Epicenter's minority business strategy gets $450,000 boost

Epicenter's chief program officer, Regina Ann Campbell, said there are 39,800 Black-owned businesses in Memphis, but only around 800 of them have an employee beyond the founder. 

Epicenter and a coalition of partners are working to shift that stat with a two-fold strategy. 

First, help those 800 businesses sustain profits and continue to hire locally. Second, support the growth of as many of the remaining 39,000 businesses as possible.

Epicenter is a nonprofit founded in 2015 as a hub for entrepreneurial and small-business investment and support in the greater Memphis area. Within that mission is a promise to promote a sustainable and inclusive business environment with ventures owned and operated by entrepreneurs representative of Memphis' demographics.

“A thriving and vibrant economy is one that is occupied by all members of our society and not sort of a select set of people from within our community so I think that the diversity of our portfolio of entrepreneurs is really important,” said Leslie Smith, Epicenter's president and CEO.

In July, Epicenter won a $450,000 Inclusion Open grant from the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation.

The foundation funds efforts to promote education and entrepreneurship and Inclusion Open is specific to entrepreneurs who are typically under-resources due to their demographics, socioeconomic status or geographic barriers.

Also in July, Epicenter received a $289,500 investment from the federal Economic Development Administration’s Regional Innovation Strategies Program.

Smith said the Kaufman grant will support Epicenter’s work in scaling existing minority-owned businesses through capital education, technical assistance, connection to customers, language translation for curricula and more.

“[The Kaufman Foundation’s] support validates positive progress in Memphis and helps break down barriers to full participation and resources for local entrepreneurs,” said Smith.

“It is humbling to be included in the national cohort of provocative leaders in this field and for the importance of this work and our commitment to building a more just and inclusive economy in Memphis to be recognized.”

A Supporting Role

Epicenter provides meeting space, consultation, financial services, data, analysis and more to individual entrepreneurs and institutions that support entrepreneurship throughout the city.

“We do all of that with a commitment that the portfolio of entrepreneurs and companies we serve mirrors the population of our majority-Black city," said Smith, though Epicenter also focuses on supporting businesses owned by other minorities including women of any race or ethnicity. 

"We want to ensure that all of our efforts are inclusive in their design and intentional in their outreach such that we don’t create or perpetuate a system that excludes giant swaths of our population," said Smith. "If that’s the system that we build, we would have failed Memphis in my opinion."

Daniel Watson is an entrepreneur who partnered with Epicenter to launch his business, Beneva Mayweather Foods. The company specializes in spice blends and yeast rolls inspired by recipes from his late grandmother, the company’s namesake.

Watson said Epicenter provides guidance, analytics and consulting, which help him make better business decisions. Epicenter has also helped with networking and polishing Watson's pitch to potential investors, which he hopes will attract the capital he needs to scale operations.

"They’ve given me access to consulting, but we’ve also gotten to a point where they’re open to providing other resources, like funding tools or resource tools ... which we would not have otherwise been able to have access to at this stage,” said Watson.

“They truly, truly are an asset to the entrepreneurial community in the city of Memphis," he continued.

Leslie Smith, Epicenter president and CEO.

The 800 Initiative

Epicenter is a key partner in the City of Memphis' The 800 Initiative. According to the city’s website, the program targets Memphis' roughly 800 Black-owned businesses between the startup and full-scale phases.

The goal is to grow their collective annual revenue by $50 million by 2023.

The initiative is funded by a $500,000 allocation from the Strickland administration and a $1 million commitment from FedEx spread over four years.

Christian Brothers University, Start Co. and Epicenter are the lead partners and will provide strategy and programming assistance.

"The 800 Initiative was an idea of Mayor Strickland to help solve for this issue around inclusive economy," said Campbell. "Our whole mission is all about creating an inclusive economy, so through the partnerships with Start Co. and CBU, we're able to do that. It is one way we're able to execute on this important work in Memphis."

Future initiative partners will including Tennessee Small Business Development Centers, the Black Business Association of Memphis and the Mid-South Minority Business Council.

Joan Massey is director of the City of Memphis Office of Business Diversity and Compliance. She said her department already provides deep supports to a consortium of over 50 small, minority-owned businesses and less intensive supports to many others.

“Those are ‘heavy touches’ where they participate in our program like Propel that the Start Co. administers for us," said Massey of the existing consortium. "But with a ‘light touch’ we basically estimate we've served 200-plus businesses."

They hope The 800 Initiative will build upon those efforts.

Building a hub 

Epicenter was founded by the Greater Memphis Chambers' Chairman’s Circle, which brings together the city’s largest businesses to promote focused growth, economic prosperity and quality of life in region.

Epicenter was tasked with launching 1,000 new entrepreneurs and 500 new startups in 10 years through its network of partners and supports.

“We co-created the vision for what a thriving and vibrant entrepreneurial economy in Memphis could look like with our partners, key stakeholders and entrepreneurs themselves,” said Smith of the founding.

To date, Epicenter has partnered with more than 45 organizations and raised more than $50 million from a variety of local, state, and federal institutions, as well as individual and corporate partners. Epicenter aims to raise $100 million over the course of a decade.

Forty percent of that total will support programs for local entrepreneurs and 45 percent will be direct capital to launch and grow new businesses. The remainder will fund informational maps, impact reports, Epicenter's podcast and other efforts that help create a holistic landscape for small-business development.

“We know the data shows that women and people of color are radically underrepresented in capital outcomes across the country," said Smith.

"If we’re going to have a thriving portfolio that is representative when it comes to women and people of color we have to make sure that capital is there to fuel their efforts."
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Read more articles by Baris Gursakal.

Baris Gursakal is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is an Istanbul native who grew up in Memphis, and has an interest in public policy and social justice issues.