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First Dollar Program calendar    Jun 01, 2021

Q+A with Russell: A Place of Promise

Learn about the First Dollar Program, a new initiative providing early-stage capital to Louisville's Black and Brown entrepreneurs. Discover how Russell: A Place of Promise supports these entrepreneurs and the importance of supporting black and brown businesses.

We recently launched the First Dollar Program to provide early-stage capital to Louisville’s Black and Brown entrepreneurs. Through partnerships, Render Capital will provide critical “first dollar” grants to early-stage entrepreneurs who lack capital access due to historic and systemic inequality. The First Dollar program provides $5,000 grants to businesses at the earliest stage of business development—when capital investment is most critical. In this Q&A series with our First Dollar Program partners, we will introduce the four local, black-led partner organizations. Their close work with entrepreneurs makes them vital in facilitating the disbursement of the grant funds. We ask each partner about their work, recent wins and the future of their organization. Here is what Russell: A Place Of Promise had to say:

Tell us a little bit about Russell: A Place of Promise.

Russell: A Place of Promise (RPOP) is a justice-based initiative being incubated by Cities United and Louisville Metro Government, with fiscal sponsorship by the Community Foundation of Louisville. Our vision of building Black wealth through investment without displacement includes sharing decision-making and leadership with residents through an innovative stakeholder agreement written in partnership with Russell residents, connecting individuals and families to resources leading to homeownership and traditional and nontraditional business ownership; building pathways and opportunities to strengthen existing Black-owned businesses; creating innovative connections to career-track jobs; and community ownership of neighborhood assets. 

We believe that people are assets to their community, creative, capable and whole, and partners who deserve and are ready for new, equitable investments that build increased levels of Black ownership and wealth; place-based investments require connection and accountability and must add more value than they extract, fairly balance risks and rewards among all stakeholders including residents and give options for multiple types of resident ownership to guard against displacement; relationships are central and critical and should precede community development work to ensure that residents are placed in the position of true partners and are able to participate in decision-making and ownership that leads to long-term project sustainability.

How do you support black and brown entrepreneurs in the Louisville/Southern Indiana region?

RPOP’s small business strategy is focused on creating new, resident-owned businesses and strengthening existing Black-owned businesses to help them remain in Russell while supporting Black-owned businesses that serve the West End of Louisville. Black-owned businesses in Russell are predominantly Main Street businesses and family-supporting services that are absolutely essential to the culture and economy of the neighborhood.

To strengthen existing Black-owned businesses in Russell, RPOP created the Russell Small Business Accelerator, a business development program that features an instructor cohort made up exclusively of Black business owners. The accelerator covers topics identified through monthly RPOP Small Business Meet-ups that took place before the COVID-19 pandemic and the more intensive experience of working closely with these businesses during the pandemic. RPOP offered small incentives to each business that completed the accelerator to implement a personalized business solution that helped build resilience, strengthen operations and promote equity. We were also very happy that all the members of our first Accelerator cohort were accepted into AMPED’s Russell Tech Business Incubator and have the chance to receive additional support and resources through that program.

As a First Dollar Program partner, you’re working with businesses at the earliest stages of business development. What trends have you seen in early-stage funding for black and brown entrepreneurs?

One of the many reasons we are so excited to be part of the First Dollar Program is that Black and brown entrepreneurs don’t always have access to the same kinds of “friends and family”-style startup funds that white entrepreneurs can secure. One of the impacts of systemic racism is the wealth gap – the idea that Black and brown families don’t have the same level of savings and access to liquid assets as white families because of generations worth of policy decisions that cut them out of financial services and wealth-building opportunities such as homeownership. The impact of all of this is that there are not the same opportunities for Black and brown entrepreneurs to receive a loan or a gift from a family member or close friend to start a business. In fact, SCORE, a volunteer-based nonprofit partner of the Small Business Administration focused on mentorship and training for small business owners and entrepreneurs, reports that only around 15% of Black entrepreneurs are able to access startup capital from friends and family members. We’ve also seen that once Black and brown businesses get past that critical startup phase, it can be challenging for them to access traditional debt financing. The same issues are in play here – lack of collateral can be a major barrier to securing loans, and if you don’t have a home with equity of a certain amount, you’re much less likely to be able to get a traditional bank loan.

