Posts by Author: Deonna Anderson

Fund Wants to Show North Omaha Entrepreneurs “Nebraska Nice”

Downtown Omaha (Photo by Shannon Ramos)

When Dayana Lopez and her family launched Maria Bonita with one food truck in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2009, they weren’t ready for the challenges they would face as business owners.

“It’s a bit harder than anyone would expect,” Lopez says, noting that she knew about some resources for businesses back then. “You come to find out that it’s just one aspect.”

Since then, the Lopez family has expanded their Mexican cuisine offerings with a brick-and-mortar restaurant, another food truck, and catering. They’ve employed about a dozen full- and part-time employees over the years.

When they first decided to invest in a food truck, Lopez says, they were overwhelmed by the permits they needed to obtain and the hoops they had to jump through. At that time, the city of Omaha didn’t have established rules for food trucks.

“They say ‘Nebraska Nice’ but it’s Nebraska hard,” she says.

However, as their business has expanded, they’ve found an easier path to capital, thanks in part to the Nebraska Enterprise Fund, a community development financial institution (CDFI) based in nearby Oakland, Nebraska. CDFIs focus on lending in underinvested communities, and NEF helped Maria Bonita with financing for the second food truck. (The family also took out loans from First National Bank.)

“It has been a critical funding stream for Maria Bonita,” Lopez says, citing NEF’s approachable application process.

Maria Bonita is just one Omaha small business that NEF has helped. For two years in a row, during the 2017 and 2016 fiscal years, the CDFI has made over 100 loans, totaling over $3 million each year, according to Jim Reiff, executive director.

Small business owners, especially those who are new to entrepreneurship, face several challenges when it comes to funding and banking.

“And a lot of people have poor credit reports,” Reiff says, noting that sometimes a person’s bad credit is not based on what they did. “Sometimes … nobody’s ever taught them about credit before, so how are you going to know how to take care of your credit report, if you’ve never been taught about it? It’s actually, ironically, because of a thing they didn’t do.”

Another challenge Reiff mentions is lack of experience, but that isn’t always straightforward.

Reiff recalls working with a pair of clients who were running a security company. The business partners had over 30 years of military and police department experience but the bank said that wasn’t enough.

That’s where NEF (and CDFIs around the U.S.) comes in. In June, NEF received almost $700,000 in loan and grant money from Wells Fargo, to support small businesses.

“We’re going to use this money for North Omaha, which is a traditionally underserved part of the city of Omaha,” Reiff says. North Omaha has historically been home to a large black population.

“The banks, still, are having a hard time getting money into the community, whereas someone like us can kind of get money going in businesses that they maybe can’t get,” Reiff says. “Hopefully, in five years they will be able to … we’re not here to compete with the bank, we’re here to augment what the bank can do.”

NEF also offers business and financial planning, mentorship and training, including a five-session program that assists clients with acceleration.

“At some point, you have to be able to sell more so our focus is on that,” Reiff says, noting that there are only so many costs businesses can cut.

NEF doesn’t have endless resources, so if a business needs help that the organization doesn’t provide, it will refer the owner to a collaborator like the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, Small Business Association or Catholic Charities.

“We know we’re not perfect at everything and if somebody can do it better, it’s silly for us to do it,” Reiff says. “And it’s super silly to duplicate services.”

In July, Reiff told the Omaha World-Herald that the ideal outcome for NEF clients is to eventually grow enough that they show up on banks’ radars.

“We’d like them to be able to walk into a bank and the bank to take them serious for what they are. And that’s being a viable business so if they need funding, we’d prefer that the banks cover the funding,” Reiff says. “What they can do for a business is three steps higher than what we can do for a business.”

 

Data for Black Lives Wants to Connect Scientists and Activists

When Yeshimabeit Milner was a teenager, growing up in Miami, she learned what injustice looks like. After an administrator put a high school student in a headlock, and police officers responded to other students during a protest by hitting them with batons and slamming them to the ground, she and her peers began to organize. They surveyed 600 students about their experiences with suspensions, arrests and police brutality and turned their findings into a comic book.

Milner has been an organizer ever since. After attending Brown University, she returned to Miami to work for the Power U Center, a grassroots organization fighting for liberation of all people. Most recently, she served as the movement building campaign manager at Color of Change. She’s a board member for the Highlander Research and Education Center, a nonprofit organization that supports activists through training and education.

