In between the launch of the capital city’s two highly-touted “fintech” accelerator programs, the Arkansas Women’s Business Center with the help of Remix Ideas has quietly jumpstarted a unique project aimed at supporting and fast-tracking a segment of the local startup community often overlooked.
The program, simply called Momentum, is a Little Rock-based five-week accelerator for early-stage, minority and women-owned companies where each participant receives $500 in technical assistance to be used towards furthering their business. In the first week of the New Year, ten cohorts from Central and Northeast Arkansas kicked off this first-of-its-kind small business odyssey for the state’s maturing startup community.
Housed at Winrock International’s headquarters in Little Rock, the AWBC was started in late 2010 to provide thousands of hours of training and access to markets and capital that entrepreneurs need to grow their companies. Chauncey Holloman Pettis, a local entrepreneur famously known for developing an African American-focused line of greeting cards and apparel called Harlem Lyrics as a teenager, came onboard as the program’s director in May 2018.
“We are so excited to offer technical assistance and entrepreneurial development to these 10 selected businesses,” said Pettis. “As we know, women business owners have less opportunities for training and business consulting and receive nearly 50% less in funding than their male counterparts. These disparities are compounded with minority women-owned businesses.”
Created by Congress in the late 1980s, the federal Women’s Business Center program was developed by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide training and counseling services to women entrepreneurs, especially those who are socially and economically disadvantaged. In Arkansas, the AWBC is funded partly through a cooperative pact with the SBA and remains part of the original network of nearly 100 centers empowering women entrepreneurs across the U.S.
But national data for women and minority-owned startups is dismal, especially those that are black- or Hispanic-run. According to a Pew Research Study released a year ago, the U.S. has transformed rapidly to an information-based economy with employment in so-called STEM related (science, technology, engineering and math) occupations outpacing overall job growth. Since 1990, STEM employment has grown 79% (9.7 million to 17.3 million) and computer jobs have seen a whopping 338% increase over the same period.
That same data shows women make up half (50%) of all U.S. workers in STEM occupations, though their presence varies widely across occupational clusters and educational levels. Women account for most healthcare practitioners and technicians but are underrepresented in several other STEM occupational clusters, particularly in computer jobs and engineering, the Pew study said.
Black and Hispanic workers continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Blacks make up 11% of the U.S. workforce overall but represent 9% of STEM workers, while Hispanics comprise 16% of the U.S. workforce but only 7% of all STEM workers. And among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, blacks are just 7% and Hispanics are 6% of the STEM workforce.
From offices in Little Rock and El Dorado on the campus of the South Arkansas Community College, Pettis said the AWBC’s Momentum project was initiated to help change those statistics under Winrock’s growing portfolio of Arkansas programs, including the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub and Innovate Arkansas.
Unlike the two fintech programs sponsored by the Little Rock Venture Center that last nearly three months, attracts applications from across the globe, and provides participants with thousands of dollars in seed capital, Pettis said the Winrock project is aimed at “early early” stage minority and women-owned companies often with little or no revenue, including some that are sole proprietors or not yet organized or incorporated.
Still, said Pettis, the project fits within the nonprofit’s global mission to empower the disadvantaged and increase economic opportunity. She added that Winrock’s staff and team of professional consultants will provide the participants with the necessary technical and financial assistance to help them get to the next stage of growth.
“This fits Winrock’s mission,” Pettis said of the namesake international nonprofit that grew out of the estate of the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller that now has annual revenue exceeding $100 million and a portfolio of more than 120 programs in nearly 50 countries.
To help find the 10 cohorts participating in the pioneering program, Winrock has teamed up with local entrepreneurial support group, Remix Ideas, to help select and recruit participants and choose the curriculum for the class. Remix CEO Benito Lubazibwa said the age-old dilemma for minority and women-owned businesses is lack of “knowledge capital” and access to funding for early-stage ventures.
“We have to create better involvement for all, especially minority businesses. Remix is especially focused on that (sector) … so they can be able to start their business, scale their companies and to be successful. So, knowledge is very important. In Africa, we say ‘if you think education is expensive, try ignorance,’” said Lubazibwa, a Tanzania native and University of Central Arkansas graduate.
Locally, Remix has been increasingly involved in several projects with Winrock, Fayetteville-based Communities Unlimited Inc., the Little Rock Tech Park and other city groups to bolster opportunities for women, urban and minority entrepreneurs in the city’s startup scene. One of those downtown projects is Remix’s eclectic Night Market at Bernice Gardens, where dozens of Main Street vendors and local startups sell and barter their wares in an international atmosphere of food, fun, music and dance.
Lubazibwa, along with his Chief Creative Officer Angel Burt, also regularly host the “Remix Pitch Challenge,” another festive fun-and-food filled event that fuses networking opportunities with a $1,000 pitch challenge for early stage companies. Following the completion of the Momentum program in a few weeks, Remix will also host a pitch challenge for some of the participants on Feb. 22 at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, which merged with Winrock in June 2016.
Below are cohort participants in Momentum:
Shalonda Michelle, Little Rock
Jacqueline Grady, Little Rock
Shernette Coleman, Little Rock
Calderon Eyllen, Little Rock
Nora Bouzihay, Jonesboro
MeChon Johnson, Sherwood
Juanenna Williams, Little Rock
Elnora Wesley, North Little Rock
Pamela Bailey, Little Rock
Tawanna Broadway, Jonesboro