How will First Dollar funds support your work?

We plan to use these funds to support Black entrepreneurs who are starting or scaling a business. Our goal is to identify folks from Russell who can take advantage of this opportunity. These funds will pair with the next cohort of our Small Business Accelerator to give early-stage business owners a leg up when it comes to getting their business off the ground.

Why is it important to support the development of black and brown businesses specifically?

Locally, around 2% of Louisville businesses are Black-owned, though Black residents make up over 15% of Louisville’s population. Black business owners are younger and include more women than the general business population. Business ownership represents an opportunity for greater equity, representation and wealth creation, and for Black and brown owners, a chance to provide goods and services in ways that represent the values, history, diversity and excellence of their communities. 

When it comes to Russell, Black businesses are part of the neighborhood’s legacy and identity. When we look at Russell’s business history, it’s impossible to overstate the significance of its nickname “the Harlem of the South.” This was a place of great prosperity, vibrancy and culture, and much of that came from the Black-owned businesses that once existed on Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Blvd).

How has the work of your organization shifted in the last year due to COVID and increased public attention toward racial injustice?

Russell: A Place of Promise believes Black lives have always mattered, and that the loss of life that comes at the hands of state violence- including police shootings and in-custody deaths, the use of the military against civilians and policies that lead to negative outcomes affecting health, livelihood and life- is a loss of our collective potential. Russell: A Place of Promise calls for solutions and a city and school budgets that prioritize communities, families and individual development over excessive funding of law and order. We believe that we should listen to those most negatively impacted by current systems of power to design and implement changes to bring about a more just future. 

Can you share an example of a recent “win” for Russell: A Place of Promise?

We were so excited earlier this year when one of our advisory board members, Lafesa Johnson, was able to open a storefront for her incredible bakery / sweet shop, Hip Hop Sweet Shop. She took her business from a super popular dessert truck to a bakery and storefront in the heart of Russell, something she’d been working on for a very long time, but not something she’d planned to do in the middle of a global pandemic. Hip hop culture inspires the space and treats, highlighting the nostalgic people and places that make it a worldwide loved genre. Lafesa makes you feel welcome and has the patience of a saint for folks who need a few minutes to figure out what they want to order. The candy slushies sparkle like edible jewelry; the caramel cake will leave you wishing you’d ordered a second piece.

What preconceived notions exist in your line of work? 

One major preconceived notion that we hear about all the time is the idea that communities and individuals who have fewer resources or opportunities are somehow to blame for the condition – that they don’t want success as badly or don’t value whatever quality or action is perceived as the key to gaining momentum in a particular area, and the choices they make are bad ones based on some internal flaw. Look at just about any government system that offers benefits on condition that recipients participate in training – financial literacy counseling, parenting classes, cooking or nutrition classes for example, and you’ll see this preconceived notion at work. RPOP believes that people are creative, resourceful and whole, and that it is systems of oppression, systemic racism to be precise, at the root of what many people believe are outcomes stemming from individual choice. 

What would you say to individuals/organizations that want to support the work of Russell: A Place of Promise?

Get in where you fit in! Seriously though – we have room for everyone to support us. Get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!

What’s on the horizon for Russell: A Place of Promise in 2021? And what gives you hope for the future?

This fall, RPOP will launch resident-led workgroups to focus on its core areas and wealth-building strategies, housing, workforce/business and community ownership of neighborhood assets. We’re planning some fun community-focused events to celebrate Russell and its history, we’re releasing an intergenerational activity book, the Ujamaa Workbook, to support family-centered conversations about principles of cooperative economics and generational wealth while celebrating some amazing Black business owners who represent those themes. And of course, we’re going to launch another cohort of our Small Business Accelerator!

Check out Russell: A Place Of Promise to learn how you can get involved!

We envision a robust and thriving regional economy where entrepreneurs see the Midwest and South as a place they can find appropriate risk capital necessary for them to start and grow.

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