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Business startup program aims to reduce unemployment in DC

Kenny Brown is starting his own home renovation and design business thanks in part to the coaching from new entrepreneurship program Enterprise DC

Brown chats with an Enterprise DC classmate

Brown paints a bedroom wall pink in a Northeast home he is helping redesign

Kenny Brown, a single dad who has been unemployed for more than four years, finally feels like he’s getting back on his feet. With the help of the nonprofit organization Enterprise DC, he’s starting an interior design and home renovation business.

“Four years...and I’m still somehow [surviving],” says Brown, a former IT professional. “This is the experience that I’ve been dealt, and so I guess if I got some lemons, I might as well make lemonade. And what I’ve realized, more importantly, is not only can I make the lemonade, but I can actually open a business based on it.”

A bit of a start-up itself, Enterprise DC launched in January with fifty participants in a rigorous six-week schedule of entrepreneurship and technology classes. The thirty-eight students who now remain in the program hold the tools needed to create a business plan. Later, they'll work with mentors or take internships to further their ideas.

The program was created by the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (WACIF) using grant funds from the DC Department of Employment Services (DOES). The Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Byte Back nonprofit computer and job training center are also helping to run key elements of Enterprise DC.

The unemployment rate in D.C. is about 10 percent, but in some parts of the District, it's more than double that. While entrepreneurship is blossoming, not all groups are benefiting equally from the renaissance. The Enterprise DC program aims to help DC residents left out of the entrepreneurship economy get a chance to create their own successful businesses.

The program is free to participants, who must be unemployed or underemployed District residents. WACIF selects applicants that show a passion for starting their own business and an understanding of their product and the costs associated with it. 

"If I got some lemons, I might as well make lemonade." -- Enterprise DC participant Kenny Brown
Technical Assistance Officer Josh Hopkins says he’s watched participants develop their initial spark of understanding. “I’m seeing light bulbs go on...participants clearly seeing the framework in which they can make their activity into a profitable, sustainable venture.”

The goal is that entrepreneurs walk away with a business plan they can realistically execute, but also much more: a clear understanding of their product, market, customers, and competition; a three-year start-up budget including revenue and expense projections; and the ability to put all of it into words and numbers to network, get funding, and catalyze profitable, sustainable growth.

Brown’s business, New Home Images and Technologies Inc., brings his artistic touch and engineering background to innovative renovations. His business was already in the works when he heard about Enterprise DC, but his strategy and focus have significantly changed with his time in the program.

Brown initially planned to only upgrade homes he owns, as he’s done in the past. However, Enterprise DC’s coaching showed him that it would require too much money up front. By instead getting a general contractor's license and working on other properties, he can build his portfolio, reputation, and money to invest in his own homes more quickly. He now wants to make smaller homes and offices more functional and aesthetically pleasing for occupants who can’t afford larger spaces, as well as partner with real estate companies to do staging for home sales.

In February, Brown and his classmates took entrepreneurship classes, taught by Hopkins using The Kaufman Foundation’s Fast Track For New Ventures curriculum, punctuated by expert panels, which wrapped up in February. Participants will continue taking technology classes through Byte Back on QuickBooks, Microsoft Office, Wordpress, E-commerce and graphics creation through July.

Many of Enterprise DC’s entrepreneurs have substantial experience in the industry they hope to enter, others simply a passion to fill a gap in the market. The ideas are varied, including a second-hand bookstore, a travel agency, an electronics recycling program, an assisted-living companion service, and Brown's home-renovation business. Value is also created in synergy: A natural community, sounding board and collaborative network has emerged, including new ideas for joint ventures.

In June, a speed-dating style pitch night will give participants a chance to practice their investment pitches on each other. A more formal pitch event will take place near the program’s conclusion in September.

With 25 years supporting local economic development ventures, a 96 percent loan performance rate and a 100 percent investor repayment record under its belt, WACIF holds a natural position to continue coaching entrepreneurs after graduation. Hopkins says, “We really look at this as the start of something, as opposed to having a clearly defined end-point.”

Unsurprisingly, given the renewed focus on entrepreneurship in the past few years, Enterprise DC is not the only entrepreneurship training program around. Operation HOPE graduated 23 entrepreneurs in DC in December 2012, for example. But Enterprise DC's nearly yearlong program is more ambitious, and—if most of the would-be entrepreneurs currently in the program stick with it—holds the potential to affect more people.

Going forward, these entrepreneurs must begin standing on their own two feet. Many, like Kenny, need funding to seriously implement their plans. Success isn’t guaranteed, but Enterprise DC may at least reduce the pull of gravity enough for a significant chance at lift-off.

Read more articles by Kaitlynn Hendricks.

Kaitlynn Hendricks is a solutions-focused economist working as a business developer in Washington, DC. She enjoys timeless and (occasionally) avant-garde fashion, reading things that are just a bit too complicated to really understand, challenging the status quo, and exploring the city on her Vespa.
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