Building on the promise of Richmond's small business community
In the Richmond region, small businesses that employ fewer than 250 people account for 99% of all businesses and 65% of overall employment.1 These are also the businesses that suffered disproportionately during the pandemic because many were under-resourced and unprepared for the challenges they faced.
The Community Foundation believes that strengthening our region’s small businesses is an imperative. In that spirit, we are excited to announce the formation of the Fund for Entrepreneurial Growth to help grow, strengthen and diversify our region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and support current or emerging business owners in achieving long-term success.
To help underscore the need and opportunity for this fund, we recently spoke with Melody Short and John Kemper, each of whom are deeply devoted to Richmond’s entrepreneurial community. We asked them about their passion for entrepreneurship, opportunities to uplift our local small business community, and what excites them about the Fund for Entrepreneurial Growth.
Two personal journeys to entrepreneurship
Melody is co-founder of the Richmond Night Market with Adrienne Cole Johnson, supports marketing and communications for the Metropolitan Business League, assists Virginia Community Capital with identifying Black businesses to pair with capital resources, and recently launched the Jackson Ward Collective with local community leaders Rasheeda Creighton and Kelli Lemon. Yet she gained a deep appreciation for the grit and determination of small business owners early in her career. As a representative for Sony Music, she worked closely with record store owners across the country. “These were people who also owned restaurants and gas stations. They were the lifeline of their community,” she said. “Many had a great ear for music but were not as adept at marketing or operational skills. I was so young and they quickly became part of my extended family. I started doing these things for them because, you know, you want to take care of your family.”
In a career now rich with groundbreaking ventures, trusted mentors and teachable moments, Melody has returned home. “I had been working as the brand manager for the largest Black-owned bed and breakfast chain on the East Coast for 15 years. When the pandemic hit and many of the properties temporarily closed, it gave me an opportunity to think about my long-term goals. I decided to put my whole self into Richmond and use my experiences nationally to support hometown businesses.”
John, a Community Foundation board member and local small business mentor, took a different route to entrepreneurship. “I didn’t start my own business until I was 57. It motivated me to want to help people develop entrepreneurial skills and get started on this path earlier in life.” He also began mentoring at Chamber RVA, VCU and other schools around the state through their entrepreneurship programs. “I realized that we were teaching young people how to fundraise, rather than teaching them how to start and sustain their business. I felt that meant there could be a lot of failures for start-ups.”
Over time, John has become passionate about exposing young people to entrepreneurial thinking and curriculum as early as elementary school. “I’ve been fortunate to see this implemented in a handful of local schools and community organizations. Students are fired up about this. They grab onto it.”
Opportunities for strengthening RVA’s small business community
While more and more funds are emerging across the country to provide start-up capital for small businesses, the Fund for Entrepreneurial Growth will focus on programming – the educational piece of what it takes to be successful over the long-term.
The Fund has identified three areas of investment:
Melody knows from experience that being an entrepreneur can be a lonely place, and systemic barriers continue to prevent Black business owners from accessing funding or critical supports. This is one of the issues the Jackson Ward Collective strives to solve. “I have a friend who is in the day-to-day, heads-down throes of running his business. How would he even know to come up for air because there is an opportunity?” In the first category of support, the Fund will look to support small businesses, particularly Main Street businesses, by funding programs that can connect them with local, state and federal funding, mentoring, and technology assistance.
John, who chairs the Fund’s advisory committee, points to the work of the Youth Entrepreneurship Strategy Group (YES) of the Aspen Institute, which defines the entrepreneurial mindset as a critical mix of success-oriented aptitudes of initiative, intelligent risk-taking, collaboration and opportunity recognition.2 “Those are the skills that are most critical in the shifting American economy,” says John. “Students who participate in entrepreneurial programs are more engaged in school and feel more connected to the real world. They become stronger problem solvers in all aspects of their lives, whether they start their own businesses or not.”
Richmond is fortunate to have several organizations already supporting start-ups, but there are opportunities to augment, broaden or coordinate programming to help entrepreneurs better understand how to operate a business once it is up and running. “So many of us have made mistakes, but if we can get to business owners on the front end, we can help them avoid costly mistakes,” reinforces Melody.
Why invest in the Fund for Entrepreneurial Growth?
The Fund for Entrepreneurial Growth sits at the intersection of education and workforce development, two areas where the Community Foundation is deeply invested. Following the advice and collaborative research of an advisory committee of local entrepreneurs and investors, the Fund emerged as a way to concentrate resources in a growing part of our local economy with significant potential for producing high-quality jobs and economic mobility.
For Melody, the Fund is one way for the Community Foundation and other organizations to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of the Black community. “If we are going to work towards building a just and balanced Richmond for everyone, the conversations are important so that we can get to a better place and do the work properly.”
For John, the Fund offers a way for current business owners who are successful, or who have experienced success, to have a place to get involved in philanthropy that makes sense to them. “When I sold my company is when I started my fund at the Community Foundation. It was a tax benefit to do that, but it also gave me a vehicle to support these types of initiatives that reflect my own passions.”
John is eager to see this effort succeed. Following $250,000 in seeding funding from the Community Foundation, John generously recommended a $150,000 grant from the Kemper Family Fund, his donor advised fund at the Community Foundation, to further build the Fund for Entrepreneurial Growth. The initial goal is to raise $1 million by the fall and to award the first round of grants in the fourth quarter.
“I want to see the fund succeed because it’s the right thing to do,” said John. “It’s important that people who are just getting started can see people who have come before them be successful and give back.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Fund for Entrepreneurial Growth, please visit our website or email Dena Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Virginia Employment Commission's Labor Market Information Report, Q2 2020 for the Richmond Region Planning District; 2 Youth Entrepreneurship Education in America: A Policymaker’s Action Guide, 2008, The Aspen Institute