“All of those experiences led up to Data for Black Lives,” she says, describing the organization she founded with Lucas Mason-Brown, a mathematician at MIT, in August 2016. “Data for Black Lives seeks to mobilize scientists around racial justice issues by really building a bridge between data scientists, software engineers, mathematicians, et cetera, and people working in and on the front lines of black communities.

Milner wants to use data to identify issues to tackle in the black community. She hopes to work with the growing number of chief data officers in cities across the United States too, to figure out how to better use data to address issues ranging from displacement to economic opportunity.

“Our fake Data for Black Lives tagline is ‘Men lie. Women lie. Numbers don’t.’ Like Jay-Z says,” Milner explains. “People can lie but the data speaks for itself and the numbers tell a story.”

In November, D4BL will convene community members, organizers, policymakers and data scientists at MIT’s Media Lab to discuss racial inequities and segregation in Boston. Milner and Mason-Brown (who are receiving some support as 2017 Echoing Green fellows) hope the three-day conference will become an annual event.

For D4BL, data science is an interdisciplinary, collaborative process that uses tools like visualization and mapping, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to bring meaning and solutions to impact people’s lives.

“There has historically been a gap and major silos between activists and scientific communities and that’s because of a really politically, racially charged and often violent history,” Milner says. “I think, not only do we have an opportunity to, but it is a necessity that, we flip the script on that and we change that.”

At the conference, D4BL will release a platform outlining ways data and technology can improve the lives of black people. Data is increasingly being held up as a way for city officials to make better decisions, and for organizers to tell their stories. So-called “smart cities” are deploying technology in the name of everything from gathering information about commuters to accessibility. D4BL is focusing on racial justice.

For example, when it comes to economic justice, Milner’s looking at tapping into Bitcoin and Blockchain, so that cryptocurrency wealth is circulated in black communities. As for ways numbers and algorithms can have a negative impact, Milner points to how credit scores and predictive policing can perpetuate injustice.

Another issue Milner says D4BL wants to tackle: preparing for automation to take away retail and truck driving jobs by creating and training for other work opportunities. Blair Evans, director of Incite Focus, a fabrication lab in Detroit, will be at the November conference. Entrepreneurs launch businesses in such spaces, where there’s technology like 3D printers, and training and mentorship — but people of color are often not using these spaces. Evans has worked to change that.

“You can already guess the kind of demographic makeup of people of tech shops, white folks,” Milner says. “But what Blair Evans is doing is making this available for folks in Detroit.”

Milner says they plan to build on the work that other organizations and networks — like the Movement for Black Lives and Lawyers for Black Lives — have already done. Last year, Movement for Black Lives released a platform that includes strategies for evening the economic playing field in the U.S. And, as data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe wrote in an op-ed for Next City in 2015, a quantitative approach has benefited the movement. Writing about the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Sinyangwe said, “Armed with cell phones, digital networks and now crowdsourced data, we have overcome those who claimed that Mike Brown was an isolated incident and forced policymakers to take action.”

As for Boston being the location — and subject of — the first D4BL conference, Milner says they wanted to zero in on one city so that they could make the work they do relevant to the local community, whether they’re organizers, service providers or teachers.

“Boston is the home of MIT and Harvard and Boston University and all their amazing research institutions and so much innovation on so many levels, but it’s also what many people call ‘up south,’” Milner says. “Because it’s so racist, so segregated. But it’s definitely become national because the implications of these conversations, as we’re realizing, are translatable all over the country. That’s just the way segregation and institutional racism are set up, right?”

Using census data, reports have found that the Boston metro area is among the most racially segregated in the country. Housing segregation has a long history in the city. While the city is diverse, systemic racism has pushed people of color and those with lower incomes to the margins. A 2017 report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council found that regardless of income, people of color lived in less affluent neighborhoods than white people with similar incomes. When two households made $78,000, the white household was more likely to live in neighborhoods where the median household income was $72,000 while black household lived where the median household income was $51,000. And working families have been pushed out because they can’t afford housing.

The city of Boston is working on these disparities. Mayor Marty Walsh appointed a chief resilience officer in 2015 whose goal is to look at the role of racism and income inequality in disaster recovery. Milner also wants to build on that.

“Whenever we’re going to start a campaign or any kind of project, we have to go to the community first,” Milner says. “My goal is that we leave the conference with a much more precise understanding of what is needed to respond at this moment.”

