Getting Beyond “Business as Usual”

Yes, this post is tardy. I don’t have any apologies to offer. I will say, though, that analysis paralysis is real and that sometimes the best way to get started with something is to just start :).

As I mentioned in my intro video as well as in my first post, as part of my day job, I manage a network of business support organizations (BSOs), all nonprofits and CDFIs that serve small business owners in Detroit. The network was convened as part of a broader, philanthropy-led initiative to promote entrepreneurship in the Detroit region. The initiative emphasizes creating more on-ramps and supports for minority and women owned entrepreneurs to participate; “Inclusion” or “an inclusive economy” are terms often used in messaging around the initiative.

Of course the elites at the helm of these foundations are the best equipped to define what it means to foster an inclusive economy and the roadmap for getting there….(for a critical analysis of this idea, see this).

Anyway, the network that I manage is made up of BSOs who tend to serve entrepreneurs with fewer resources and supports. They come together through committees and quarterly gatherings to connect around their work and also galvanize around higher-level issues impacting Detroit’s entrepreneurs at more of a systemic level like creating greater access to capital and more equitable access to commercial real estate.

As I’ve mentioned, in my view, the broader initiative and many members of the BSO network are focused on making “business as usual” accessible to more people. This work is not about transforming the fundamentals of the economy, how we do business or economic development. It’s about making sure that aspiring and current women and minority owned business owners have the supports needed to gain a seat at a broken table.

What does this look like in practice? I once moderated a panel in which an entrepreneur stated that he was frustrated that when he approached multiple BSOs about wanting to scale up manufacturing of his product, they wanted to help him get set up to have the manufacturing done oversees. The entrepreneur, however is a proud Detroiter, who very much wants to use his business to invest in the community. He wants to use space in Detroit and hire Detroiters to manufacture his goods.

The idea of “community wealth building” is certainly not a priority for the .001%ers at the helm of these organizations (who probably have to represent the interests of founders and boards who are probably the .000001%ers). It’s also not an articulated priority for members of the BSO network, which is more perplexing.

For this exercise, I’ll try to get inside of their heads.

Why isn’t “community wealth building” (here: practices which prioritize investment in local institutions, local people, local spaces) a top priority for members of the network?

  1. Philosophy/Belief: The goal of a business is to be profitable. At my organization, we view our work as helping entrepreneurs launch businesses that can be profitable and sustainable. There are organizations at the periphery of the network who talk about co-ops and things like that, but that’s not our focus.
  2. Funding: The funder led initiative has funded my organization for the past 5 years to provide xyz technical assistance to entrepreneurs. They’ve become a large part of our funding portfolio, such that we don’t have funding to do other entrepreneurship programs that are not related to the initiative. How, then, am I supposed to have time and capacity to talk to entrepreneurs about structuring their businesses so that they’re paying a living wage, etc.? I’m in the same boat as many people from peer organizations within the network. Most of us rely on the initiative for a large chunk of our annual budgets. Also, I can’t help but notice that none of the organizations that participate in the network who come from organizations that talk about community wealth or co-ops receive funding from the initiative. If the funder isn’t interested and my organization doesn’t have the time or expertise to work with entrepreneurs  to get them to understand why it’s important and how they can structure their businesses  from a community wealth building lens, why would I bring the topic up in our committees or gatherings?
  3. Priorities: When we set the annual priorities that the network will work on collaboratively, we start by sharing the most consistent or pressing needs that we hear from entrepreneurs in our day to day work. At my organization, we encounter entrepreneurs who want to achieve profitability or increase their profits. We talk to entrepreneurs all the time who were unsuccessful in accessing loans to build their businesses. We hear every day from them about how they’re sales would be better if they just had better marketing to reach more customers. What we don’t see as much is business owners (or aspiring business owners) coming to us because they want to know how to most effectively reinvest the wealth being generated through their businesses into the communities they serve or into their workers. We spend out time covering the basics that businesses need to be sustainable; “community wealth building”, therefore, is low on our priority list.

This exercise was helpful. Given this reality, I wonder whether/to what extent the organizations that DO prioritize investing locally, investing in workers, etc. can come together to create their own network and either attract funding from like-minded funders or pool their resources to start pushing their own agenda.

