Harriette “Chef Bee” Brown spent her entire life cooking for people she cared about. So, 20 years ago, when she decided she needed a change from her career in nursing, cooking seemed like the natural choice.
“I worked in geriatrics,” Brown says. “[Patients] were dying and taking pieces of me with them. So I switched careers.”
Eight years into her new profession as a chef and caterer, Brown was forced to take another step back from her career after enduring a personal health crisis in the wake of caring for her dying mother.
“I ended up with raging diabetes,” Brown recalls. “I went from a size 24 to a 52 in two months, and I was like, ‘I'm dying.’ ”
Unable to control her weight or bring her blood sugar down to safe levels, Brown was admitted to the hospital. For the next 38 days, she says doctors struggled to offer solutions as they ran tests and tried to determine the best course of action. Eventually, after undergoing bariatric surgery, Brown was released from the hospital with a clean bill of health and a renewed passion for food and cooking — this time, as a tool for healing.
Over the next 12 years, Brown “waged war with a fork,” launching her own catering business focused on healthy food. But she didn’t do it alone. Through the support of several Detroit-based nonprofits dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, Brown started learning the skills needed to establish a successful, sustainable business.
After completing an introductory business class in 2013 through ProsperUS Detroit, an economic development initiative, Brown launched Sisters on a Roll, a vegan-centric catering company affectionately named after a tenacious friend who, despite being bound to a wheelchair, inspired Brown with her persistently positive spirit.
It wasn’t long before she hit a roadblock, though. Determined to grow the business on her own, Brown had taken out a high-interest loan to purchase a truck she planned to transform into a mobile kitchen. By 2017 Brown found herself struggling to pay off the remaining balance on the loan. Unable to move forward, she knew she needed help.
“I didn’t know about interest rates,” Brown says. “I thought if you borrow $5,000, then you pay the $5,000 back and that’s that. And so I did that — but found out that there was $3,000 worth of interest.”
Luckily, through the network of nonprofits helping her, Brown was able to find other resources, and on National Women’s Day that year a spokesperson from Kiva, a source for crowdfunded micro-loans, reached out to Brown.
Through Kiva Detroit, a program of nonprofit Build Institute, Brown was able to secure a $10,000 interest-free loan, which helped her pay off the remainder of the interest due on the truck while increasing customer acquisitions.
“Through Kiva [and Build], I was introduced to FoodLab and then I was introduced to the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. I began to do gluten-free for people that were celiac-affected …” Brown says.
In addition to the micro-loan and networking opportunities, Brown also took advantage of the entrepreneurial training programs offered by Build to develop stronger business skills. Through classes like Build Retail and Built Bootcamp, Brown says she’s been able to develop new skills in areas she once lacked knowledge as an entrepreneur.
“I knew how to cook. I can cook anything,” Brown says. “The only thing I didn’t know was business. So for the last four years, I’ve just been taking it slow and learning business.”
Although Brown still prepares food in a shared space for her catering orders and the weekly meals she donates to local nonprofits fighting food injustice around the city, she plans to be able to work from her own truck soon. After making her final payment on her micro-loan later this year, Brown hopes to take out a second loan to cover the costs of outfitting the truck as a mobile kitchen.
“We’re in a different era all of a sudden. You can’t do business as usual,” Brown says, explaining that working from a mobile location would be more sustainable for her business in the wake of the pandemic. “I want the ability to have everything in one spot and then go to the people.”
Stephanie Inson is a program manager at LISC Detroit, one of the nonprofit organizations behind a new economic development program in the city.
Promoting prosperity in the neighborhoods
Brown isn’t the only entrepreneur Kiva and Build have helped grow their business since launching in Detroit eight years ago. To date, the program has provided over 200 micro-loans to business owners in Michigan.
“Because of Kiva, there are business owners across Detroit and the region who’ve been able get the low-barrier-to-entry funding they need to start and grow their businesses,” says capital programs manager Evan Adams, who oversees Build’s Kiva lending program.
The program is further boosted by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Detroit, a national nonprofit that works to strengthen neighborhoods, which provides matching loans on the Kiva platform. Ally Financial also came on board as a partner and in 2018, LISC Detroit turned its attention toward the city’s emerging Milwaukee Junction neighborhood, situated near the city’s North End.
