Detroit nonprofits take a ‘family’ approach to help entrepreneurs get financially savvy

Nearly eight years ago, Shayla Unik Davis was homeless, desperate, and uncertain about her future. After relocating to Alabama from her hometown of Detroit in 2012 in search of new opportunities, the single mother of two found herself trapped in a failed marriage and a series of dead-end jobs. 

“I made a bad decision,” Davis says. “But I didn’t allow that bad decision to define who I am today.”

Determined to make a fresh start, Davis returned to Detroit in the summer of 2014 with a plan to reinvent her life by leveraging her customer service skills, a bachelor’s degree from Alabama State University, and the resources around her. She wanted to set a positive example for her young children.

Today, Davis is the director of human resources at an architecture firm in Detroit, where she holds an internationally recognized credential in human resources from the Society for Human Resource Management. Last year, she was ranked as one of Michigan’s most valuable Millennials by Corp! Magazine. Beyond the list of impressive accolades she’s acquired, Davis is also fiercely committed to helping other young women learn from her story and move beyond the consequences of her life choices. 

“It doesn’t matter what your background is — whatever shade you are, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to make bad decisions,” Davis says. “It’s what makes us unique.”

Seeking an effective way to reach young women with her message, Davis founded Unik I Am in May, with a vision of empowering young women to overcome their past. Davis wants to use mentorship and motivational speaking to inspire others. 

To get started on her path to entrepreneurship, Davis turned to business education through the ProsperUS entrepreneur training program. The training offers entrepreneurial lessons spread out over 20 weeks and is part of an initiative by Southwest Economic Solutions, a member of the Greater Detroit Center for Working Families (CWF) network. Serving predominantly minority and immigrant entrepreneurs, the program specifically targets neighborhoods outside of downtown and Midtown Detroit including Cody Rouge, Grandmont Rosedale, the Lower Eastside, the North End, and Southwest Detroit.

“Detroit has a very robust existing entrepreneurial energy that has always been around,” says Chanell Scott Contreras, executive director of ProsperUS.

Chanell Scott Contreras“I think entrepreneurs in the neighborhoods have been excluded from certain resources, and so their entrepreneurship has looked a bit different than more traditional or formal entrepreneurship,” Contreras says.

“But because that energy and momentum already exists, I think when you apply resources to that existing culture of entrepreneurship […] it translates to a community where the physical landscape can be transformed in a positive way.”

Supporting the city’s entrepreneurs takes some serious collaboration. Greater Detroit CWF began in 2008 and is a network of 13 organizations, supported by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and United Way for Southeast Michigan.

“The CWF model is a way of doing business for organizations to integrate workforce development, financial coaching, and income support services, to improve results for job-seekers,” says Jacqueline Burau, senior program officer at LISC Detroit.

Leveraging the multi-year success of the CWF model, the ProsperUS program includes financial coaching in their programs to serve entrepreneurs. Davis and her cohort were able to access one-on-one financial coaching within training in the fundamentals of business alongside technical assistance, business services, and legal consulting. The program also offers a micro-lending initiative that provides up to $15,000 for startups and up to $25,000 for existing businesses, with a focus on clients that might otherwise not have had access to capital through traditional channels.

In late 2019, the program saw Davis partnered with financial coach Crystal King, and the entrepreneur says having a dedicated advisor made an enormous difference, describing her coach as her “financial whisperer.”

“When [King] pulled my credit score, I was slightly embarrassed,” Davis says. “My score was significantly low. She assured me that everything was going to be OK, but we had a lot of work to do."

"Over the weeks and months, we created budget sheets, financial statements, letters to creditors, and frequent check-ins. Approximately six months after starting my financial coaching journey, my credit score has gone up over 100 points.”

To provide this kind of help, Prosper US draws on groups like LISC Detroit and an investment from Ally Financial that supports financial coaching.

“With our financial coaching, we really work with clients to identify the goals they want for themselves,” Burau says. “Most of those goals have some kind of a financial component. We really pull out those financial components and customize the coaching to help that person make a plan and stick to it.”

During her time in the program, Davis says she was surprised at the level of support available to her, beyond the financial components.

“The ProsperUS program was 110% a support system,” Davis says. “It was more like developing a new family because we were very close in our class.”

It was because of this bond that Davis was devastated when they lost an instructor to the COVID-19 virus. As well as being unable to graduate in person, she and her peers had to grieve via virtual platforms.

“Our entire class — almost all of us — were on a call together, making sure that we were supporting each other through it, because again, the program made us a family,” Davis says. “And it felt as though we’d lost a family member.”

That level of trust is deliberate, creating a strong support system for entrepreneurs while empowering them to have greater control over their personal and business finances — benefits that ultimately extend into the neighborhoods they live in.

“Entrepreneurship is a great way to build wealth and create long-term improvement of your community,” says Jacqueline Howard, senior director of corporate citizenship at Ally Financial.

Contreras also points to the benefits of creating vibrant business and retail districts and setting strong examples for young people.

“Businesses pay taxes and contribute to the growth of the city,” Contreras says. “But they are also more likely to hire their neighbors, other residents, and people of color. […] When I think of inspiration, I’m really excited about the potential that youth, in particular, can look at [businesses] in the neighborhood and envision that future for themselves. There are ripple effects that are multi-generational that are pretty exciting.”

Those multi-generational ripple effects are something Davis knows about all too well — they are the reason she returned to Detroit to rebuild her life, and they are ultimately the reason she chose to become an entrepreneur.

“[In the ProsperUS program], I learned who I was and why I even started my business,” Davis says. “Initially, I thought it was just because of what I went through — but I learned in the program that the reason I started my business is because of what I can give back.”

This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.

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