 

Data for Black Lives Wants to Connect Scientists and Activists

When Yeshimabeit Milner was a teenager, growing up in Miami, she learned what injustice looks like. After an administrator put a high school student in a headlock, and police officers responded to other students during a protest by hitting them with batons and slamming them to the ground, she and her peers began to organize. They surveyed 600 students about their experiences with suspensions, arrests and police brutality and turned their findings into a comic book.

Milner has been an organizer ever since. After attending Brown University, she returned to Miami to work for the Power U Center, a grassroots organization fighting for liberation of all people. Most recently, she served as the movement building campaign manager at Color of Change. She’s a board member for the Highlander Research and Education Center, a nonprofit organization that supports activists through training and education.

“All of those experiences led up to Data for Black Lives,” she says, describing the organization she founded with Lucas Mason-Brown, a mathematician at MIT, in August 2016. “Data for Black Lives seeks to mobilize scientists around racial justice issues by really building a bridge between data scientists, software engineers, mathematicians, et cetera, and people working in and on the front lines of black communities.

Milner wants to use data to identify issues to tackle in the black community. She hopes to work with the growing number of chief data officers in cities across the United States too, to figure out how to better use data to address issues ranging from displacement to economic opportunity.

“Our fake Data for Black Lives tagline is ‘Men lie. Women lie. Numbers don’t.’ Like Jay-Z says,” Milner explains. “People can lie but the data speaks for itself and the numbers tell a story.”

In November, D4BL will convene community members, organizers, policymakers and data scientists at MIT’s Media Lab to discuss racial inequities and segregation in Boston. Milner and Mason-Brown (who are receiving some support as 2017 Echoing Green fellows) hope the three-day conference will become an annual event.

For D4BL, data science is an interdisciplinary, collaborative process that uses tools like visualization and mapping, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to bring meaning and solutions to impact people’s lives.

“There has historically been a gap and major silos between activists and scientific communities and that’s because of a really politically, racially charged and often violent history,” Milner says. “I think, not only do we have an opportunity to, but it is a necessity that, we flip the script on that and we change that.”

At the conference, D4BL will release a platform outlining ways data and technology can improve the lives of black people. Data is increasingly being held up as a way for city officials to make better decisions, and for organizers to tell their stories. So-called “smart cities” are deploying technology in the name of everything from gathering information about commuters to accessibility. D4BL is focusing on racial justice.

For example, when it comes to economic justice, Milner’s looking at tapping into Bitcoin and Blockchain, so that cryptocurrency wealth is circulated in black communities. As for ways numbers and algorithms can have a negative impact, Milner points to how credit scores and predictive policing can perpetuate injustice.

Another issue Milner says D4BL wants to tackle: preparing for automation to take away retail and truck driving jobs by creating and training for other work opportunities. Blair Evans, director of Incite Focus, a fabrication lab in Detroit, will be at the November conference. Entrepreneurs launch businesses in such spaces, where there’s technology like 3D printers, and training and mentorship — but people of color are often not using these spaces. Evans has worked to change that.

“You can already guess the kind of demographic makeup of people of tech shops, white folks,” Milner says. “But what Blair Evans is doing is making this available for folks in Detroit.”

Milner says they plan to build on the work that other organizations and networks — like the Movement for Black Lives and Lawyers for Black Lives — have already done. Last year, Movement for Black Lives released a platform that includes strategies for evening the economic playing field in the U.S. And, as data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe wrote in an op-ed for Next City in 2015, a quantitative approach has benefited the movement. Writing about the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Sinyangwe said, “Armed with cell phones, digital networks and now crowdsourced data, we have overcome those who claimed that Mike Brown was an isolated incident and forced policymakers to take action.”

As for Boston being the location — and subject of — the first D4BL conference, Milner says they wanted to zero in on one city so that they could make the work they do relevant to the local community, whether they’re organizers, service providers or teachers.

“Boston is the home of MIT and Harvard and Boston University and all their amazing research institutions and so much innovation on so many levels, but it’s also what many people call ‘up south,’” Milner says. “Because it’s so racist, so segregated. But it’s definitely become national because the implications of these conversations, as we’re realizing, are translatable all over the country. That’s just the way segregation and institutional racism are set up, right?”

