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Goodwill Enterprising: Can Entrepreneurship Save Our Cities?

Dr. dt ogilvie

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Kesha Cash serves as director of investments for Jalia Ventures, a venture capital firm that funds entrepreneurs of color, particularly those aiming to make a social impact in urban neighborhoods. Part of the larger Serious Change L.P., a $50 million fund that encompasses social entrepreneurship broadly (going beyond just cities), Jalia invests $250,000 to $500,000 in companies that have short histories and business models that signal future growth. Much of its attention has focused on New York City, which those involved in the firm know best. Their roster is impressive with financing going to the likes of Peartree Preschool, an eco-friendly school in Harlem, Return Textiles, a sustainable yarn and fabric company that hip-hop mogul Pharrell Williams also invested in, and Red Rabbit, an East Harlem-based provider of healthy and locally sourced school lunches.

Rhys Powell, founder and CEO of Red Rabbit, said his company connected with Jalia in 2010, at just the right time. “Other minority-owned, urban businesses…have struggled with finding the funding that is necessary for them to grow,” Powell said. Red Rabbit had “hit the same point when we were approached by Jalia.”

When Jalia approached Red Rabbit, the startup had only a few employees and contracts with 30 schools. The funding jolt allowed the company to pick up the pace of its growth. Today, Red Rabbit works with 70 schools in the New York City region. Rhys said his goal is to expand the reach of his company to other communities.

This past June, Jalia launched its $3.5 million Impact America initiative aimed at supporting budding social entrepreneurs at historically black colleges and universities. This variation in supporting businesses at various levels of development is important to Jalia’s mission. “In order to move the needle there needs to be that support at all levels,” Cash said.

Impact America will hold competitions similar to those held by 100 Urban Entrepreneurs, an Atlanta-based organization established in 2010. Supported by rapper Sean Combs and filmmaker Tyler Perry, 100 Urban Entrepreneurs holds elevator-pitch competitions that end with winners receiving up to $10,000 in startup
funding, as well as technical assistance from a network of other businesses going through the same growing pains.

One urban entrepreneur helped out by Combs and Perry is Jennifer Burrell, an African-American Chicagoan and the owner of Frock Shop, a small clothing rental outpost based in Chicago’s Lower West Side. Burrell began her business in a makeshift store she ran out of a storage facility close to her home in a neighborhood south of downtown, otherwise bereft of economic activity. These days, her shop is in Pilsen, a post-industrial outpost of budding entrepreneurs and artists. Slightly bigger than the average closet, the shop is colorful and welcoming, with pink walls, a funky border trim and hundreds of bright, neatly hung dresses.

Burrell, who also works full-time in sales and marketing for a pizza company, put her $10,000 grant from 100 Urban Entrepreneurs toward buying more dresses and developing an e-commerce operation.

“They really help small businesses think big,” Burrell said. “Urban Entrepreneurs is about networking within organization and getting access to their expertise within their network so you can grow and expand your business.”

“There are a lot of good urban, small businesses that deserve [such support],” she said.

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