City of Lawrence, Douglas County partner with local organizations aiming to support small businesses

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Lawrence and Douglas County leaders are building a roadmap for entrepreneurial growth in hopes that it’ll stick.

During a work session as part of the Lawrence City Commission’s meeting Tuesday, leaders of entrepreneurial support organizations as well as city and county staff members gave an update on recent work toward equitable entrepreneurship.

The city is partnering with Black:30, Douglas County CORE, Art Love Collective and other entities on three initiatives: ecosystem resource mapping, entrepreneurship curriculum development and anchor procurement. 

Black:30 President Taylor Overton said Tuesday that the initiatives together form a promising recipe.

“We identify through asset mapping, who are our capital providers — who are the actors on that actor map, if you will,” Overton said. “Then we have an opportunity to build capacity, and then finally, advocate for those suppliers in supply chains … So adding all three of those together I think brings a great perspective and a great opportunity for our businesses here in Lawrence.”

Sam Camp, economic development analyst for the city, is the initiative lead for the first piece.

Economic resource mapping entails creating a resource map that identifies nonprofit or free support organizations open to local entrepreneurs. Camp said the map will serve as a centralized, accessible tool.

Secondly, start-up entrepreneurs need foundational education.

As the initiative lead of entrepreneurship curriculum development, Overton is overseeing a 10-week course through the Kauffman FastTrac program. Offered in English and Spanish, the program will pair participating entrepreneurs with coaches who also own businesses in the community.

FastTrac is also part of a joint two-year plan for entrepreneurial growth in Lawrence and Douglas County by Black:30 and Douglas County CORE, both entrepreneurial support organizations. Overton along with Kyle Johnson, founder and CEO of CORE, announced their plan during a launch event on Jan. 26.

Johnson on Tuesday said that within the few days after their launch event, 15 people had registered with CORE’s network — the first step for entrepreneurs to participate in the plan.

Although all local entrepreneurs are encouraged to utilize support, widening access for BIPOC, women, LGBTQ folks and veterans is a target focus.

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FastTrac’s success will be documented and analyzed based on the number of entrepreneurs in the network, the diversity within the network, the number of entrepreneurs assisted with their business plans and the number of jobs created from businesses. Black:30 and CORE will also produce case studies that portray participants’ personal journeys.

But funding to support entrepreneurs and to pay the people leading that support remains a barrier. The $15,000 in grant money from the National League of Cities’ City Inclusive Entrepreneurship Network isn’t enough to run FastTrac to its full capacity. Leaders are currently looking for more sponsors, according to Overton. 

Read more about Black:30 and CORE’s two-year plan, and how to become involved, in this article.

The third and final initiative, anchor procurement, refers to outreach with entities that are anchored in the community.

Moniqué Mercurio (Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation), owner of MercTribe Designs and Art Love Collective’s director of operations, is the initiative lead. She’ll collaborate with the University of Kansas and the city to engage with four key groups: capital providers, capacity builders, procurement professionals and small businesses.

Forward Cities and Douglas County

Additionally, Nicole Rials, owner of K.N. Rials Therapy and Consulting and founder of LRM Foundation, updated commissioners Tuesday on her work with Forward Cities. 

As part of Douglas County’s involvement with Forward Cities, a national nonprofit organization, the county in February 2023 launched an “Entrepreneurial Listening Project.” Eventually, Rials took on the lead role as chief doing officer.

Rials said the project aligns with “inspiring people to bring themselves to the space, not to shrink in spaces,” and “dismantling the false narrative that we as people of color are broken and recognizing the systemic inequities that contribute to struggles.”

Assistant Douglas County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur said Forward Cities partners went out in the community to speak with people of color-owned local businesses, including Lead Horse LLC, Watson’s Barbershop, La Estrella and others.

Entrepreneurs with Watson’s Barbershop, a long-standing Black-owned barbershop in Lawrence, said they wanted to be valued as assets in the community. They said they wanted to be heard.

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Two other projects, the Multilingual Resource Project and Indigenous Leadership Connections, were established in addition to the Entrepreneurial Listening Project. What began as three separate projects has subsequently molded into one, now just called the Entrepreneurial Listening Project.

From that, partners have been able to hold listening sessions where they can engage with existing and aspiring entrepreneurs. One was a Spanish-speaking listening session hosted at La Estrella, a mom-and-pop Mexican grocery store and restaurant in Lawrence, in October, in which 18 people participated. 

Connie Fiorella Fitzpatrick, food systems specialist with the county, said participants expressed a need for resources in Spanish.

“A vast majority of the attendees who attended this listening session are blue collar workers who have worked in their respective fields for at least one decade,” Fiorella Fitzpatrick said. “These are entrepreneurs who are ready to transition from being low wage workers to contribute in our local economic system as business owners.”

Jolicoeur mentioned a part of the project moving forward will be to explore a full-time, paid position for equitable ecosystem building.

“We think having a position dedicated to that is important and so we’re going to continue to advocate for that and explore where that fits most,” Jolicoeur said.

Presenters said they were hopeful to soon return to the commission with updates on their progress.

Commissioners did not take any action following the work session Tuesday. See presentation slides as part of the work session on lawrenceks.civicweb.net, via the commission’s agenda.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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