Using census data, reports have found that the Boston metro area is among the most racially segregated in the country. Housing segregation has a long history in the city. While the city is diverse, systemic racism has pushed people of color and those with lower incomes to the margins. A 2017 report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council found that regardless of income, people of color lived in less affluent neighborhoods than white people with similar incomes. When two households made $78,000, the white household was more likely to live in neighborhoods where the median household income was $72,000 while black household lived where the median household income was $51,000. And working families have been pushed out because they can’t afford housing.

The city of Boston is working on these disparities. Mayor Marty Walsh appointed a chief resilience officer in 2015 whose goal is to look at the role of racism and income inequality in disaster recovery. Milner also wants to build on that.

“Whenever we’re going to start a campaign or any kind of project, we have to go to the community first,” Milner says. “My goal is that we leave the conference with a much more precise understanding of what is needed to respond at this moment.”

 

Arts Education for All Runs Into Rising Brooklyn Rents

(Credit: AbunDance Academy of the Arts)

In 2014, at the intersection of Rogers and Lefferts avenues in Brooklyn, the AbunDance Academy of the Arts started offering classes in everything from dance and musical performance to martial arts and wellness.

Karisma Jay, artistic director and founder, wanted to give the residents of Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood long-term access to arts education in a time when it isn’t always available elsewhere, like in schools. She knows what it’s like to not have that access. For one term in college, she decided to focus on math and science instead of her passion for art. That period was tough for her because she didn’t have a creative outlet.

“So, thereafter I added all the arts classes back in and my GPA skyrocketed,” Jay says. “And I see how art changes lives, really and truly, because it changed mine.”

In April, however, Jay’s vision faced a setback. With the rent set to double on their space, Jay says, they couldn’t afford to renew their lease. AbunDance closed. (As of 2014, the median household income in the South Crown Heights/Lefferts Gardens neighborhood was $41,867, according to the NYU Furman Center, and between 2000 and 2014, the percent of low-income residents who were rent-burdened grew by 10 percent to 50.8 percent.)

AbunDance students have been practicing their dance steps and perfecting their singing voices at four different spaces since the shutdown. From national cuts to arts education to rapid gentrification in Prospect Lefferts Gardens and the surrounding area, the three-year-old nonprofit organization faces multiple hurdles to assembling everyone again. But if United for Small Business NYC, a coalition of organizations assembled by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, has its way, small businesses like AbunDance will have more security when it comes to setting up shop in neighborhoods across the city. In early June, the group released its platform, calling for tougher policy that would combat commercial displacement, such as tools that would help develop affordable commercial space and a penalty system for landlords who warehouse property.

“Those fines have to be greater than what the developer or whoever owns the space can bear so that they really stop doing it,” says Risa Shoup, executive director of Spaceworks, a nonprofit cultural community development organization that works to supply affordable rehearsal and studio space for artists. “This arts academy, other arts organizations, are so important because that’s how people within various communities can elevate their practice and feel empowered to collaborate and share, and if they want to continue to grow and show their practice to more and more people.”

Since October 2016, NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs has been gathering feedback for CreateNYC, the city’s first cultural plan. Shoup has consulted on the plan, which will be available later this month. Those surveyed have expressed a desire for greater diversity in arts and culture leadership, better access to information about programs, and equitable distribution of programming throughout the boroughs.

“I’d say especially within Brooklyn, part of why I think all arts organizations in boroughs that are not Manhattan are important is just because for so long, we’ve kind of concentrated our resources for arts and culture, including but not limited to money, to the borough of Manhattan,” Shoup says.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, part of the challenge as Jay well knows, is paying the rent on space.

AbunDance Academy of the Arts in Brooklyn closed in April. (Photo by Deonna Anderson)

“For all of the progress we have made over decades to establish and protect the rights of residential tenants, the rights of commercial tenants are largely limited to what’s in their lease,” Benjamin Dulchin, ANHD’s executive director, said in a statement announcing the platform to combat commercial displacement. “With gentrification and displacement threatening the viability of commercial tenants in neighborhoods across the city, City Hall needs to develop tools to protect small businesses, create affordable space, and regulate bad landlords.”

While City Council enacted legislation last year to prevent commercial tenant harassment, there’s no substantive commercial rent regulation in New York City. Activists have been fighting this battle for years. In 2014, small business advocates pushed for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, legislation that would provide equity between the commercial tenant and landlord during lease negotiations. It has been stalled in city council since its introduction.

