Advance Memphis can't repair decades of disinvestment, generational poverty and community decline, but the nonprofit can set ZIP 38126 on the right path by connecting entrepreneurs with resources to start their own businesses.
“Growing up at that particular time, it was much different than it was today. There were more business and more companies,” said Rico Holt, a lifelong resident of South Memphis.
Walking down Vance Avenue and Mississippi Boulevard today, one can see boarded-up buildings punctuated by corner stores and barber shops.
“Yes, it has changed economically and socially it has as well. I'm a part of the community, and I like to see socio-economic infrastructure return to its normal state,” he added.
The shadow of a billboard is cast on a home on Vance Avenue.
Holt is part of a growing tide of small business owners in the South Memphis community. In 2017, he launched a commercial cleaning business, Premium Cleaning and Maintenance Solutions. His equipment is sparse, and he’s the only employee so far, but he has hopes to grow his business one contract at a time.
He believes that owning his own business strengthens the community and opens up the door for others to create their own opportunities in a neighborhood that is sticky with socio-economic barriers.
Holt is a graduate of the LAUNCH program hosted at Advance Memphis, which serves ZIP 38126 in South Memphis. It is a 10-week course where hopeful entrepreneurs learn the basics of launching a business.
Holt said that he gained expertise in shaping his pricing and connecting with customers such as Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors, which has hired Holt’s company to maintain the Soulsville Town Center.
Since the LAUNCH program began in 2013, it has graduated 54 entrepreneurs, and 80 percent of those businesses are still thriving. Those small businesses have created 25 jobs, and the top 10 businesses have garnered over $205,000 in 2016 revenue.
"Entrepreneurship has historically been a means for individuals to provide for their families. However, it remains forgotten on the list of solutions to decreasing poverty by those who run programs aimed at helping the poor," said Joanne Massey, director of the Office of Business Diversity & Compliance with the City of Memphis.
"This is not because it is ineffective but because all too often entrepreneurs are invisible in the large scale economic development strategies," she added.
At Advance Memphis, entrepreneurs are far from invisible. They make up the fabric of a vibrant neighborhood.
Entrepreneurship can strengthen communities on a few fronts. It brings necessary goods and services back to the community, provides self-sufficiency for business owners and may lead to job creation.
“Look at the fact that businesses do not come to South Memphis usually even though there is a lack of goods and services in this neighborhood. That is a challenge and it reflects challenges in the neighborhood,” said Bryce Stout, graduate development coordinator with Advance Memphis and resident of ZIP 38126.
“There is deep interconnectedness in the neighborhood, but there isn’t lot of trust of outside businesses or institutions and for good reason a lot of the times.”
Rico Holt (center) with his son and Advance Memphis staff, including Greg Spillyards (left) who has supported Holt and his business, Premium Cleaning & Maintenance Solutions.
Many major employers have left South Memphis, but there is a micro level of neighborhood employment at ER2, an electronic recycling facility, and within Advance Memphis’ warehouse where the nonprofit fulfills temporary contracts.
The Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis gives financial support to Advance Memphis’ workforce development programs as part of the foundation’s Vision 2020 plan to reduce poverty in ZIP 38126, one of the most impoverished ZIP codes in the nation.
ZIP 38126, which stretches from Third Street, Interstate-240, Martin Luther King Boulevard and McLemore Avenue is burdened with a 33 percent unemployment level and a 62 percent poverty rate.
By strategically investing in programs that uplift and empower residents, the WFGM hopes to make ZIP 38126 a greater place to live. In the first year of its five-year investment, the WFGM tracked 275 individuals placed in jobs and 1,124 participants in workforce development programming.
Stout sees entrepreneurship as both workforce development and community development. Entrusting individuals to create opportunities for themselves is in no means a Band-Aid for decades of disinvestment and generational poverty.
But who better to create solutions to community problems than community members themselves?
“There are deep interwoven connections in the community socially, but unfortunately those connections are fairly isolated from other communities in parts of Memphis,” Stout said, who sees Advance Memphis at 769 Vance Avenue as an intermediary between ZIP 38126 and the resources of greater Memphis.
“I think that’s a lot of the reason why people prefer to operate a side hustle rather than a business with outside customers. There’s trust already here, so why would they try and establish trust somewhere else where it’s risky?”
Next for the LAUNCH program is opening a micro-loan fund to help small business owners take that calculated next step, like Ashley Gladney who is considering opening up an out-of-town branch to support her Mobile Mommy business.
Quincy Foster, a LAUNCH graduate, captures moments while at work during a wedding.
Another growing small business in ZIP 38126 is Provision Photography, which is led by photographer Quincy Foster. In August, Foster will start renting permanent studio space at Advance Memphis’ offsite warehouse.
Photography was always Foster’s passion. Advance Memphis helped him turn it into a business.
“I was a truck driver. I didn't want to get buy my own truck and be tied to a truck because my mind is bigger than that,” said Foster, a longtime South Memphis resident.
“So, I thought, ‘Well, what do I like to do that I already do?’ It's something I've been doing for years, but I'm the historian of the family. I've got so many family albums.”
While maintaining his job at J.B. Trucking and Company, Foster locked in additional clients for portraits and event photography. He credits the Advance Memphis LAUNCH program for helping him set up pricing and a website presence.
And while his business is small, he believes that Provision Photography contributes to an overall energy that encourages small business ownership and patronage.
“Of course you still have the smaller businesses, like barber salons and beauty shops, nail shops and people that are doing a lot of mobile business like printing t-shirts or stuff I do like photography or DJing, but there's definitely more room for more stationary small businesses in the South Memphis area,” Foster said.
“It was a time when (strong small business ownership) was the case and things kind of died out. We're in a period of rejuvenation and pushing this idea of entrepreneurship.”