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WESST program targets minority entrepreneurs

WESST will help existing and aspiring entrepreneurs in underserved communities through a new outreach effort financed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Kauffman, a Missouri-based foundation that supports entrepreneurship programs and initiatives, awarded $429,000 to WESST’s new “Money Learning Lab,” a novel concept that will begin with community-based meetings to hear directly from potential program participants about the type of services and assistance they need, said Juliana Silva, managing director of the WESST Enterprise Center Downtown. It will target women, Spanish-speaking immigrants and other minority groups.

The outreach labs, which WESST calls a “place-based initiative,” will focus on emerging and existing entrepreneurs in the Barelas neighborhood, the International District and the South Valley, in partnership with the South Valley Economic Development Center and Encuentro, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization for immigrants.

“We’ll identify barriers that are stopping people from either starting a business or scaling a business,” Silva said. “We’ll go directly into communities to work with them to develop the best solutions for the challenges they face.”

That can include gaining better access to capital. But it also means working on things like how to better employ and manage finances.

“As a microlender, clients often ask for a loan, and when we sit down with them, we often find it’s not really a loan they need, but rather assistance on things like ‘accounts outstanding’ to better collect on debts,” Silva said. “We want to uncover those kinds of barriers around money and finances to help develop solutions that can get them over those humps.”

The program’s focus on building services based directly on community input is unique, since foundations like Kauffman usually award grants for pre-designed programs and services, said WESST Executive Director Agnes Noonan.

“Typically, funders want an immediate deployment of programs so they can track metrics and impact,” Noonan said. “This funding is different because it allows us to spend time learning from the entrepreneurs before we deploy a programmatic offering, so they can drive solutions to what they see as barriers to entrepreneurship.”

The two-year grant will allow WESST and its partners to conduct outreach sessions in coming months, and then launch services through a community-based pilot program later this year or next. The goal is to enroll at least 175 participants in the pilot by July 2019, with at least 65 percent of them female, minority or underserved individuals, Silva said.

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