Meanwhile, without official regulation, nonprofits in gentrifying neighborhoods around NYC have to look for money with rising rents in mind.

AbunDance received funds from City Council Member Mathieu Eugene’s office to offer classes to seniors. “One of my huge, huge mottos is that I love to teach the arts, and spread the arts for students from ages 2 to 82,” Jay says. “And I joked around because last year we actually had an 83-year-old, and I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute,’ so we do classes for ages 2 to 92.”

On a recent Sunday in June, as AbunDance students danced at Kings Theatre, during a portion of the show, which was inspired by the “Sister Act” movies, women dressed like nuns walked down the aisles to collect donations. Jay delivered a call to action to the audience to keep AbunDance alive.

For two months, the organization has also been running a GoFundMe campaign to raise $50,000. They’ve got just under $14,000 so far.

Community members have been showing support in other ways. They have given Jay words of encouragement and spread the word to their networks. People from the neighborhood who never stepped foot into the old studio have donated. Parents have paid for their children’s classes in the disparate locations and given extra at the same time.

“What’s unfortunate is that I have to drive by our previous location every day,” Jay says. “And there is nothing going on.”

 

In New York, a Neighborhood Makes a Pre-Gentrification Plan

(Photo by Deonna Anderson)

Residents, city staffers and elected officials gathered earlier this month in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to celebrate a new neighborhood plan that comes after a year of community engagement involving the New York City Housing and Preservation Department and nearly 500 residents and neighborhood groups.

The plan includes goals to increase affordable housing and improve residents’ health and safety, and envisions Brownsville as an arts hub for New York City.

The blueprint also sets an expectation for community-focused economic development that would mean lower unemployment and a boost for entrepreneurship, and there are at least three retail and jobs initiatives in the works to help.

Brownsville has historically been one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. The median household income was $25,041, much less than the citywide $52,737, according to the U.S. Census 2010-2014 American Community Survey. About 36 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line. The unemployment rate in Brownsville was over 15 percent, about 5 percent higher than the city average, according to that ACS.

According to the Brownsville plan, the Brownsville Community Justice Center (BCJC), a youth justice organization, along with Hester Street Collaborative and Made in Brownsville, will explore “potential projects [that] could address placemaking, business attraction and retention, merchant organizing, or other needs identified on the Belmont Avenue corridor.”

BCJC has been focused on the Belmont Avenue commercial corridor since 2014, organizing youth cleanups and a monthly street festival that brings increased foot traffic. The new Brownsville plan brings energy to expanding such efforts.

“We believe that the community already has everything we need to make it better,” says Erica Mateo, director of community-based initiatives at BCJC. “I feel like we’re one of the last frontiers for gentrification. We don’t want our work to be co-opted.”

With community planning comes challenges. As they continue to improve Belmont Avenue, Mateo says they plan “to keep the cultural significance” of Brownsville.

Some of it comes down to communication about changes, Mateo says. For example, people were impressed with the 3 Black Cats, a cafe on Belmont opened by three sisters from Brownsville last summer. But, Mateo says, residents were saying, ‘it’s so nice’ — and weren’t sure if it was for them.

Hester Street Collaborative is looking at data about this particular section of Brownsville to see where people are spending money and inform what types of businesses have the potential thrive on Belmont. The 4-block area currently has some empty storefronts and buildings in need of facade improvements.

“Sometimes looking at data and maps helps you step back and plan more wisely,” Mateo says.

Quardean Lewis-Allen, founder and CEO of Made in Brownsville, another partner in the revitalization effort, has a location on Belmont, and Mateo says that’s been helpful in planning.

“Economic development is also about creating things,” says Genese Morgan, chair of Brooklyn Community Board 16, which represents the Brownsville and Ocean Hill neighborhoods. “We need a reason for people to come into our community. We’ve been going outside of our community for so long.”

The hope is that when people visit Brownsville, they will also spend money there, enabling businesses to survive and thrive. But first, business ventures need to be set up for success.

“The opportunities have to match the economic status of the community. The economic opportunities have to be innovative,” says Morgan, adding that there has to be opportunity for people who cannot afford brick-and-mortar retail businesses.

One solution: finding a space for entrepreneurs without the obligation of a five- or 10-year lease. That’s the idea behind the innovation and entrepreneurship space at the intersection of Glenmore Avenue and Mother Gaston Boulevard, which is also promoted in the Brownsville plan.

