Last September, Neomi Negron read an announcement in AVLToday’s daily newsletter about applications for the third round of Mountain BizWorks’ Catalyst Cohort program. Since October 2020, this yearlong course has provided local businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color with foundational business training, one-on-one coaching, facilitated peer support and $2,000 to put toward achieving their business goals.
It was the perfect time for Negron, founder and owner of the gourmet ice pops business Buggy Pops, to discover the program. When she opened for business in 2020, she had to abandon her plan to sell at events due to the pandemic. Instead, she took her eye-catching tricycle and handcrafted pops to farmers markets. “We had to pivot without even really starting,” she recalls.
Now, events were starting again, and she wanted guidance booking them. In November, Buggy Pops became one of 10 local businesses chosen for the third Catalyst Cohort, alongside fellow food and beverage companies Asheville Coffee Tours, Cooking with Comedy and mobile ice cream parlor Cream Works; automotive service companies Quality Automotive and R.A.W. Paint & Body; digital marketing company Kairos Digital; Kiesha Lewis Realty; independent author marketing company Otterpine; and photography agency Speed Snaps.
Since December, this cohort of business owners has worked with Mountain BizWorks’ facilitators, coaches, guest speakers and each other to set goals, share successes and struggles, and find community.
“Sometimes it’s hard to talk about business, because you feel like you’re being judged or being told what you should be doing. With the cohort, we’re all really supporting each other,” says Negron.
The catalyst of capital
The Catalyst Cohort is part of Mountain BizWorks’ larger Multicultural Catalyst Program. This growth initiative was created in October 2020 to address the difficulties that entrepreneurs of color face in accessing capital. “Capital is a major barrier — not just financial, but also human capital, as it relates to education and social capital,” explains Jeremiah Robinson, Mountain BizWorks’ entrepreneur in residence and leader of the Catalyst Program.
In a 2018 report by the Western North Carolina New Economy Coalition on local economic gaps, 33 minority business owners, business development professionals and community stakeholders named capital as the biggest challenge for minority entrepreneurs. They pointed to racial bias in banking institutions, lack of significant collateral like homeownership and insufficient alternative means of funding outside of traditional loans. The study confirmed their lived experience, concluding that 61% fewer Latino or Hispanic business owners and 46% fewer Black business owners operated in the Asheville area in 2015 than their proportions of the population would suggest.
Veronica Edwards, a certified public accountants, has seen these barriers affect many of her clients. “A lot of people of color have to work a day job while they’re starting their business, which then takes them away from putting all the attention in the business,” says Edwards, who is also a Mountain BizWorks coach and instructor, Catalyst Cohort guest speaker and owner of Balanced Virtually bookkeeping and accounting services.
Negron appreciates the program’s efforts to help her and her cohort peers improve their access to capital. “They do such a good job of informing us of funds that are available,” she says. “They also offer help to apply for these funds. Historically, people of color — we’ve been afraid to even apply.”
Of the three initiatives in the Catalyst Program, the Multicultural Catalyst Fund provides up to $100,000 in loans, as well as personalized business coaching and credit analysis, thanks to a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant. The Commercial Real Estate program, a collaboration with statewide organization Partners in Equity, helps entrepreneurs of color create generational wealth by funding property ownership. And a Buncombe County Strategic Partnership grant provides the $2,000 that each Catalyst Cohort member receives upon acceptance into the program.
The Three M’s
Each Catalyst Cohort year begins with a Kickoff Meet & Greet event, followed by three intensive months focused on what Robinson calls “The Three M’s: Money, Marketing and Management.” During the money module, cohort members learn how to resolve outstanding tax issues, as well as bookkeeping and accounting basics. The marketing module addresses successful marketing strategies and website design. Finally, the management track provides information on legal issues like certifications and permits, how to hire and train staff and how to streamline operations.
Once the three months are over, cohort members work with coaches to set goals to reach by the end of the program. Negron’s goals were to book three festivals, achieve a better work/life balance and get her books in order.
To achieve that last goal, Negron used some of her $2,000 to hire Edwards, who teaches the bookkeeping and accounting part of the money module. Edwards says bookkeeping is one of the most common uses for the seed money Catalyst members receive, because many business owners — not just entrepreneurs of color — lack financial experience.
“People have had businesses, successful businesses, for years, and they still don’t know what a profit and loss [statement] is,” Edwards says. “I tell them that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
When Edwards participates in the Catalyst Cohort, she takes a different approach from when she teaches Mountain BizWorks’ flagship Financials Series course: “I do a quick spiel that only takes 10 or 15 minutes, and then I like to leave the floor open so they can ask me specific questions.” As part of the program, cohort members get free access to all Mountain BizWorks’ courses, including the Financial Series.
The power of community
After the first three months, the rest of the year unfolds in a more organic way. Monthly meetings are modeled on the mastermind group template, which Forbes describes as peer-to-peer mentorship that uses collective knowledge — in Catalyst Cohort parlance, collective wisdom, accountability and encouragement — to solve problems.
“Each year of the cohort is unique to the members’ needs,” Robinson says. To determine what those needs are, he and facilitators like Tiarra Wilkie survey the participants before the course begins.
“We want to provide them with the tools and resources that they need to thrive, and so each [cohort] is a little bit different,” Wilkie explains.
Wilkie became a facilitator after participating in the second Catalyst Cohort as founder and owner of credit consulting company Groundbreaking Financial. She appreciated the experience so much that she approached Jeremiah at their closing ceremony to ask if she could return to facilitate.
“I wanted to talk about what my experience was like and also be a shoulder to lean on and a resource for other like-minded business owners and individuals,” she says. She now leads the monthly two-hour meetings, opening with check-ins before inviting cohort members to talk about successes and struggles or to ask questions of each other and the facilitators.
“Community is everything,” Negron says. “Seeing other people that are like you or have been through the same things as you really helps put you at ease. I’m not afraid to speak up.” Thanks to her peers, she learned about opportunities like joining the Chamber of Commerce and signing up for the Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
While Negron acknowledges that work/life balance will be an ongoing challenge, she’s met her other two goals. Thanks to Edwards, Buggy Pops’ books are in order. “I’m able to sleep better at night, because I’m not worried about how I’m going to organize everything,” Negron says.
As for booking three festivals, she’s well surpassed that number. One of them will be at the first weekend of Summer of Chow Chow, organized by food equity nonprofit Chow Chow Asheville. At the Entrepreneurs of Color tasting event Saturday, June 25, Buggy Pops will serve Negron’s childhood favorite, Puerto Rican limber de coco, alongside six other chefs of color. Robinson and cohort member Bruce Waller, Jr. of Grind AVL and Black Wall Street AVL will also speak.
Wilkie urges any entrepreneur of color who has the capacity to commit to the program to apply. “If you’re interested in connecting with community [and] growing your business, it’s a great opportunity.”