Growing beyond the 'idea phase': How this Detroit institute supports underserved entrepreneurs

This is part of a reporting series, supported by Build Institute, that chronicles BIPOC-led businesses and entrepreneurship in Detroit. 

For underrepresented entrepreneurs in the small business landscape across the country, the main barrier to success is getting stuck in the 'idea stage'. Detroit's scene is no exception. 

Entrepreneurship is more than an opportunity for people to be their own boss and work their own hours. When successful, it secures financial stability for themselves and their families leading to generational wealth. For an underserved population in Detroit, time and time again that component is the motivation that keeps them determined to succeed even when hardships present themselves.

With this information, Build Institute’s primary focus is on Blacks, Latinx, under-represented, and under-resourced communities. Out of Build Institute’s 2,500+ alumni, 80% have identified as female, 49% as Black females, and 84% as BIPOC. As well as offering a safe, diverse coworking meeting space, Build Institute provides early-stage capital, continuous education, and access to graduates of the programs.

“Because our footprint is in Detroit, which is an urban community, we always like for our resources to reflect the demographic of who we serve," says Regina Ann Campbell, President and CEO of Build Institute. “We unapologetically serve the underserved because entrepreneurship is one way to wealth generation, wealth building, and support of the local community and anyone committed to their business plan should have the chance to reap those benefits.”

Cathryn Coleman launched Bouncing around the Motor City in 2017. Photo by Steve Koss.

Inflating ideas

Cathryn Coleman, a certified balloon artist, and an alumni of Build Institute, started her micro-business, Bouncing around the Motor City in 2017. It is Detroit’s premiere balloon party event rental company that serves not just as Detroit’s, but Michigan’s, one-stop shop for all party and event rentals. They offer an array of products stemming from balloon design and decor, to prom send-offs, to customizing outfits and accessories, and bounce house rentals.  

“Since starting this business, I have literally lived up to my company’s name,” says Coleman. “I have completed every entrepreneurial program in Detroit and have used those skills to help me get my business up and running.”

Coleman is a recipient of a few grants totaling her winnings up to $376,000. Some include being the winner of Hatch Detroit this year obtaining $100,000, as well as $80,000 from Motor City Match. She has applied some of these winnings to buy and renovate the building at 13238 Fenkell Ave. in the Bethune Community, District 2. 

Photo by Steve Koss.

“I wanted to advocate for the building because it was on the demolition list,” says Coleman. “I’m a part of the community and knowing that Fenkell used to once flourish I thought it was only right to buy the building and the surrounding lots to help the community.” 

Coleman went to Build Institute in 2019 and took a course that guided her in building her business plan. This led to her thinking outside of the box and believing she was capable of owning her own business. 

“Build allowed me to believe that I was deserving and capable of wanting more,” says Coleman. “With the business plan and support from Build, and other programs, I was able to apply myself to these competitions and build on myself as well as scale my business. It’s inspiring because people see that someone like myself can do this, which tells them they can as well.”
Coleman is continuing to grow her business, and hopes to see her business bloom from Fenkell to a more international presence. 

Step-by-step growth

Build Institute, located in The Corner, in Corktown, connects people with specialized subject matter experts by meeting entrepreneurs where they are in the life of the business. Whether you’re just starting a business, looking for resources to make your business become scalable, or own a few businesses there is a person ready to lend service. For access to capital needs, Build Institute has a Capital Access Manager, Onni Stone, who gives free one-on-one office hours to help with credit, capital awareness, and Kiva loans one can use to achieve their business goals.

Build Institute also has a capital loan ladder as well as other opportunities that include steps that micro-entrepreneurs use to get access to capital. On the first rung is Detroit Soup. Their mission is to promote community-based development through crowdfunding, creativity, collaboration, democracy, trust, and fun. This method uses Detroiters to help fund Detroit ideators that pitch their business ideas and in return, attendees decide on what they believe will benefit the city and their neighborhoods the most. The voted winner gets to take the donations given by the attendees to help further their business goals. Detroit Soup holds both citywide and neighborhood soup events.