The Central Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation (CBEDC) is also helping businesses build capacity. Its Brownsville Gateway incubator trains startups in the community with operating budgets of less than $25,000. They get business training and a chance to pitch to investors. One such outfit: We Run Brownsville, which encourages women living and working in the neighborhood to take ownership of their physical, mental and emotional wellness.

“You can’t avoid [transplants] coming into your neighborhood, but you can do something about how much ownership you have,” La’Shawn Allen-Muhammed, executive director at CBEDC told BK Reader in 2015. “Even if we concentrate on specific areas within the district, I think that’s the way to go.”

With a new Brownsville plan being celebrated, Allen-Muhammed emphasizes that mission today. “We’re really adamant about supporting our local residents and businesses,” she says. “So that once the community changes, they’re still here.”

 

Startup Incubator Helps College Students on Path to Entrepreneurship

(Credit: Zahn Innovation Center)

Some students leave college with a degree and a jobs wish list — and some walk away with a business or an established entrepreneurial track record. Among the latter: many students involved in the City College of New York’s Zahn Innovation Center. The incubator, established in 2013, helps students with startup capital and developing their business ideas. At a May pitch competition, four groups won a total of $150,000 in seed money for their startups.

The incubator has launched over 100 startups, in tech, social impact and hardware.

City College of New York is home to about 16,000 students, 68 percent of whom are low-income. Thirty-two percent of the student body is Hispanic, 22 percent African-American, 22 percent Asian, and 24 percent white.

“Most of our students are the first in their family to go to college. They’re children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, and they’re chasing the American Dream,” Katherine Olives, of the Zahn Innovation Center, writes via email. “The Zahn Innovation Center gives them an opportunity to level their own playing field.”

Recognizing a lack of diversity in the startup world, as well as problems with limited access to capital and mentorship, colleges in cities across the U.S. have added such incubators to the mix of higher education. Some partner with and support a local nonprofit’s efforts. Others partner with city governments, and some, as with Zahn Innovation Center, launch their own on-campus hubs.

The center, according to Olives, is “a way for students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to the ‘real world.’ And it gives them a space to seek solutions for the issues they’re most concerned about.”

For example, take four students with a similar interest in addressing the varied challenges that people with illnesses and disabilities have to face. Amanda Bernstein, Ralph Hertz, Sam Tran, and Ankush Thakur, of the S.M.A.R.Tech team, developed an activity tracker that monitors daily therapy tasks for patients with cerebral palsy. They won the largest prize at the May competition, $50,000.

“Winning the prize is the difference between us being well on our way to a sustainable company in 2018 instead of 2020,” Hertz says.

In addition to the pitch competition, Zahn offers a co-working space, mentorship and rapid prototyping facilities, among other resources.

“We have an amazing support network and really great mentors that helped us move this project forward, finding out what exactly our market is, how we fulfill that need, figuring out the logistics for the business, connecting us with outside mentors and partners, providing prototyping facilities that we’ve used,” Thakur says.

Hertz’s mom has Type 1 diabetes, and for him, it’s been a dream to develop technology to assist people who have medical challenges in performing daily tasks.

Tran, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam about six years ago, says witnessing a lot of the aftereffects of the Vietnam War prompted him to want to figure out ways to use his skills and education to help people back home. Ankush was born in India and came to the U.S. when he was 4, and is bringing together his initial desire to become a doctor with an interest in both physics and technology.

Olives says the most recent Zahn cohort was big on collaboration. “Many of them shared skills so that everyone could take their prototypes and ventures to the next level,” she says.

The students from SyStem and City LABscape are a good example of collaboration.

Adrian Logan and Alex Babich won a $25,000 prize in the social impact category for SyStem, a computer-controlled garden that grows food in an acrylic box without soil or harmful chemicals. For every aspect of plant growth, the computer will adjust to make sure the right amount is applied in the box. For example, if the pH is too low, the computer will raise it to the level that will be most beneficial to the plant.

The team is trying to address both current and future food access problems. “The food should be growing where the people live,” Babich says.

Wei Zhang and Jorge Burgos, senior architecture students, and Sabrina Cohn, a sophomore studying environmental engineering, make up the City LABscape team. They’re working with middle schools to expose students to STEM study by growing plants.

Babich and Logan, of SyStem helped create the first plant pod for City LABscape.

