From Micro to Mainstream
Fund 17 is launching a mentorship program this month to help guide micro-entrepreneurs to the next level.
From the farmer selling watermelons out of his pickup to the proverbial shade tree mechanic to the musician playing solo violin on a street corner with her case open for tips, our local society is full of micro-entrepreneurs. However, they exist far outside of the mainstream economy, to put it mildly, let alone any type of entrepreneurial support system.
Enter a five-year-old nonprofit organization called Fund 17, whose entire focus is assisting these “informal enterprise owners” in becoming organized, official and profitable businesses.
Founded by Haley Burns while she was still a student at Tulane University, Fund 17 views these informal entrepreneurs not only as potential entrants into the mainstream economy, but also as potential agents of change in their communities.
“Once these individuals are economically empowered in their own lives, they are able to take steps to support other people in their community,” Burns pointed out, citing the likelihood that when such businesses reach the point of hiring, it will be their friends and neighbors who get the jobs. “Beyond that, they are setting an example of what entrepreneurship can look like and can do.”
This last point is a critical one, as many studies have indicated that one significant barrier to entrepreneurism in disadvantaged communities is that there are simply no role models available.
Fund 17 uses a mix of targeted community outreach and good old fashioned word of mouth to engage its clientele. Once connected, participants in the program receive a lot of very foundational information and assistance. Basic elements of business such as licenses, accounting practices, social media and paying taxes simply do not exist in the informal economy. In no small number of cases, the business owners do not even have bank accounts. Pricing is based on whom the entrepreneur is serving and what their immediate cash needs may be.
“It’s not that they have never thought of these kinds of things,” Burns said. “It might be in the back of their minds, but most of them have never sat down and thought it all out.”
While some of the people Fund 17 contacts prefer to remain outside of the mainstream (“They say, ‘I don’t want Uncle Sam in my life,’” reported Burns with a laugh), a sizeable majority are eager to take their enterprise to the next levels. To help them get there, the program thus far has primarily used college students in a fellowship program to provide one-on-one guidance. However, this month Fund 17 is launching a mentorship program that will bring more real-life experience into the picture.
Not surprisingly, the transition from casual to official can be challenging. “There are basic behavioral changes that have to take place in moving from an informal to a formal business,” Burns explained. “Moving from a cash-based operation to having bank accounts, formal accounting and listing expenses is a huge step. Going from doing what you do whenever you have a chance to do it to having formal hours of operation is another.
“They have to see their business as an entity outside of themselves,” she continued, “and sometimes it’s not immediately rewarding. It’s a completely different way of thinking to consider spending time making your business happen instead of simply generating income that goes straight into your pocket.”
Burns is completely committed to staying the course, as evidenced by the new mentorship program. She sees new futures for her program participants and their communities, and has a real gift for passing that vision on to her clients.
“We want to give them the tools to turn this informal business into something that will support their livelihood,” she stated. “Not just financially, but what they want to be and to achieve in their lives.” n
Are you a small business owner willing to provide guidance to a budding entrepreneur?
To be part of the Fund 17 mentorship program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.