When working a puzzle, it’s often helpful to start with the outside pieces, framing the image and providing some structure. In those moments when pieces fit together, a much larger, much clearer picture is revealed. This is a story of one of those moments.
Karen Barnes, executive director of Venture Café Winston-Salem, was weighing how small-business growth could impact economic mobility. Wilson Lester, executive director of Piedmont Business Capital, was exploring how his organization could provide financing to more minority and women small-business owners beyond its existing Greensboro reach.
Between the two, Barnes and Lester envisioned enough of the picture to bring together all the puzzle pieces. The result? They co-founded The ACCESS Center for Equity + Success, which opened in June 2019.
Located in Winston Salem’s thriving downtown Innovation Quarter, ACCESS is the state’s only independent MWBE center connecting business owners who are contractors, suppliers and service providers with the resources they need to grow.
The Case for ACCESS
As experienced business owners and founders, both Barnes and Lester knew firsthand the distinct challenges minority and women business owners face—from potential customers, from banks, from contract opportunities. Their experience is backed by national research showing clear patterns of exclusion from economic opportunities dating back to the days of bank redlining, an institutional and systemic practice of keeping minorities in certain neighborhoods by denying mortgages and other loans.
Economists point to the racial wealth divide as “The Road to Zero,” a dire prediction that by 2053, most minority households will have no net worth. “The ability to grow a business is a proven way to interrupt the stubborn cycle of poverty that faces our community today,” says Barnes. “Owning and growing a small business creates generational wealth, new jobs and perhaps more importantly, thriving families and neighborhoods.”
While government statistics show a healthy 38 percent growth in the number of African American owned businesses, they also reveal lagging revenues compared to non-minority firms.
“We wanted to disrupt the pattern and create a virtuous circle that perpetuates net new wealth creation,” Lester adds. “If we don’t do something to improve access to knowledge, opportunities and operating capital, this pattern will simply continue until we reach the bottom.”
The ACCESS Center provides a continuum of services that open doors, which have been historically hard for MWBEs to crack. Often state and federal certifications such as the Historically Underutilized Business (HUB) credential give MWBEs a way in to larger companies who offer contracts and who may have supplier diversity programs. Often these programs set targets for MWBE participation, but sometimes getting those certifications can be complicated.
“Just understanding the process is a challenge for some business owners,” Lester says. “In addition, many communities and local governments don’t have or have limited resources to assist businesses in obtaining certifications.”
That’s where the ACCESS Center steps in. Community Manager Hasani Mitchell leads the effort, working one-on-one with qualified business owners to assess their businesses, provide coaching and walk them through the certification process. “This isn’t a place for those who want to start a business—there are plenty of other resources for that in the community already. This is where we work with existing businesses who are contractors, suppliers and service providers.”
Before joining the ACCESS Center, Mitchell worked for the City of Winston-Salem as a diversity compliance specialist in the Business Inclusion & Advancement department, giving him an insider’s perspective on obstacles MWBEs face.
“One of the really valuable services we’re building is connecting companies with supplier diversity goals and contracts with qualified, certified MWBE businesses here in Winston-Salem,” Mitchell says.
“Often these larger companies aren’t really plugged in and find it difficult to connect with MWBEs. We’re reaching out to both sides of the equation to help them connect—bridging the gap between supply and demand, between company with a contract and potential vendor,” Mitchell says.
Once that connection is made and a contract is drawn up, the ACCESS Center, through the resources of partner Piedmont Business Capital, can underwrite a loan providing the needed operating capital to complete the deal. As a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), the organization lends money to people who cannot traditionally receive funding from mainstream banks. “We’ve already capitalized $200,000 in loans, and we have more in the pipeline,” Lester says. “We have a goal to pump a half-million dollars in the local economy in the next few months with vision to maintain a million-dollar revolving fund for MWBEs within the next year.”
Fitting the Pieces Together
To make the ACCESS Center a reality, each of the partners brought pieces of the puzzle to the table—pieces that came from their unique journeys to encouraging and supporting MWBEs.
Lester and Barnes met at an entrepreneurial event in Winston-Salem in 2017. Lester was looking for groups in the Winston-Salem area to partner with on mission-aligned activities. He was familiar with the Venture Café platform and what the organization had accomplished here and in other cities.
One early summer afternoon in 2018, the pair sat down in Bailey Power Plant to share what each organization was all about. “I shared with Karen how we have a specialty in helping support, grow, develop and capitalize MWBEs and that we felt like the greatest opportunity right now to create wealth in those communities was through the support and development of businesses,” Lester says.
“When I unpacked for Karen what it was that Piedmont Business Capital did, she—like a bolt of lightning—connected the dots with a grant request,” Lester recalls. The grant, funded by Innovation Quarter developer Wexford Science & Technology, was set to provide two years of operational seed money and physical space in the Bailey Power Plant for an initiative aimed at amplifying and accelerating MWBE businesses.