Another team, WrkBook, aims to bridge the gap between contractors and workers. Potential employees create profiles on a website, and they’re matched with companies based on their skills. Two of the team members have relatives who work in construction and who inspired them to identify the problem to be solved.

“Our number one mission is that we’re trying to help people get jobs,” says WrkBook’s William De Andrade.

The winning teams will continue to develop their products, services and businesses at the incubator.

 

City Hopes Brooklyn Market Revamp Brings New Opportunity

(Photos by Deonna Anderson)

Walk along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn toward the intersection of Caton Avenue, and you’ll start to hear reggae and soca music on the way to the Flatbush Caton Market. There are about 40 vendors there, most of Caribbean descent, and you can buy everything from coconut and jackfruit, to clothing printed with island flags.

The New York City Council in April approved a plan to demolish and replace the market with a new one, and add 250 units of affordable housing to the mix. Amid concerns about gentrification and displacement, the city is promising to preserve and expand the market — a retail center valued by many longtime residents — and support local entrepreneurs.

“Everybody who lives in Flatbush recognizes the changes that are happening,” says James Johnson-Piett, principal and CEO of Urbane Development, a partner in the project. “But I think the opportunity and promise in this project is to have a really strong gateway to Caribbean Flatbush. And to say, yes, there are changes happening but we’re still here.”

The development team worked with the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CACCI), which currently manages the market, during the public input process, according to Meredith Marshall, managing partner and co-founder of BRP Development, the lead firm on the project. CACCI will still be part of the market, with its trade center located on the second floor of the facility. (One of the largest African-American-owned development companies in the U.S., BRP also has projects in Harlem, East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and in New Jersey and Baltimore.)

Flatbush Caton Market was the brainchild of former City Councilwoman Una Clarke. The cultural hub opened as an outdoor market in 2000 and moved into its current building in 2002.

“I am very pleased to see the new visionary redevelopment of the Flatbush Caton Market,” Clarke said in a press release earlier this year. “When the initial vendors were moved from the streets to the parking lot with a tent as cover, I never thought they would end up in a building. The community congratulates [the Mayor Bill] de Blasio administration for the redevelopment of the site to provide affordable housing while preserving the market as a small business hub.”

Twenty-two percent of the 250 affordable units will be set aside for low-income residents, 30 percent for moderate-income, and 48 percent for middle-income. Preference will be given to those local to the district. BRP will be using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to finance the project. Some capital — total estimated cost is $135 million — is coming from the city.

The new facility will also have a community space and a commercial kitchen that will serve as an incubator space for existing market vendors and community entrepreneurs.

On a recent Thursday in May, Isra Gordon, owner of Delicious Ending Catering and Tea House, was getting ready for her day’s work at the market. She has occupied a corner there for three and a half years and says she welcomes the redevelopment.

“It is just wonderful how they want this to happen for us,” she said. “They want to see us grow.”

While Gordon was visibly excited to talk about the project, others expressed nervousness or indifference.

Telma Reid, who has sold infant and children’s clothing in the market for two years, said she hopes the new market turns out better than what it is now.

“Right now, I don’t know if people know what we are,” she said, adding that she’s open to the change as long as developers keep veteran vendors in mind. From the outside, it’s currently unclear what is being sold in the blue-and-green-painted building. But take a walk through the market, and you’ll see vendors selling items that range from rice and beans to clothes and personal goods like shea butter and handmade soaps.

Unfortunately, foot traffic into the building in recent years has slowed down. And vendors say they have struggled to make money.

“If you make $90 now, it’s plenty,” said James White, a worker at the Golden Seven Music Enterprise booth. “And I’m talking about weekly.” He added that in the past, the market was packed. “You couldn’t even walk through here,” he said.

To address foot traffic concerns, the development partners plan to run a marketing campaign.

“The market doesn’t have any branding whatsoever,” Marshall said. “So, we’re going to work on rebranding, have a whole digital strategy. As part of the development, you’re going to see a lot of attention paid to the market, basically rebrand the market and revamp some of the products and services that are sold at the market.” The NYC Economic Development Corporation made an agreement with the developers that ensures existing vendors will pay comparable rents to what they are today in the new space.

As those vendors prepare to relocate to a temporary space less than a mile away this fall, where they will remain during the new construction, Urbane has also been meeting with them one-on-one to prepare for the move and get to know their needs, goals and challenges. With that data, Urbane has developed a curriculum of entrepreneurial support, with a focus on core business planning and operation, as well as tailored information for vendors in specific industries, such as textiles, food and personal goods. Vendors are also receiving financial assistance with relocation costs.

