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What We Learned and Where We Go From Here: Reflections from the Forward Cities Councils

Deb Hoover and Randy McShepherd share highlights from the Cleveland Council

Ernest and Camryn Smith explain the work made by the Durham Council.

Allen Square, CEO of Square Button, discusses the work accomplished in New Orleans.

Brittany Foley of Michigan Community Resources presents on work accomplished in Detroit.

While Cleveland, Durham, Detroit and New Orleans each have their own personality, struggles and entrepreneurial communities, it quickly became evident during the recent Cleveland convening that some of Forward Cities’ greatest accomplishments were achieved by learning from each other.  

While Cleveland, Durham, Detroit and New Orleans each have their own personality, their own struggles and their own entrepreneurial communities, it quickly became evident during the recent Cleveland convening that some of Forward Cities’ greatest accomplishments to-date were achieved by learning from each other. During a session on Thursday morning, representatives from each Forward Cities council shared lessons learned and reflections on the work they’d done together. 

CLEVELAND

The ambitious Forward Cities Council in Cleveland identified not just one but four corridors to target for improved inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship: the Opportunity Corridor, West 25th and Clark, 55th Street Corridor, and East 105th Street.

Working under the banner of Forward Cities contributed many positive benefits to this work. For instance, in the West 25th and Clark corridor, the neighborhood secured a planning grant from the Business of Good Foundation to help advance the La Villa Hispana project, and the City of Cleveland received a TIGER grant for planning work on an eight-mile, north-south axis along East 105th and East 93rd streets, which intersect the 3.2-mile Opportunity Corridor.

Perhaps more importantly, the sharing of best practices about inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship across cities helped boost long-term gains in Cleveland. Since Forward Cities started in 2014, more organizations joined inclusive innovations efforts and many council member organizations engaged in racial equity trainings.  

Victor Ruiz, executive director of Esperanza, Inc., voiced the same wish as many when he said moving forward he would like to see “an intentional effort by policy makers, funders, and community members to address the barriers that hinder entrepreneurs of color ability to thrive.”

In addition, while several members of the Cleveland Council have worked together before, Forward Cities strengthened those relationships and helped bring different voices to the table. This spurred honest and candid conversations that encouraged people working on the ground. 

To Jeff Epstein, executive director of Midtown Cleveland Inc., this improved coordination among organizations, along with a willingness to take program risks, is important “to support entrepreneurs of all backgrounds and encourage inclusive innovation.” 

DURHAM

Having chosen Old East Durham as its focus area due to issues around gentrification, the Durham Forward Cities Council understood the importance of active community engagement in their strategic planning process. They developed a robust community engagement plan that reached those usually left out of conversations. This helped ensure that the right people are able to participate in the council’s ongoing work.  

Aiming to address both diversity and equity among the area’s current and potential entrepreneurs, the council continues to pursue community engagement efforts that connect to those on the ground in order to better explain what Forward Cities is trying to do and how they can play a role in achieving its goals. 

Recent door-to-door surveying of small business owners’ needs will help the Durham Forward Cities council in their strategic planning process. Identified needs included mentorship, networking, best practice sharing, technical assistance, funding support and viable physical space, among others. While the council defines how to best serve and support its focus area, a group of support organizations stand ready to support emerging entrepreneurs, including Small Business Development CenterNorth Carolina Central University, Helios Foundation, iNvictus and more.

Besides thoughtfully encouraging diversity in its entrepreneurial ecosystem, the Durham Council is also promoting equity. The entire council participated in a racial equity training with REI, which was also brought to some council member’s respective organizations.

“Forward Cities helped me to have a more comprehensive understanding of what inclusive innovation really is - or what a community looks like when we don't have it,” said Emily Egge, executive director of SEEDS.

This understanding has informed conversations about inequality and lack of access for minorities, and how City Council and commissioners must connect to Forward Cities’ efforts. As Egge said, moving forward, council members hope that policymakers understand the “long-term harm that comes from exclusive innovation” so that together, they can create policies that support both inclusive innovation and long-term prosperity. 

