From incubator programs to experienced entrepreneurs, the Akron organization is ‘leveling the playing field’
Over the last few years, organizations across the country are having more conversations than ever about how to help close inequity gaps in entrepreneurship. One of those organizations is Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub. The entrepreneurial experts at the nonprofit aim to boost growing businesses, and they’ve taken a special interest in supporting founders from underserved communities. Bounce launched the GROW Program (generating real opportunity and wealth) to focus on minorities and women, and added the Next Level Incubator, a program designed specifically for Black-owned small businesses that are ready for growth. Now, they’re adding three Black entrepreneurs-in-residence as “the central component to the Next Level program” to provide even more hands-on experience and guidance to the entrepreneurs they work with.
“Having that mentor to company owner relationship that the EIR model provides is truly valuable and has been shown to be transformational to businesses,” said Bounce COO Jessica Sublett. “It’s a model that’s known far beyond Bounce, and it has a lot of value. But there hasn’t always been a lot of funding for non-tech small businesses to have access to a successful entrepreneur giving guidance for free. Sometimes you can’t just find your own mentor, particularly in the minority and Black communities. We identified that one-on-one coaching and advice was missing, and we’re taking this tried and true model and delivering it to other entrepreneurs in the tech space.”
In March, Bounce announced the additions of EIRs Constance Peek-Longmire, Da’Shika Street and Lucas Tindell. Peek-Longmire is the founder of Living with Purpose nonprofit organization, Peek Institute Professional Development and Grace International Bible College. Street is an Akron native and founder of VineWorks Marketing, LLC., a branding agency which serves as the parent company to Project Sew United and BABE Magazine. Tindell is an author, public speaker, corporate trainer, executive coach and podcast host. Between their experience and their familiarity with the community, the three EIRs represent major assets for entrepreneurs working with Next Level.
“These are three people I know and people who are already working in a space to help Black entrepreneurs,” said Ace Epps, director of inclusive entrepreneurship. “The community knows them and they’re trusted individuals. So just being able to have someone that looks like you and can help you in that space and who has been able to build a business of their own and has experienced the ups and downs and barriers that come with experience, these EIRs have that experience. It can really help the new people in our program, because it’s different to read it than it is to hear about that experience from someone who’s lived it.”
For Sublett, the trio of EIRs isn’t just experienced and qualified. She said their fit with the Next Level program along with the example they can set for younger entrepreneurs is about matching “the spirit of what this work is about.”
“It’s not just about having experience in growing a business, it’s about having the personality and the skill set to be a mentor and an advisor,” she said. “These EIRs can command some respect, but can also add value to an entrepreneur’s business. They have great energy, great respect for the work we’re all doing together and are really invested in giving back to the community. Of course they have the experience, but they’re also dynamic individuals who can take their coaching to the next level just because of who they are as people.”
Most importantly for Epps, who has helped Bounce reach out to underserved populations for more than three years, providing a variety of programs aimed toward specific populations is key to ensuring that the entrepreneurs who work with Bounce have access to the same quality of resources, regardless of their gender or race. And for the Black entrepreneurial community, that hasn’t always been the case.
“We want everyone to have a level playing field, and I think having a program like GROW gives entrepreneurs the ability to learn about starting a business,” he said. “We’re helping people grow their entrepreneurial spirit. And then on the next level, we’re able to help seasoned entrepreneurs be able to scale their business. It’s important to provide a program specifically crafted to give Black people a culturally competent curriculum and expertise in small business instead of taking them to something like a tech incubator. Those programs wouldn’t be helpful if they don’t understand being a small business owner, let alone being a Black small business owner.”
But fortunately for Akron, Epps said, the city has a connected community that builds each other up and supports founders of all varieties. From entrepreneur-focused hubs to public entities and other organizations, he’s proud of the diverse and motivated business scene in Akron.
“I think it speaks volumes about Akron,” he said. “Our community is important because it’s all about leveling the playing field. It’s all about giving people opportunities where they need them, and us being able to be more inclusive and diverse in that space. It feels like a family around here and not just at Bounce. You could call the Urban League for help and they’ll call the Chamber and they’ll call The Well. The community is connected, and we’re continuing to strengthen that relationship and add capacity. It shows what we’ve created. Bounce is just a spoke in the wheel of people who are contributing to the success of these entrepreneurs.”