“We recognize that every time you move a business, it’s going to be a challenge,” Johnson-Piett says.

 

Rochester Takes Startup Approach to Worker Cooperatives

(Photo by Evilarry)

A new nonprofit with a goal to support the creation of more worker cooperatives in Rochester, New York, touted its first achievement in April. The nonprofit, the Market Driven Community Corporation (MDCC), announced that a brand-new cooperative, ENEROC, landed a deal to install LED lighting at Rochester General Hospital.

“Creating accessible jobs within our city strengthens our neighborhoods and provides greater opportunities for all its residents,” said Mayor Lovely A. Warren in a press release about the news. “The Market Driven Community Corporation enhances this aim by launching cooperatives like ENEROC that empower our residents to eventually become worker-owners of a competitive business.”

In a city where about 33 percent of households live below the federal poverty line, Warren and fellow co-op supporters want to see an entire network of companies spring up to serve anchor institutions like universities and hospitals. Warren and her Office of Innovation led the way in creating the MDCC over the last year to foster that growth, but the nonprofit is now independent.

ENEROC already has three workers on board and is expected to create up to 14 new jobs in its first year. To start, workers will make $12 to $15 per hour, and once they’re voted in as “worker-owners,” they’ll start building equity in the company. Though there are fewer than 400 worker-cooperative businesses in the U.S., from Oakland to Austin to New York City, many see them as a source of well-paying jobs and a model through which marginalized residents can build wealth.

ENEROC will be a subcontractor in the hospital lighting project, through local company Lumalon, which will also help with training the new workers. Doug Caswell, ENEROC’s business manager, says he’s expecting to hire one to two more people by mid-May for another contract that is currently in negotiations. Those jobs will go to residents from high-poverty neighborhoods.

Caswell and Henry Fitts, director of Rochester’s Office of Innovation, say workers come through RochesterWorks, an employment and training initiative, and community organizations like Bridges to Success and Family Independence Initiative.

“MDCC is bringing a new strategy for economic development to our community,” Fitts says. “This is really a new comprehensive approach that starts with long-term sustainability in mind and it starts with organizations that are rooted in our communities that are not going anywhere.”

To tap into the natural anchor institution customer base, representatives from Rochester Regional Health, University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College are on the MDCC board.

“We know they’re going to be here for decades to come and we can rely on their purchasing power as potential reliable source of demand that we can build businesses around that we know will be here also for years to come and those jobs that they create will be long term,” Fitts says.

Cleveland-based Democracy Collaborative, a national research institute that focuses on equitable economies, worked with the city of Rochester to develop its worker cooperative strategy. Democracy Collaborative helped to start Evergreen Cooperatives, a network of worker co-ops in Cleveland, and that experience offered good lessons for this latest endeavor. A key takeaway: the need to set up a nonprofit like MDCC to facilitate the business development process and serve as a resource for the Rochester business community. MDCC serves to screen business ideas in terms of competitiveness and sustainability. Before ENEROC launched, two other co-op ideas were nixed.

MDCC fits into a larger effort to reduce poverty in Rochester.

The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative hopes to reduce poverty by 50 percent over 15 years. In 2013, “Special Report: Poverty and the Concentration of Poverty in the Nine-County Greater Rochester Area” revealed that the region was the fifth poorest in the United States among the top 75 largest metropolitan areas, and Rochester itself was second poorest among comparably sized cities in those metro areas.

Melissa Marquez, CEO of Genesee Co-Op Credit Union and an MDCC board member, says she hopes MDCC and startups like ENEROC will help her credit union members and their families, many of whom are people of color, immigrants and refugees, by opening up long-term career paths. Many are also temporary workers.

“They go from temp job to temp job to temp job. They are the lowest is terms in of pay,” Marquez says. “They’re the ones who typically have less in terms of income and wealth.”

In addition to connecting to businesses that might be customers for new co-ops, MDCC will serve as a resource for businesses that are interested in transitioning to a co-op business model. While it doesn’t work for every company, Fitts says, “We’re hoping to build visibility and show that this is an option and about the benefits.”

 



Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Architect Mahmood Fallahian

For Visit Our Website Please CLICK HERE

For Contact Us Please CLICK HERE