First Republic Bank
|Renaissance Entrpreneurship Center||
$30,000 AHEAD Grant
Theresa Wallace discovered her passion for making beautiful things after she was diagnosed with Lupus and had to learn how to live with the pain and suffering of that illness and related ailments. When she met Ericka Scott, Program Coordinator of the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center’s Bayview Women program, Theresa learned that her passion could actually become a business: Royal Tee’s Custom Designs and Events.
Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center (Renaissance) is a microenterprise development organization helping socially and economically diverse women and men start and grow a small business. Over the last 30 years, the nonprofit has helped more than 27,000 entrepreneurs, 76% of whom have been women. The organization has several locations in the Bay Area, including Bayview Center in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco. The Bayview Women program is an intensive 12-week program providing training, mentorship, peer support, and networking targeted specifically to aspiring women entrepreneurs in this marginalized and underserved community.
Designed to serve women where they are, Bayview Women is connecting local residents who can benefit from the opportunity to learn how to start or grow a small business to one another, as well as to the resources they need to generate more income for themselves and their families. Ericka Scott, who Center Director Marcus Tartt has dubbed “The Connector,” is the inspiration behind the program. “This is about more than business planning,” he says. “It’s a peer support group as well, and Ericka really connects with folks.”
“I started off as a student at Renaissance a long time ago,” Ericka says. “Half-way through the business program, I was just mesmerized by the support and what the Renaissance had to offer.” Ericka became a consultant at Renaissance and eventually shifted gears to join the staff at the Bayview Center, where she saw an opportunity to tap an often overlooked resource to help break the cycle of poverty in the area. “These women have so much to offer, and there was no outlet for them to share their gifts and talents and what they contribute as workers, as mothers, grandmothers, community advocates,” she explains, “no central place for them to come and talk and share ideas and challenges.”
Statistics show that African American women are one of the most entrepreneurial demographics today, with their share of business ownership growing by 322% since 1997. The education and services that Renaissance provides are aimed directly at helping clients increase their household income and begin to build wealth. “When you have a product and you give it away, you have a hobby,” Ericka teaches. “When you exchange your creation for money, then you have a business.”
Outreach for the program is targeted to women living at the Alice Griffith and Hunters View public housing projects and the surrounding neighborhood. Place is very important to the nonprofit’s vision. “Our thinking is that we are going to bring our services to people,” says Executive Director Sharon Miller. Having to drive an hour or take public transportation a long way to attend classes two nights a week would be an added burden for participants, who are already very busy in their daily lives. Making the program accessible not only makes attendance easier, it helps students build productive networks: “Small business is so local,” she notes.
Bayview native Theresa Wallace, 61 years old, is a former Merchant Marine with a glamorous sense of style. Among the items Theresa makes are colorful bejeweled walking canes, an idea inspired by her own health needs. “I am too young and fabulous to be walking around with some old lady’s cane,” she says. “These canes were birthed from my own pain.” Meeting Ericka and enrolling in the Bayview Women program convinced her that she needed to stop giving away her talents, and instead start a business to sell her canes and unique floral arrangement centerpieces. She has since added event planning to her business offering — another suggestion from Ericka, who’d seen Theresa’s gift for throwing a party first-hand.
The ideas the women bring to the program run the gamut of entrepreneurial concepts, from apparel and food products to fitness coaching and janitorial services. The course uses the Business Model Canvas to help students map out the path to bringing their idea to market. They learn basic business concepts, including finance and marketing, and have an opportunity to hone other vital skills, like public speaking, while building their personal and professional networks.
Public speaking is especially important to the women who participate in the program’s culminating RenTank business pitch contest. Modeled after the popular Shark Tank reality TV show, which showcases and rewards budding entrepreneurs, RenTank is an opportunity for the women to make the case for their business idea. Of the program’s first cohort, ten of the women were ready to step up for a chance to win a $1,000 investment in their business. While only five of them got to win the prize, Ericka notes the value of the experience to all the participants: “Some of the women who don’t win turn out to be our stars, because they still have the drive to move forward.” Nonetheless, Theresa, who was unable to participate in RenTank with her original cohort, plans to vie for the prize next time — and she is unequivocal about her intention to win it.
First Republic Bank has supported Renaissance for several years because the San Francisco-based bank believes in the nonprofit’s mission of encouraging development of women- and minority-owned small businesses in underserved communities. According to Rosana Han, SVP of Community Reinvestment, her team was excited to learn that Renaissance was designing a new program to reach women in the Bayview neighborhood, many of whom were already operating cottage businesses. “When I heard about some of the unique barriers that these women face to be able to attend classes at the downtown Renaissance location, such as lack of childcare and transportation, I felt this program, targeted to a talent-rich community, was an important one to support,” she explains.
As a member of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, First Republic sponsored an application for funding for the new Bayview Women program from the Bank’s AHEAD Program, which provides grants to get innovative approaches to economic development off the ground. The Bayview Women initiative received a $30,000 AHEAD grant in 2017. “The AHEAD grant allowed us to open up access to the larger financial support this program deserves,” Rosana says. “We have been working with First Republic for years, and the AHEAD program has been a fantastic funder,” says Sharon Miller, Executive Director of Renaissance.
Today’s economy offers many opportunities for entrepreneurs to market their products and services for free using apps like Facebook and Snapchat, and to sell their products locally at popup markets and fairs. The Center facilitates participation in these types of community events. The key, according to Marcus, is “to make sure we bring the right people to the marketplace, people who are going to spend some money!” Theresa’s business has already been profitable enough that she is able to invest in building a website to showcase her products and services, and she’s looking forward to the Kwanza holiday party season to further boost sales.
But her first product sale is something Theresa will never forget. “It was on the street, this lady said, ‘I love that cane, where can I get one?’ It was kind of golden-colored,” she recalls. Theresa told the customer that she’d have to customize the product to her size, but the customer didn’t want to wait, and noted that she was the same height as the decorative cane proprietor. “I said okay and that was my first sale. My best advertisement is walking along with my canes!”
The women in the program come from all walks of life. “We’ve had some hard cases, but Ericka has made each and every woman feel welcome, and special,” Theresa says. “And when we get around the table, we’re just women and we connect there, first.” All kinds of issues come up when women are together talking about work-life balance in the context of running a business. In Theresa’s cohort, she found herself one of three women who had lost a close family member to gun violence. “They had never had a space to talk about that,” Ericka says. “And you just have to stop everything and address it.”
In the first four weeks of the program, the Bayview Women learn the basics of how to run a business – defining a vision, developing a marketing strategy, understanding financials. As they continue, things get more fleshed out through encouraging and uplifting peer support and professional mentoring. According to Ericka, the bond that women in the program develop is real, lasting, and helpful to their entrepreneurial aspirations. “It continues on between us,” Theresa says. “There is so much hope in this community, and so many talents and gifts.” And her own message to those who share her entrepreneurial spirit is simple and direct: “If I can do this, you can do this — and more!”