The Unspoken Reality About Entrepreneurship: A Definition Undefined in Underserved Communities

Let us reimagine what we can do to support every individual with a dream of entrepreneurship.
– Christopher R. Upperman, CEO, Envolve Entrepreneurship

The Unspoken Reality About Entrepreneurship:
A Definition Undefined in Underserved Communities
A walk down the memory lane to our origins of entrepreneurship.
A grass root experience to a life-changing cause.

An original story by Christopher R. Upperman, CEO of Envolve EntrepreneurshipEntrepreneurship can be life changing. Although not everyone’s view and perception of entrepreneurship is the same. Our prospect for “gazelle-level” success is microscopic at best, but we can succeed, shape, and establish ventures that are just as impactful and meaningful to our families, and the communities where we reside.

I can recall my childhood summer days spent in Raleigh, North Carolina, as if they were yesterday:
As the eldest grandchild, my days usually encompassed trips with my grandfather to visit the “produce man,” and stops by the local barber college — which was a community mainstay that still exists today — established by a local barber to teach young black men how to groom hair as a profession.

I remember trips to the local hardware store to gather materials for around-the-house projects my grandfather and his friend Bill would be undertaking. There was usually a combination of mundane moments such as sitting around as my grandmother surveyed the latest and most fashionable pieces for Sunday church services from the “hat lady” and her house calls, or sourcing hair care products from the roaming beauty supplies dealer for her customers.

One of my fondest and most treasured memories was running to the out-of-place interior window — in the front sitting parlor — that connected my grandmother’s hair salon to the inside of their home. It is here where I experienced countless requests for me to retrieve beverages such as iced tea or soda, clean linens from the laundry room, or simply a brief conversation with a customer that wanted to greet me and see how much I’d grown since they last saw me.

I remember all of this, but most of all what stuck with me most was the vision of my grandmother — a “solopreneur and owner of a hair salon—with a regular and dedicated client base, and countless others that owned businesses that  in the community, mostly through necessity due to lack of resources or institutions in their community that properly accommodated their everyday needs. It hadn’t dawned on me at the time, but this wasn’t an unusual experience, many Americans, then and even today, a lot of them minorities from similar communities, experienced these same activities as a normal way of life. Entrepreneurship was a way of life that could be sustained. 

After years of reflection I realized what I was experiencing during those moments was a vibrant assortment of African-American business owners and mom-and-pop retailers that infused a folksy and “old-traditions” kind of feeling in their community. Not only did these individuals provide the essence of authenticity and act as the fabric that held their community together, some might say they were making lemonade out of lemons. It does not take an anthropologist’s extensive research and expertise, but Raleigh, then and now, is no different from many other cities throughout America. Experiences such as these are the fabric of American communities, thus it is critical to support entrepreneurs and encourage those who aspire to become business owners, especially in communities where it might be more challenging to accomplish this.

Today, while many remain interested in opening a restaurant or local eatery, daycare center, market, law firm, or insurance agency, there are countless individuals inspired to harness technology to address market gaps, solve social issues and tackle disparities—not just close to home but nationally, and globally. However, according to the Kauffman Index of Main Street Entrepreneurship (2016), U.S. ventures overall have decreased over the last 20 years. We must change this, and there are signs of progress. With numerous conversations going on about the need to support the ’forgotten’ individuals throughout our nation, there is a lack of the cheerleader chorus rallying behind ways to truly cultivate the landscape for business owners. Small business ownership has been proven to develop skills, increase economic participation, and, for many, lead to economic self-sufficiency and wealth generation in ways a normal “9 to 5” routine does not offer.

We know there remains significant challenges around equity in accessing capital. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration underrepresented groups such as women, African Americans and Hispanics were more likely to be denied by traditional lending institutions. In addition to this, capital deployed by VCs and angel investors is less likely to reach the hands of these same groups.

Despite these challenges, we live in a unique moment where anyone with passion, drive, and sheer determination can start a business. This is reflected by the rate in which underserved and diverse entrepreneurs are starting ventures at a faster rate than any of their peers. While everyone may not have access to, or is able to leverage, the same resources, to some extent the digital and information age equalizes this inequality. We should be practical and really explore opportunities to start our own ventures. Organizations such as ours are here to do our part and we support diverse entrepreneurs in their efforts to live their dream or very simply address a gap in their community. Whether through mentorship, financial assistance, or other forms of technical support, entrepreneurs in today’s modern time are poised for success.

However, it is our belief that a core set of values and competencies should be developed and then instituted across the board. What this looks like will almost certainly adjust based on where one personally falls on the spectrum, but for the most part, they should remain similar. A few of my personal favorites are:

  • A belief in the importance of local engagement
    Taking into consideration the local behaviors, attitudes, and particular needs, community-specific interaction to increase awareness about the importance of supporting entrepreneurs and the need for access to capital and mentorship is critical.
  • A belief that meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships can effect change
    Working together works better! Collaborating with stakeholders to provide entrepreneurship education and support that is accessible and meaningful will benefit more people rather than going it alone.
  • A belief that entrepreneurship serves as a key element to healthy economies
    A thriving ecosystem of businesses throughout the US — and globally — decreases unemployment, creates wealth and improves standards of living when many cannot find meaningful employment or aren’t participating in the 21st century economy.
  • A belief in access to capital having a critical impact and playing a vital role on the viability of businesses (large and small) globally
    Our lending institutions, CDFIs, nonprofits and other community organizations should continue to band together to increase the prevalence of affordable lending options to help entrepreneurs scale their businesses.

Those moments as a kid in North Carolina became a part of what shapes me and my vision on entrepreneurship. The great news is we all have the potential to help replicate those moments throughout our society. Let us reimagine what we can do to support every individual with a dream of entrepreneurship. This can all be simple if we are willing to double down and give it a shot. Therefore, we are calling on innovators, entrepreneurship organizations, and the likes, to join in, and advance the state of entrepreneurship for all, especially those who are underserved!