RS – Thank you for your questions and insights, Jessica and Michelle! Ironically, when I wrote this post, I didn’t think about what this could mean for me personally, as in, I didn’t write it with the intention of acting. I started the Incubator thinking of it as an escape/breath of fresh air from the dynamics of my day job, not a way to get better insight into how I could rethink my work. When I read “to help these BSO’s join you on this journey” and questions related to approaches that I might take (talking to the program officer, talking one on one to the BSOs), I started to see that I could possibly have a role in trying to shift the dynamic, rather than just complaining on the side lines. As it happens, I have a pretty good rapport with our program officer and he’s definitely someone with whom I could have a conversation about this. I think the biggest hurdle to making any movement in terms of trying to leverage this platform that I manage to advance an agenda from any side (i.e.working with BSOs who are grantees, the community wealth building advocates on the fringe, the funder) has been me mentally having put that part of my work in a box labeled with things like “missed opportunity”, “case study: what’s wrong with the nonprofit sector”, “to the extent possible, avoid thinking about this”. Maybe it is time for me to get in the game and try to create the change that I want to see! 

Author: Janai G.

There's something in me that makes me want to share my experiences and reflections with others. I write and I podcast because those are currently the tools of expression at my disposal. If there ever comes a day when I can channel my thoughts and feelings through art, music or something else, you'll see it on this blog, too.

2 thoughts on “Getting Beyond “Business as Usual””

  1. Jenai,

    The story of the entrepreneur who was counseled by numerous BSOs to take his manufacturing overseas makes me wonder if in addition to the reasons you came up with for the BSOs not embracing community wealth building in their work is because they don’t even understand the concept. Is it possible that they don’t understand that there are viable alternatives that result in stronger small businesses, more owners, and a stronger local economy? But I guess your conclusion is that the group has no interest in changing the status quo — so it isn’t that they are ignorant of how to work towards building a more inclusive economy. That just isn’t a place they want to go.

    Have you had 1:1s with the BSOs in your network? I ask because I wonder if there isn’t one or two closet progressives in the group that are coachable. I’m also wondering if you’ve had 1:1s with the funders of the collaborative. Often the program officers have considerable influence with the foundation decision makers and you might find a program officer who would be interested in grounding the work in a community wealth building lens. If there’s not a gatekeeper at your organization that keeps you from getting to know the funders, that might be an avenue worth exploring.

    As I have started getting to know some of the BSOs in Denver I have been disappointed on a number of fronts. They are incredibly grant driven. More concerned about funders than their constituents it seems – similar to what you are experiencing. That’s one of the common and structural maladies of the nonprofit sector. We went to the BSOs to describe our efforts to increase local procurement of goods and services from the anchor institutions we are building relationships with, with the idea of connecting the businesses they work with to the anchors. So far, they are liking this idea. I was just initially really surprised that connecting their businesses to markets is something they really aren’t equipped to do. So, we become a good ally for them, because we can offer that service and then they will have more success stories to tell their funders about. Of course, they don’t mention our role in the increased success. That’s getting old, but it is what it is.

    One of the tactics we are pursuing is creating an entity called The Back Office. It will provide culturally appropriate capacity building support for small businesses through a variety of experts covering the gamut from marketing to H.R. to I.T. to bookkeeping, data entry, etc. Services will be provided on a sliding fee scale. We are starting this as a nonprofit, as grants will be covering the subsidized services, but the intent is that in five years time the nonprofit will convert to a for-profit cooperative. That’s the vision anyway. I really like that this takes BSO out of the nonprofit realm and into the for-profit realm that is driven by business people working together to create a strong network of small businesses that are invested in each other’s success.

    I haven’t read Winner Takes All yet, but it’s on my list. Thanks for the reminder. And thanks for sharing more about your day job. Looks like someday when you are at a safe distance from this position, you could write a pretty damning expose of the BSO world. I could have done that when I left my job at a foundation, but I still want to work in Denver!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jenai,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It feels all too familiar.

    What other pieces of information can help you better understand their position? What pieces of information do they need? How can you use empathy to bring them along? What are some steps you can take to help these BSO’s join you in this journey?

    What did you learn from this process? How did it make you feel? Did anything surface for you?

    Liked by 1 person

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