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Detroit Homecoming event touts the benefits of investing in black business, supporting black entrepreneurs

Jill Ford (right), who heads the City of Detroit’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiatives, interviews Kesha Cash, CEO and founder of Impact America Fund at Detroit Homecoming 2017.

Detroit may be an overwhelmingly black city, but it is not by any means an overwhelmingly successful city for that majority population. Two of the primary looming hurdles that need to be dealt with in order to make this city a success story for all or its residents are the quality of its public schools and access to capital and resources for black entrepreneurs.

Because without access to a decent education, and without a significant stake in the local economy, the notion of black progress in Detroit is a non-starter.

Last week, on the final day of the Detroit Homecoming, an event which encourages active participation from the city’s expats in the city’s growth and rebirth, a roomful of black expats and local business leaders and entrepreneurs met during a breakfast event held at The factory in Corktown to discuss some of the issues critical to the local entrepreneurial community, and to hear from those who have managed to make the leap from struggling small business to high growth business with potential for expansion.

Not surprisingly, the common denominator is money. Too many local black businesses don’t have the access they need to the capital they need to expand, especially when compared to white companies of similar size. Detroit has more than its fair share of black entrepreneurs and small businesses, proportionally more than just about any other major city in the country. But the vast majority of these businesses can’t attract any investment, which means they are perpetually stuck in survival mode where they will never be able to hire more than one other person – maybe.

But just think about how the city’s landscape could change if more of these small businesses had the resources they needed to grow – and to hire more workers. Because it is the engine of small business that propels this city – and much of the nation. Prop up the small business owners and you prop up the city’s economy and open the doors of recovery to a much broader cross-section of the city, not just a few fortunate zip codes.

 “We need to make sure for our entrepreneurs that we have access to grant funding, access to loan funding. And access to equity funding,” said Jill Ford, Mayor Duggan’s Special Advisor, who heads the City of Detroit’s innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives.

“And so as we look at the gap we have in Detroit, and also nationally, as we find entrepreneurs, and often minority entrepreneurs, that are fighting to get capital for those high growth companies, equity capital is the bridge to make those thing happen.”

Carla Walker Miller, president and CEO of Walker Miller Energy Services (shown in the above video), offers herself as a prime example of what can happen when a deserving small business receives sufficient attention – and investment. Miller was one of the first beneficiaries of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, which offered her not only investment but guidance as well.

“I am a 17-year-old business that’s an overnight success,” she said to appreciative laughter from the crowd. “For businesses we’re always looking for money. No matter what we’re trying to do, we’re always looking for money. …Anyone who’s in the Detroit ecosystem right now … there are programs out the wazoo. You can get trained, you can find space, you can pitch, you can plan. But getting those dollars is still an evasive prospect.

“We all have a totally different vision of who we can be. Seventeen years in the business, and when I started out we had average annual revenues of $4 million. Our average annual revenue is now $25 million, and we expect to exceed that in 2018. So it has really put me on the map. Some people call me the poster child for Goldman Sachs? I’m happy to be the poster child for Goldman Sachs, because one of the most important things it has done is it has given us access. The reason I’m here right now is I went through the Goldman Sachs program. So when I talk about access, it’s not just access to money, it’s access to people who know what’s going on.”

Miller said it is also essential to be honest with themselves – and with the younger generation of aspiring black entrepreneurs following in their footsteps – about how difficult the job of being an entrepreneur really is. Tell the young people the truth so they know what it is they’re getting into when they say they want to work for themselves and start their own business. Because being self-employed ain’t as sexy as it’s cracked up to be.

“When we’re at events like this, we’re funny, we’re coy, we’re interesting, and then we get together at night and we cry, borrow $50 from each other, we’re looking for a place to stay, and we’re just trying to figure something out. So that is our real reality,” said Miller. “Our reality is the ugly work that we do every day. Ninety percent of the work I do every day is ugly work; I’m in my house shoes, I’m in my office.”

Kesha Cash, CEO and founder of Impact America Fund, was the featured speaker at the breakfast event. Cash shared her experiences as someone who grew up poor, but poor in the midst of the very wealthy community of Orange County, California. As a consequence she benefited from excellent schools, which prepared her for entry to U.C. Berkeley where she majored in mathematics. Upon graduation from Berklee, Cash went to work on Wall Street and gained first hand experience witnessing and working on billion dollar deals, as well as experiencing the fringe benefits of New York’s high life, “getting in and out of black cars, going to some of the finest restaurants.”

That was fine for awhile, but ultimately it was not enough. Cash wanted to take what she had learned and give back, realizing that most in her community – and even in her own family – did not enjoy anywhere near the access to which she had been exposed. From her website bio:

“A Columbia MBA and applied mathematics student from UC Berkeley, Kesha spent the first decade of her career as a mergers and acquisitions analyst at Merrill Lynch in NYC, an operational consultant to inner-city small businesses in Los Angeles, and an impact investments associate at Bridges Ventures in the UK. In 2010, Kesha co-founded a $5M initiative focused on investing in mission-driven entrepreneurs of color, Jalia Ventures, with serial impact investor, Josh Mailman. She also supported Josh with managing Serious Change, LP. Kesha took her vision to the next level by founding IAF (Impact America Fund).”

Cash wanted to provide that access to capital and resources to companies that she knew were normally left out of the equation.

James Norman, co-founder of Pilotly, agreed that one of the keys to community rebirth is bringing necessary know-how back to that community.

“This is an asymmetry of knowledge, it’s not a lack of talent. And so if you get the knowledge, you go to where you see it working and you bring it back and you really work in that light? You can build success for Detroit,” he said.

Miller took it a step further when she said, “How can you be in a place like Detroit with all the spirit and the love that Detroit has, and the appreciation for the struggle, and not try to recruit, and train, and cultivate, and invest in Detroiters? Why not?”

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