Through a partnership with North End nonprofit Vanguard Community Development Corporation, LISC commissioned a study from Detroit Future City with a goal of identifying ways to fund equitable economic development and provide support for small businesses and entrepreneurs in the area.
“We started, initially, in the Milwaukee Junction and North End areas in central Detroit with our partner, Vanguard,” Stephanie Inson, a program officer at LISC Detroit. “The intention there was to build up Vanguard’s capacity to be able to serve in a coordinating role with small- and medium-sized businesses, as well as up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the neighborhood to provide them with support.”
Completed last May, the Milwaukee Junction District Framework study was the culmination of a yearlong deep dive into equity and opportunity in that district. Providing a “market-based and community-informed physical development” framework that encouraged real estate development and business investment, the report offers practical recommendations for meeting local residents where they are, while expanding new business and workforce opportunities.
“After a yearlong process of gathering information and working with Detroit Future City and SmithGroup, Vanguard decided that we wanted to take on economic development as a specific program area,” says Pamela Martin-Turner, president and CEO of Vanguard.
True to the organization’s core values of economic equity and racial justice, Vanguard embarked on a strategic initiative to provide resources for small businesses and entrepreneurs in the city’s North End through the support of funding from LISC and other partner organizations.
“Part of everything that we’ve done at LISC, particularly in Detroit, is to recognize the fact that Detroit has predominantly Black residents, and to uplift those voices and those ambitions and goals, and help them connect with entrepreneurial resources,” Inson says.
In June, those efforts were recognized when Vanguard was awarded the designation of Detroit's Historic North End district as a Michigan Main Street by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s MiPlace program — making it one of only two neighborhood commercial districts in Detroit participating in the Michigan Main Street Program, the other being Mexicantown Main Street.
“Our current strategic goals involve 50 percent of our investments going to housing and 50 percent of our investments going to economic development — either investments or resources for the community,” Inson says.
Those resources include education and support for entrepreneurs and small business owners, financial coaching support like those offered through ProsperUS and LISC’s Greater Detroit Center for Working Families, business loans, and investment in the development of 2.9 million square feet of commercial space in Detroit for small to medium-sized businesses.
President and CEO of Vanguard Pamela Martin-Turner is part of the team behind an initiative to provide resources for small businesses in the Detroit's North End.
Meeting COVID-19 challenges
After nearly two years of in-depth research and planning, Vanguard and LISC launched their economic development program in March. A few weeks later, the COVID-19 forced the program to pivot quickly to help local businesses overcome unanticipated obstacles.
“This is a very challenging time,” Inson says. “One thing we were hoping to achieve with the relationship between Ally Financial, Build, and Vanguard was training and getting technical assistance and support for existing businesses in the area to help them grow, as well as support entrepreneurs — and the way that looks now is very different because we can’t hold in-person engagements.”
Despite those challenges, Inson says LISC has been successful in raising some additional national resources, and the organization and its partners have managed to find ways to quickly move their services online in order to continue working with entrepreneurs and small businesses in Detroit’s North End.
“We didn’t want this important work to stop, so we pivoted to providing assistance virtually,” says Jacqueline Howard, senior director of corporate citizenship at Ally Financial.
Pivoting meant revising 2020 goals to include more emergency cash support access, and connecting clients to COVID-19 government support such as unemployment insurance, the Payroll Protection Program, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.”
“Through it all, our program continues to focus on giving entrepreneurs access to the capital and support they need to succeed," Howard says. "Efforts with LISC are outcome- and impact-driven with the goal to help end generational poverty."
In an effort to help keep businesses operating safely, Vanguard also partnered with DTE and other organizations to provide local businesses and entrepreneurs with PPE, as well as technical support for business owners applying for emergency loans and grants to keep funds flowing.
“It’s really important that [small businesses] don’t cease to exist because of COVID,” says Martin-Turner.
April Jones-Boyle, the founder and executive director of Build Institute, shares similar concerns about the impact of an uncertain economy on small businesses in Detroit and around the country. (Editor’s note: Boyle is married to Model D’s co-founder, Brian Boyle.)
“My gut is telling me it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Boyle says. “But I also believe that once we get through the worst of it, there will be a resurgence of entrepreneurship."
"Folks may fail — but they’re going to come back stronger.”
This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harriette Brown wants to see her catering business, and her city, grow.