Finding and Fostering Entrepreneurial Spirit in Underserved Communities

Posted by Keli A. Tianga on October 24, 2014

A few years ago, I had what I thought was a great business idea. After much excited Googling and resource combing, I came across a seven-week small business training program being offered through my town. The training, run by the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL), was only open to people who were unemployed. I was freelancing at the time and had just had a baby, so I qualified.

My class of 15 budding entrepreneurs was a mixed group in every sense of the word, by race, gender, and education level. We practiced our "elevator pitches," wrote business plans, and listened as special guests including insurance agents, bank loan officers, accountants, and marketing experts told us what we needed to do to get our businesses off to the right start. The information was exciting, terrifying, and necessary, because it helped me realize that not only was I nowhere near ready to launch a business, I was also unsure whether I even wanted to.

I discovered that local zoning laws would have required my business to have a separate, commercial space in which to operate, and it became clear that the amount of resources needed--of time, money, and will--were more than I had. I decided to file the idea away and turn my attention back to freelancing and caring for my new baby. I cannot overstate the benefit of going through what turned out to be a pretty rigorous program, however, and know that for many of my classmates the program only reinforced their desire to become their own boss for good.

Because of this education, I now have a clearer understanding why (and how) people with limited or no resources get their business off to a "wrong" start, and stay that way. In class, we were told that without an attorney, without an accountant, without a business banking account, your investment is constantly at risk. This is true, but what was not discussed was that each of these necessities came with a cost; and many people who are starting their own business aren't doing it because they want to be home with young children or have grown tired of a long commute, it is because they have no money and are trying to generate income for themselves. Permanent unemployment or chronic underemployment is the alternative for some of these entrepreneurs; and so despite the risk, they decide to empower themselves by taking their skills and selling them. Within underserved communities, these "under the table" entrepeneurs are the engines, and their creativity and resourcefulness should be fostered, not marginalized.

Entrepreneurial programs like IFEL, and ProsperUs in Detroit, described in this web exclusive article on Shelterforce online are crucial, not only for the individual entrepreneur, but for their families and the communities they serve. The hope is that as the poor communities they operate within undergo development, they are given the opportunity to be part of that transformation.

"The change underway in downtown Detroit has inspired underground workers. 'They see many people are falling on top of people [downtown],' she says. 'All of the theaters are maxed out, and all of the parking complexes are full.' This inspires existing businessowners to strive to be a part of that growth."

While it's great that new investment in neighborhoods and growth can encourage entrepreneurs to legitimize their business and seek out programs like ProsperUs, such opportunities would be good to come before or as development is happening, not when its too late for these community members to benefit.

The Shelterforce online web exclusive article mentioned above was made possible by a grant from the Surdna Foundation to allow Shelterforce to increase its focus on economic development topics.

(Photo credit: Southwest Solutions)

About the author more ยป

Keli A. Tianga is associate editor of Shelterforce magazine. Email Keli at

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