Aja Cobbs feels fortunate to have her father as a role model. “My father owns his own business; I have a role model to inspire me to be an entrepreneur,” says the 26-year-old, whose interactive Art Trap House exhibit has traveled to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Atlanta. “What about those youth who have no friends or neighbors that own businesses? Where do they start?”
For this reason, Cobbs explains, “I want to teach leadership and how to use the economy for youth to succeed.”
Owning a business can be a pathway to personal advancement. Yet if no one in your community is there as an example, it can be hard to believe this is even a possibility. According to the website stateofblackkasheville.org, for example, only 1.7 percent of Buncombe County businesses are black-owned.
To address this glaring disparity, this year’s Bringing It Home “unconference” is focusing on empowering local youth. “We want them to recognize their greatness,” says Jane Hatley, regional director of the Self-Help Credit Union, which sponsors the annual event. “We want youth to know they are relevant now, especially with the recent ICE raids and school shootings.” The tag line, “Building A Local Economy for Everyone,” drives home that inclusive message.
The free program, she says, “is for all youth, but particularly those who feel left out of the standard entrepreneur model. And not all kids want to go to college. Conferences are boring to youth, so we have the unconference.”
“We’re defining youth as people ages 5-25, but we want everyone to come,” continues Hatley. “Yes: 5 years old. Did you ever sell lemonade? We also want parents to attend to see how hungry their children are to own their own business.”
Various speakers will describe the experiences that have motivated them to give back to the community. “We call them villagers,” says Dewana Little, the credit union’s marketing and administrative associate. “These are community members that are always there for our youth, sharing their love and knowledge.”
Featured “villagers” will include Gene Bell, CEO of the Asheville Housing Authority, and Stephen Smith, who’ll tell the story of how he created his business, M.S. Lean Landscaping. The company aims to inspire African-American men to create their own enterprises, with a focus on those who are coming out of jail or prison. According to the credit union’s website, M.S. Lean “strives to change the current black community situation through economic development and self-sufficiency.”
Inspiration and guidance
To combat feelings of hopelessness about changing one’s economic situation and navigating the entrepreneurial system, a panel titled “Making A Way Out of No Way” will give participants a practical and emotional road map for achieving their dreams. Panelists will include Asheville natives Leonard Little, who played for the St. Louis Rams, and Anna Smith, a certified financial and housing counselor and educator with OnTrack WNC Financial Education and Counseling.
Damion Bailey, who owns Wonderful World of Plumbing, will talk about how the women in his family inspired him with what are now his company’s core values. “He learned sincerity from his great-grandmother, appreciation from his grandmothers and intelligence from his aunt. From his mother, who still teaches him today, he has learned to give and help,” states the credit union’s website.
Assorted breakout sessions will address different aspects of the entrepreneurial path: “Understanding Intergenerational Poverty,” “Marketing your Business,” “Resources for Youth” and “Beyond Financial Literacy: Building Wealth.”
The Youth Business Expo, meanwhile, will help young entrepreneurs spotlight their businesses. Those signing up to take part in the expo can also attend a free marketing workshop where Kimberly Hunter of Mountain BizWorks will help them create effective promotional materials they can then use at the unconference. In addition, six of those businesses will get a chance to reach out directly to the audience at the morning and afternoon sessions of “3 Youth, 3 Slides, 3 Pitches.”
Meanwhile, three keynote speakers will talk about what motivates them and what pivotal points in their youth helped them achieve their goals. Martin Eakes, Self-Help Credit Union’s co-founder and CEO, says his organization tries to reach those who are underserved by conventional financial institutions, such as people of color, women, rural residents and families with limited means. Tyron Young’s The Gift Productions provides web-based marketing services. And Gloria Shealey, who is president and CEO of The Daniele Co., has 25 years’ experience in construction services.
On the lighter side, the entertainment will include performances by RAICES, a youth music group from the Emma community, the Hillcrest High-Steppers and others. Breakfast, lunch, child care and interpretation services will be provided free of charge. At the end of the day, each participant will receive a toolkit of local resources.