DETROIT

Detroit has recently become a catalyst zone for small-businesses with the advent of TechTownBizGridBuild InstituteProsperUS Detroit and more, yet a gap still exists in reaching and supporting minority entrepreneurs. In alignment with the Forward Cities goals of supporting local innovators and minority entrepreneurs and strengthening underserved communities, the Detroit Council selected the North End/New Center districts for its focus areas. This area possesses established businesses and community investment along with the potential for significant entrepreneurial engagement and community growth.

NEI, a funder of Forward Cites, connected the Detroit Council to another of its initiatives in support of their efforts in the North End/New Center. The Neighborhood Business Initiative, a project managed by Michigan Community Resources, is designed to build an inclusive economy for all by connecting neighborhood business throughout Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park to the support tools and practices that help them grow.

This project has focused on mending a weak referral system between nonprofit service providers, identifying resource gaps in the support network, and addressing policies and practices that present barriers to economic growth. 

NEI estimates that as of December 2015, their work focused on Detroit’s neighborhoods has led to the creation of 1,600 new companies, 708 of which are minority-owned, and 2,400 direct jobs.

The gap between entrepreneur and resource provider has narrowed thanks to efforts such as these, with a map of resource providers across Detroit proving to be a very useful early tool. As advances are made in supporting minority entrepreneurs and increasing access to resources and funding, those successes will continue to inspire cross-city learning and help spur gains on a national level.

NEW ORLEANS

The Forward Cities Council in New Orleans focused their inclusive innovation work in the 7th and 8th wards, an area with gentrification encroaching on its skilled-laborers and blue-collar residents. After identifying assets and gaps, the council targeted their projects on micro-enterprise, racial equality, and cross-city collaboration to help support minority entrepreneurs and underserved neighborhoods.

One project, led by Haley Burns of Fund 17, promotes micro-enterprises by identifying community- and home-based entrepreneurs through door-to-door surveys with support from Detroit’s Loveland Technologies. Fund 17 will next support these entrepreneurs with tools and resources, connect them to each other and help create more neighborhood opportunities for them to grow. 

It’s an important resource in New Orleans, a city with a sizable small-business community and a network of over 30 technical assistance providers and incubators. “That’s why our equity work also has a strong emphasis on building a sound and deeply interwoven network of support systems and pathways to opportunity,” said Alejandra Guzman, director of special projects at New Orleans Business Alliance, “this ecosystem is working hard to promote inclusive innovation and create opportunities for all.”

With equity in mind, council members were inspired to bring a powerful racial equity training conducted by REI back to New Orleans. By including large companies, community leaders, city executives and more, the council spread the benefits of the trainings across a spectrum of leaders to help establish more equitable practices. 

“This training and its subsequent conversation had the greatest impact in the New Orleans Forward Cities Council and with participants from all of the other cities,” said Andrea Chen, co-founder and executive director of Propeller. 

Right now, a group of 40 individuals from the trainings are working together to create next steps to leverage these trainings in advancement of Forward Cities’ mission. 

Working with Forward Cities taught the New Orleans group to see and value each community’s perception of their challenges, and is helping them overcome those challenges and evolve as leaders.

That sentiment is connected to one of the key take-aways for many who participated in this two-year initiative; the realization we are all “are wrestling with the same issues - and that many have the same roots around desegregation and urban renewal,” said Epstein head of the MidTown Cleveland and the Cleveland Health-Tech Corridor.  

It is reflections like these that have many eager to point out that the work must continue because Forward Cities has motivated more and more organizations to take the leap in actively advancing inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship. As Deborah Hoover, co-chair of the Cleveland Innovation Council said, “We must now find a way to continue the work, embedding the Forward Cities values and goals into the strategies of key organizations and into the everyday decisions of leaders.”
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