onto their dreams of starting a retail business? It stands to reason that hopelessness – or at least a plan B – would start to set in.

“Quite the contrary,” says Bob Brennan, chairman of the National Expansion Council and one of the directors of a nonprofit organization called Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll) based in Boston, Massachusetts. “I don’t get a sense of desperation from our people at all, because our entrepreneurs have been dealing in the land of scarcity for a long time. They don’t have VC funds. They know they can’t start a business by investing ahead of revenue. They know they need to make their dreams work right now, not a year from now.”

According to Brennan, EforAll is a growing nonprofit organization that partners with communities to help under-resourced entrepreneurs start and grow a business through intensive business training, mentorship and an extended professional support network. To date, EforAll alumni have launched more than 350 businesses and created more than 680 local jobs. EforAll is currently limited to nine Massachusetts counties and towns as well as Longmont, Colorado, but its model is built for expansion.

And what is that model? A business leader creates an EforAll chapter in a newly sanctioned community, collects applications from would-be entrepreneurs with a dream and a business plan, and starts an engine that includes pitch contests, accelerators and ideas for accessing grant money.

Brennan, for example, brings more than 30 years of executive experience to his role at EforAll, including stints as the CEO of Iron Mountain and Veracode. Pandemic crisis or not, Brennan says his interactions with applicants and program alumni are grounded in good business ideas, marketplace reality, life experiences and a desire to give back to underserved communities. Some of the applicants’ plans, such as high-touch businesses like beauty salons, have been delayed by the crisis, but none of them have been withdrawn or permanently derailed.

“I tell them that business is a game of misses, not hits,” he said. “You manage the misses. I try to keep people engaged when they face setbacks.”

Brennan and other mentors in the Massachusetts program are most attracted by two things: the positive effect on underserved communities and the potential generational impact. He spoke to one applicant who said that even if his idea was not accepted into the program, at least his kids would see that he tried to strike out on his own and start a business.

Of the businesses launched by EforAll participants, 75 percent are owned by women, 56 percent are owned by people of color, 54 percent are owned by immigrants and 56 percent are owned by people who were previously unemployed. Its accelerator is a year-long program offered twice a year at no cost to participants. Practical, in-person sessions with content specialists cover early-stage business challenges, such as creating a value proposition, bookkeeping, pricing and social media. Each entrepreneur is matched with a team of mentors and can win seed money each quarter. EforAll also holds pitch contests that are open to everyone.

Several corporations have partnered with EforAll to further its missions. It recently received it a $60,000 grant from Santander Bank to support programs in Lowell-Lawrence, Holyoke and Roxbury.

“Santander Bank is committed to helping communities prosper by providing philanthropic support to organizations, like EforAll, that are committed to creating strong, vibrant and inclusive economies in the communities where we live and work,” said Seth Goodall, executive director of corporate social responsibility at Santander Bank and an EforAll board member.

Lowell-Lawrence was the site of EforAll’s first program, which launched in 2012. A Spanish language business accelerator program in Lawrence – EparaTodos – followed in 2014. EforAll began operating in Holyoke in 2018 and in Roxbury in 2019.

Brennan and his colleagues are looking forward to adding more communities to the EforAll roster and continuing to mentor applicants.

“I tell them a few things that have been important to me,” he noted. “Don’t live beyond your means. Ask good questions, don’t make statements. Don’t trust your mood. Be open about what you don’t know.”

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