How Idea Foundry’s Equitable Entrepreneurship Program Supports Early-Stage Small Businesses
Updated: Jan 25
We recently sat down with Jason Jones, Director of Entrepreneurship at Idea Foundry. In his role, Jason converts entrepreneurial ideas into job-creating businesses. As the Director of the Equitable Entrepreneurship Program, Jason connects immigrant and minority-owned businesses to the technical assistance, capital, and network all entrepreneurs need to succeed.
Let’s hear from Jason about breaking down the barriers for first-generation entrepreneurs and the insights behind the Equitable Entrepreneurship program!
Tell me a bit about the mission of Idea Foundry and what your organization does?
Idea Foundry is an economic development organization. Our mission is to create jobs for Western PA by supporting the creation of new businesses and supporting established businesses. At Idea Foundry, I'm the Director of Entrepreneurship where I oversee the Equitable Entrepreneurship Program.
In our opinion, this is one of the best programs out there for early-stage small businesses, can we hear more about it?
The Equitable Entrepreneurship Program is an accelerator where we work with idea-stage and existing small businesses for three months to provide businesses with transformative one-on-one attention and capital to minority and immigrant entrepreneurs to empower them to create at least five jobs in the next five years.
We recognized that minority and immigrant populations are typically left out of the financial conversation, especially when it comes to getting access to capital and access to networks. What we try to do is open up both financial capital and our network for these entrepreneurs.
Let's talk about one business that has gone through the program? Any favorite success stories you like to talk about?
One of my favorites is Vickey of Vickey's Soul Grill Catering. She graduated from our program in December 2018. Her vision was to make healthy soul food, with less salt and a wide array of vegetarian/vegan options.
During the program we helped her with menu creation, creating a financial model, set her entity up through our attorney, set her up with Quickbooks. We also connected her to Launchbox’s shared commercial kitchen space out of Penn State Mckeesport to launch her business. After 7 months at the Launchbox, we're helping her navigate the process to open up a brick and mortar and look into distributing her scone sauce at local retailers.
In less than a year, she went from idea stage to a growth-minded established business. In her community, there wasn't a ton of opportunity for her to see other businesses flourish at least not in the restaurant space. Now she has a network of restaurant owners around her. She has an architect helping her with her buildout, a dedicated attorney, and even the mayor of Mckeesport is keeping up with her plans. She's insulated with a team that she previously didn't have.
You briefly touched on the topic of capital. I know that your program offers $5,000 in cash, plus $5,000 additionally in services to entrepreneurs. Can you talk more about why capital plays a role in the program?
Frankly, I think folks in the idea-stage need access to capital. For the businesses we’re working with we’re usually the first source of investment. The $5,000 patient capital loan is not enough to fund a business for the next 10 years. But it's enough to make sure that if these businesses need to be structured correctly, they can hire an attorney or CPA to help them as needed. You can get inventory or equipment to help you bolster your business. Idea Foundry is one of the few places in Pittsburgh that provides lifestyle businesses this crucial source of capital.
Why is the Equitable Entrepreneurship Program so important for the Western PA region? What are you doing that others aren't?
What differentiates us from other organizations is that hybrid model. The blending of capital and in-depth technical assistance. In some spaces, you can get capital with a little bit of technical assistance or a lot of technical assistance and no capital. At Idea Foundry you can get both.
This is particularly important for minority and immigrant populations who may not come from a space where their family or someone they know owns a business. If you’re part of that first generation or that first person you know to start a business, it can feel like being the lone wolf. Here we're creating a community that's helping these entrepreneurs understand the ins and outs of starting and growing a business that goes on to create jobs.
What lessons can other municipalities and nonprofit organizations learn from Idea Foundry's Equitable Entrepreneurship Program?
I think one of the biggest things that we've gotten right is that we took the time to understand the ecosystem and we stick to it. Oftentimes organizations want to do it all and that can water things down. Every organization does something particularly well and we at Idea Foundry point businesses in their direction.
For example, if someone doesn't have a fully baked idea, maybe they're a better fit for the Small Business Development Center and then they can come to the Equitable Entrepreneurship program. If they're looking to expand, maybe we're not the best fit, maybe Honeycomb is. It's essential to understand the ecosystem and move away from working in silos.
We totally agree. That’s why we want to highlight the awesome work that your program does with small businesses! How can local businesses get involved?
Applications for the Equitable Entrepreneurship Program are live right now and close on August 18th. Any minority or immigrant-owned business (even if it’s just at the idea stage) that feels that after sustaining themselves after 5 years can create 5 jobs is a good fit for the program. We typically work with lifestyle businesses such as salons, t-shirt companies, restaurants, education companies, to convenience stores - it runs the gamut. Whether or not a business is selected for the program, we walk through our decision with them and point them to helpful resources for their business.