Helping hands

“MMF created a community network — people cheering for you and giving you new ideas.”

– Julie Stehling, Early Girl Eatery

“Entrepreneurs are made, not born,” proclaims Executive Director Greg Walker-Wilson of the Mountain Microenterprise Fund. Since 1989, the nonprofit has helped a diverse array of WNC residents — low-income people, women, minorities, rural residents and the unemployed/underemployed — launch their own businesses or expand existing ones.

These days, it’s hard to find anyplace where jobs are not a significant issue. In September, North Carolina’s unemployment rate stood at 6.4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And amid this harsh economic climate, Walker-Wilson believes, “entrepreneurship is the new model” for creating jobs.

Ironically, he notes, Asheville’s tight job market actually encourages would-be entrepreneurs. “In Asheville … an individual is not risking a $50,000-a-year job to start their own business,” he observes. “They are risking jobs that often offer few benefits and pay at the minimum.”

Even so, launching a new enterprise remains risky business. Although estimates vary widely, it’s generally agreed that a high percentage of startups don’t make it past the critical first few years.

But that’s where the Mountain Microenterprise Fund comes in, providing training, counseling, legal advice, financial advice and even funding to help growing numbers of local folks realize their dreams.

In 1990, a mere 37 people took the nonprofit’s 10-week Foundations course. Nine years later, that number had upped to 95. And last year, the MMF worked with 391 would-be entrepreneurs, according to the group’s 2002 annual report.

Even in the midst of continuing economic hard times nationwide, sizable numbers of WNC residents continue to take the plunge by becoming self-employed.

Shared strengths

Jesse Goode owns the Affordable Auto Parts Center on Hilliard Avenue in Asheville. After being laid off from Drexel Heritage, he took the MMF’s course to help him realize his vision of a fairly run, affordable auto-repair shop.

“It’s important to have a structure as your dream or vision materializes,” notes Goode. The nonprofit, he says, taught him how to handle business finances, deal with the inevitable losses in the early going, and stay competitive. Goode says he also appreciates the low-cost services the MMF offers small businesses.

Another local business owner who sings the nonprofit’s praises is Lynette Raines of Fullam Dairy in Horseshoe, N.C. “MMF was a perfect match for us,” she reports. “The class was informal but stayed on target and made us think of many new options.” The dairy still uses MMF’s services and is now considering expanding.

The Foundations course gives participants the tools they need to get started in the business world. It’s offered at various locations across the region, including Asheville, Hendersonville, Columbus, Sylva and Murphy, N.C. (there’s even a Spanish-language version). Program coordinators assigned to specific counties cover such subjects as determining startup costs, writing a business plan, and dealing with marketing and cash flow.

Lead Program Coordinator Peter Marks cites two main objectives for the course. “People do not recognize their own strength, knowledge and the things they bring to the table at the beginning. The curriculum is designed to help people access the knowledge they already possess. It is also important to make your business mistakes on paper first.”

In addition, peer interactions offer assistance with matters both practical and creative. Classmates share ideas, opinions and questions to help one another grow.

Some of those connections prove to be more durable. Kitty Love of Sky People Gallery and Design Studio and Anne Kaufmann of Dirt met in a Foundations course. Something clicked, and they wound up housing both galleries in a combined space on Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville. “We motivated each other to make final decisons and to take action,” says Kaufmann.

The two business owners also share a strong focus on community. “Becoming self-employed is important right now, so jobs are created by new, exciting companies and not chains,” asserts Love. Accordingly, she’s involved in various efforts to support local artists, including the Arts 2 People project and the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival. “Starting a small business,” Love observes, “helps people interact on a larger scale within the community, rather than being in a passive position.”

Another key piece of MMF’s vision is the Buy Local campaign. Membership Director Carolyn Paden feels “it is imperative that we be about promoting as well as creating small business.” This annual campaign, she says, also helps the organization attract members.

Julie Stehling of the Early Girl Eatery is a firm believer in the importance of having local suppliers. Using contacts made during the Foundations course, Julie and her husband, John, were able to find local people who could set up their computers, sell them produce, provide various products needed for the restaurant — and support them by regularly patronizing their establishment.

“Part of the reason you go into business is to keep supporting those who have supported you,” says Stehling. “MMF created a community network — people cheering for you and giving you new ideas.”

Building on the success of the Buy Local campaign, the nonprofit has now established the annual Buy Local Bonanza. On this day, both MMF alumni and partners (businesses at least 51 percent locally owned) give discounts and prizes to people shopping at designated downtown-Asheville businesses. In the future, the group hopes to make the Bonanza a weeklong event including smaller, outlying WNC communities.

After graduation…

In keeping with its big-picture approach to building community, MMF also offers a variety of other resources. After completing the course, participants may choose to retain their membership by paying a low monthly rate. This makes them eligible for such services as financial counseling, loan opportunities, free access to attorneys and CPAs, advertising/marketing options and community networking.

For many small-scale businesses, gaining access to needed capital may be the biggest obstacle, says Marks. Startups may not be able to satisfy strict credit requirements, and commercial banks often won’t make loans of less than $25,000.

“MMF attempts to fill the credit gap,” Marks explains. The ingenious system is based on peer lending groups. Members help decide who receives the available loan funds. That gives borrowers an added incentive to keep their own financial house in order, because failure to repay a loan on time deprives another community member of assistance.

Sometimes, even people with established businesses need help addressing problem areas or gaining fresh perspectives in order to grow.

Isabel Taylor of Bell’s School for People Under 6 had been in business since 1978. Although she’d been fairly successful, she still wasn’t bringing in the kind of money she needed and felt there were issues she couldn’t seem to resolve on her own. “To run a business, you really must thrive on self-motivation,” Taylor declares. “The MMF can refresh your energy level, and you become personally revitalized as well,” she adds.

Fellow MMF alum Dave O’Connor of Meeting Connections agrees. His business, which serves the travel needs of corporate clients, was growing. In the wake of 9/11, however, the travel industry changed dramatically. In order to deal with those shifts, O’Connor decided to take the Foundations course, hoping to generate new energy and fresh ideas. The wide variety of businesses and individual temperaments represented by his classmates helped make the brainstorming sessions especially creative and fruitful, says O’Connor. “I needed the structure to keep me focused,” he observes. “I was able to identify the weaknesses of my business and to come up with strategies to solve them. The course renewed my enthusiasm.”

Amid an ever-changing economic climate, the Mountain Microenterprise Fund continues to grow. The MMF is now celebrating its designation by the federal government as an official Women’s Business Center. This makes the group eligible for more federal funding, creating further opportunities for area residents to pursue their career goals.

[To learn more about the Mountain Microenterprise Fund, call 253-2834 (or (888) 389-3089 toll free), or visit their Web site (www.mtnmicro.org).]

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