Nonprofit helps small businesses get a jump start

One of the major obstacles to entrepreneurs who want to create money-making businesses is getting the seed money to get started. For more than a decade, a nonprofit in Jersey City has been providing it. Rising Tide Capital’s Alfa Demmellash spoke with Rhonda Schaffler.

Schaffler: Alfa, welcome.

Demmellesh: Thank you for having me.

Schaffler: Rising Tide Capital is literally helping to build small businesses in New Jersey one entrepreneur at a time. Tell us a little bit about your mission.

Demmellesh: Absolutely. We’ve existed for the past 14 years in neighborhoods and communities in northern New Jersey working with entrepreneurs to help them start and build businesses.

Schaffler: You recently received a grant from the federal government of $150,000. How will that money be used? How will it change lives?

Demmellesh: It will change lives because that money, along with money from the private sector, other foundations and supporters, goes to support about 820 entrepreneurs just this year. The SBA‘s [Small Business Administration] money enables us to provide appropriate training, entrepreneurship and business management training. And, we are also very excited that it is helping us address the needs of a population that, we feel, is extremely urgent and important in our neighborhoods, the formally incarcerated. And, so we’ve just started that work a few years ago and this resource enables us to deepen our work.

Schaffler: You raised something important in what you just said and that is it’s not just the federal government that supports your organization. You have some rather big corporations that back what you do. Why do large corporations realize it’s important to create small businesses?

Demmellesh: I think the vast many of those large corporations recognize that most new jobs come from small businesses. But, even more importantly, not only is it small in new businesses that are creating jobs, there are also a huge way in which households and neighborhoods are stabilizing their local economies. This is critical, as you know, for the tax base, for insuring viability and local job creation, particularly for those who are vulnerable.

Schaffler: It’s so hard for anyone to create a business, let alone somebody who might be low to moderate income, somebody who is incarcerated. What’s the most difficult step in the journey that they take? Is it money or is it something else?

Demmellesh: I think one of the biggest issues is having the confidence to start. One of the issues that so many of our entrepreneurs face is not even so much the access to the financial resources or even the know-how, you can find a lot of the information, but it’s access to social capital. So, one of the beautiful things that has happened with our organization is that our funders and our donors, the big corporations, they are also sending their employees to participate in virtually building a social network around our entrepreneurs. Because, building a business requires customers, partners, those who believe in you and building that base takes time and access and that’s one of the things that we’re deeply committed to.

Schaffler: How many people have gone through the program and created businesses?

Demmellesh: We have over 1,700 people who have gone through the programs. We have about 787 who are in the process that are actually getting coached and supported because it’s a long-term journey. We believe that it could take up to anywhere, 10 years, to build a solid business in a community. And then we have over 800 businesses that are up and running.

Schaffler: So, give me an example of one business or one particular client that went through the services and where they are now.

Demmellesh: Absolutely. First, we have businesses in a variety of different sectors. We have educators who have gone on to start a Montessori program, for example, in Jersey City. And this business is actually expanding and advocating for Montessori programs for early childhood across the entire public education system. We have personal trainers and those who are in health care who are building clinics, so there are a number of kinds of different businesses that are focused on well-being.

Schaffler: What have some of the people that have gone through your program told you made the most difference for them?

Demmellesh: I think it’s not being alone. The part that is so critically important, as I mentioned, is this notion of social capital that we often don’t pay attention to. We don’t recognize how essential it is for most businesses to grow, and most importantly to survive over the long-haul. And so, for our entrepreneurs, our alumni, what they tell us is that Rising Tide is the family that they’ve connected with to. Those include the most important life coaches, business coaches and those professional service providers; the accountants, the lawyers, the entire ecosystem that actually make businesses succeed and grow.

Schaffler: So, people get on a level playing field, even people who might start out more disadvantaged than others.

Demmellesh: Absolutely. Over 50 percent of our entrepreneurs have never gone to college. And, so a huge part of this is an entry point to understanding how their local economies work, what the resources are and to feel confident to approach their higher education institutions, or to walk into a bank. And, a big part of what we’re doing is we’re creating that platform where we are connecting them to these resources so they never feel alone, they always feel welcome to participate and that they can pivot. Part of the amazing opportunity that we have right now as a country, and really as a world, is we are facing this massive economic transformation. And this time of massive transformation, because of the digital, industrial evolution that is upon us, is that anyone who is a creative, a maker, who is interested in trying to have a chance, a shot, at economic opportunity can participate. And that’s why we exist and that’s why we’re so delighted that the SBA and other funders are coming alongside us to build that platform for opportunity.

Schaffler: Alfa Demmellesh, thank you so much for sharing your story with Rising Tide Capital.

Demmellesh: Thank you for having me, appreciate it.

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