Regina Ann Campbell, President and CEO of Build Institute. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“We’re stronger together than alone,” says Campbell. “It takes everyone to work together for a stronger economy. In Detroit in particular, we are working hard on recognizing that the stronger we are together the more opportunities there are for attracting business and attracting talent.”
During this year, Detroit Soup has granted over $10,986 to different micro-entrepreneurs.   

The next and most utilized step is the Kiva loan. Kiva is Build Institute's longest-standing combined Hub/Trustee partnership that helps Detroit entrepreneurs gain access to up to $15,000 without the burden of interest loans. This method is a crowd-funded microloan that focuses more on the character rather than credit.

For underserved communities, this is beneficial because there are no fees needed to apply for the loan and no high-interest rates. It makes a difference for Detroiters who don’t have a banking relationship, or either low or no credit. It breaks down terminology barriers too, giving micro-entrepreneurs a chance without being automatically disqualified due to a lack of resources or knowledge about traditional loan application processes.

“One of the systematic barriers underrepresented communities face is the lack of having resources and/or education to obtain funding or wealth,” says Campbell.

"They’re told to pull themselves up from their bootstraps but some don’t even have boots. It’s documented and stated that systems have been put in place many years ago to prevent BIPOCs from having wealth and access to equity, and our capital loan ladder as well as non-profit organizations in Detroit are trying to combat that.”

The Kiva Detroit loan is constantly dispersing funds to micro-entrepreneurs granting over $211,500 this year.

The last step on the ladder involves the Alumni Fund. This is a newly-incorporated fund created by the collaboration between Build Institute and Michigan Women Forward that started in January. It services Build Institute alumni who have already started their micro-business and need access to capital to help them grow. Graduates can receive between $5,000 to $10,000 to combat any financial barriers hindering the growth of the business. The loan terms are from 24 to 36 months with a 3% interest rate.

“We created this fund because we want people to know that support doesn’t stop when they leave the classroom,” says Campbell. “We have resources that go beyond ideation and help with proof of concept. We want to help graduates that find themselves stuck and unable to grow due to lack of funding and give them the credentials needed to eventually be able to get loans from a bank.”

Ronier Golightly started his business Motor City Popcorn in 2012. Photo by Steve Koss.

Starting with kernels

Ronier Golightly started his business Motor City Popcorn in 2012. The shop at 7104 W. 7 Mile Rd. was created to replicate the feel and vibe of a movie theater, complete with specialty gourmet popcorn. Unique flavors include a blend of caramel and green apple, and hot cheddar cheese and caramel. There are nachos and hot dogs available as well. Before starting his business Golightly witnessed how much joy and sense of community popcorn shops brought people and felt that he wanted to bring that kind of feeling to the Detroit area.

“I wasn’t really a popcorn fan back then,” says Golightly. “But then I would see how people reacted to popcorn shops and saw that there wasn’t a lot of competition in Detroit.”

Photo by Steve Koss.

When Golightly first started his business, he did it in the style of a pop-up. Before Build Institute, he didn’t have a sense of budgeting and planning and would just take home the money he’d receive.
“Build helped me change the way I moved when it came to finances,” says Golightly. He began to focus his efforts. “So, I really scaled back from Farmer’s Markets and vendor shows. You begin to calculate just how much the costs are and then realize after working for so many hours it wasn’t worth it.” 

Golightly is one of the pioneering alumni that attended Build Institute, so he took the Build Basics class that was available during that time. He also joined other programs like FoodLab and B3. Golightly won a grant from NEIdeas in 2015 and also won a grant from Motor City Match.

“There is never too much knowledge,” says Golightly. “I’d take a class right now if I needed […] because the more knowledge you have of your business and business in general, the better off you are.” 

Photo by Steve Koss.

Today, research shows there has been a significant increase in Black women starting their own businesses in the United States, and organizations like Build are working to continue to diminish inequities across many marginalized businesses. 

“When I think of someone having easy access to equity and capital,” says Campbell. “It really boils down to a person being able to walk into a room without facing any barriers or a glass ceiling. Regardless of one’s socioeconomic impact or zip code, they should be able to walk in, do business and have a good quality of life.”  

All photos by Steve Koss, unless otherwise noted. 
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