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Greenville Business Magazine

Spartanburg Group Focused On Aiding Micro-Entrepreneurs

Nov 10, 2021 11:06AM ● By John C. Stevenson

A group in Spartanburg is working with entrepreneurs to help bring new businesses and business opportunities to underdeveloped communities in and around the city.

Start:ME Spartanburg is an entrepreneur accelerator program that focuses on helping small startups gain a foothold in the Northside community. It is a collaborative effort between USC Upstate and the Northside Development Group that began in 2016 and is based on a program begun in Atlanta.

“The Northside is part of a network of communities called the Purpose-Built Network that is trying to take underdeveloped communities and redevelop them,” explained Elise Harvey, an assistant professor of marketing at USC Upstate’s George Dean Johnson Jr. College of Business and Economics and Start:ME Spartanburg co-director. “Through that, we were connected with Emory in Atlanta; they worked with a purpose-built community in Atlanta on the original Start:ME program.”

Spartanburg is one of only five communities in the nation that have already adopted the Start:ME model: There are three in the Atlanta area; one in Cincinnati; and Start:ME Spartanburg, according to Harvey.

Start:ME had its first class in 2017. The intensive 14-week program includes business training and even offers a business loan of $5,000 to three participants who are selected by the entire group.

“We wanted to take entrepreneurship and not look at it from the perspective of how do we get the next Facebook, how do we get the next entrepreneur who’s going to employ 100 people in the community,” Harvey said. “We said, instead of finding that person or those few people, let’s try to find the many people who have ideas and side hustles and side gigs and part-time things and hobbies – let’s find those people and build them up from the ground up.”

Harvey described it as the opposite of top-down development.

“We wanted to find those people and build them up, and looking at economic development that way,” she said. “We wanted to find the jobs that are there in the community and figure out how to help those individuals build up their businesses so they can support their families, and maybe a couple of other employees.

“If we can get a lot of those,” Harvey explained, “that would be a great way to build up the community from the inside out.”

Harvey said entrepreneurs require three things to be able to successfully connect with and become a part of the larger business community: knowledge, mentoring and capital. To that end, she said, Start:ME brings in a variety of speakers to help the budding entrepreneurs understand how to create a business plan, the legal aspects to starting a business, how to build a relationship with financial institutions, and other aspects of running a business.

“A lot of people run a side hustle but don’t really have any idea how to figure out who their customer is,” Harvey said. “Financials are like reading Greek. So part of it is just getting the knowledge to the entrepreneurs. So we run a 14-week program, and really, about half of those weeks are focused on really increasing the knowledge of the entrepreneurs in a wide variety of areas.”

In addition, each entrepreneur works with two business mentors. “They become a team throughout those 14 weeks,” Harvey said. “They are cheerleaders, they act as sounding boards and all of those things. That helps the entrepreneurs get connected to a lot of things.”

When it comes to raising money, Harvey said, “one of the hardest things for our students to do is raise capital. And we’re working with small entrepreneurs. They’re not looking for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but what’s interesting is when you look at (large banks), they’re not really looking to give loans to small entrepreneurs.”

During the 14-week class, each member is expected to save $100, which Start:ME then matches with $400, giving each participant a $500 stake. In addition, at the end of each class, participants vote on which three class members will receive one of three shares (up to $5,000) of a $15,000 loan pool offered through Start:ME.

“The very unique thing about it is that it’s voted upon by different criteria … by the entrepreneurs themselves. It’s a peer-based loan pool, so it doesn’t matter on their credit score, their credit history, their background – it doesn’t matter. If they are in that top three, they get the loan.”