Barnes chimes in. “I thought, ‘Venture Café has built a great community and established trust. We want to do more to help local MWBEs beyond Thursday night programming.” Turning to Lester, she continues. “We should totally partner on this grant.”
“You want to expand to Winston-Salem, you have access to capital, and you’ve got certification training. Together, that’s the total package.’’ And it was just like that,” Barnes snaps her fingers.
They spent the next few hours brainstorming what the partnership could be and what assets each of their organizations could bring to the equation.
Barnes and Lester weren’t the only ones inspired by the matchup.
Will Partin, senior director for Wexford Science & Technology, and Evan Raleigh, assistant city manager for the City of Winston-Salem, were part of the selection committee that awarded the grant. The idea originated with Derwin Montgomery, then a city council member, as the vision for Bailey Power Plant developed. Montgomery, himself an entrepreneur, wanted to ensure that everyone in the community would have a chance to participate in economic growth, particularly minority- and women-owned businesses.
How the ACCESS Center Helps
Meet Hasani Mitchell. When you walk into the ACCESS Center, in the Innovation Suites at Bailey Power Plant, he’s the first face you see. As the ACCESS Center community manager, Mitchell oversees the day-to-day operations of the Center, liaises with community partners, performs intakes and guides MWBEs through the ACCESS services that best fit their businesses.
When a minority or female business owner walks through the door, Mitchell guides them through the ACCESS experience. “We get a snapshot of their business and identify the best ways the ACCESS Center can assist them,” Mitchell says.
A number of certifications exist for MWBEs to get a leg up on landing contracts and bids. Some of these certifications help communities and governments understand if they’re meeting inclusion goals. The ACCESS Center helps business owners become aware of certifications that can help their businesses (Minority- and Women-Business Entities, Historically Under-utilized Businesses and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises) and walks them through the process of getting certified, including training.
The ACCESS team is reaching out to local companies with supplier diversity goals and contracts to make the connection with certified MWBE businesses. Companies who would like to be paired with qualified contractors should reach out to Mitchell. Once a connection is made, contract negotiations can begin.
Once MWBE businesses are matched with contracts, they may need financing to complete the job. Through Piedmont Business Capital, business owners get financing for equipment, materials and labor to fulfill their contract.
The ACCESS Center hosts programming and technical assistance such as bonding, insurance and financing. Every third Thursday, the ACCESS Center also leads programming at Venture Cafe.
But the specifics of the idea were still vague. “There were a thousand different paths that this initiative could take,” Partin says. “We were looking for a knowledgeable partner who could help figure out what the best path forward was.”
Committee members were impressed with the joint application from Piedmont Business Capital and Venture Café Winston-Salem. “While Venture Café Winston-Salem is relatively young as an organization, Venture Café Global has been around for many years and has a proven track record of having real impact in issues like these,” Partin says.
The partnership with Piedmont Business Capital provided an additional level of service and opportunity for direct impact. “Not only would end users get the mentoring and the networking of Venture Café, but also access to the capital that Piedmont Business Capital provides,” Partin continues. “We believe that the right organizations were selected. They have the expertise, know-how and drive to lead this Center.”
As leader of the City’s efforts to promote the inclusion of minority- and women-owned businesses in contracts, Raleigh is familiar with the need for supporting these businesses.
“The City has its own efforts, but they really multiply when you bring more voices into the conversation,” Raleigh says. “That’s the beauty of the ACCESS Center providing another resource; any additional resources that can be brought to bear for our local MWBE businesses can only be viewed as a positive.”
Raleigh took another factor into consideration. “What made the Piedmont Business Capital-Venture Café bid stand out among the rest was the creativity they brought to the table. What they proposed to do was unique. Piedmont Business Capital has a long-standing track record of providing financial assistance to MWBEs in the Greensboro area, and this venture allows them to extend their reach into Winston-Salem,” Raleigh says. “Venture Café has been a spark plug in our community, and this partnership creates a dynamic opportunity for minority- and women-owned small businesses.”
Completing the Picture
With most of the pieces now place, the ACCESS Center is already making an impact. The Center hosted its grand opening this past summer and is already running programs and events.
As the ACCESS Center grows, the organization is looking for other partners to bring other pieces of the puzzle. “We still need some investment and partnership to realize the full vision of the Center,” Barnes says. “We are looking for partners who will raise their hands and say, ‘We share the vision, we support the vision, we want to partner with you to bring the ACCESS Center to full capacity.’ We’re looking for funding partners, companies with contracts and supplier diversity programs, and existing MWBE businesses we can serve through coaching, certification training, contract matching and loans.”