Economic empowerment through entrepreneurship: Resources and tips for minority business owners

“We refuse to believe there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every January, as reminded by numerous local and national celebrations, I reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, in addition to remembrances of his civil rights work, I was reminded of his efforts to secure economic empowerment for all people, especially people of color. In her 2013 reflection on Dr. King’s economic influence, Alice Stephens of the King Center wrote, “The key principles to economic growth for blacks include: education — attaining higher education for professional career development; frugality and reduction of debt to save and invest one’s money wisely; home ownership; and entrepreneurship and starting a new business.”

As we wrestle with strategies to empower diverse people across our world, education, money management, property acquisition, and entrepreneurship continue to be elevated as prime mechanisms to raise our financial status. In recent months, I have attended several meetings and discussions in the Madison community where the focus has been on economic empowerment for people of color, especially African-Americans. There seems to be consensus from would-be business owners and the business community about the need for more entrepreneurs of color, but also uncertainty and a sense of frustration about ways to accomplish that goal.

Most of us acknowledge that the road to entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. It is laden with challenges and necessary skill sets that would give pause to even the most well equipped among us. And yet, we continue planning our entrepreneurial work and working our entrepreneurial plan — despite significant potential obstacles — hoping to achieve a measure of economic freedom and success. As I have engaged with a limited number of fellow small business owners around Madison, two concerns are repeatedly given voice: inability to obtain funding and understanding which information resources are relevant and useful.


Like most startup business owners, I didn’t have all the money I needed to start my business stored up in a bank account. This certainly was true for Eugenia Podesta and Spencer Hudson when they started Synergy Coworking last year. Podesta and Hudson were familiar with startups from previous business experiences and knew the path to successful entrepreneurship wouldn’t be easy. So, they took a year investing all their free time into research, preparing a business plan, and knocking on doors of Madison-area business advisors to gain understanding about the financial aspects of running a business.

Gina Podesta, Photo: Micky Wiswedel

Podesta admits, “All in all, it’s been a really difficult past few years. And, it’s been nonstop.” They were initially unable to secure funding. Podesta says, “It was like, ‘you don’t have money. So, you can’t get money.’ How are you supposed to start a small business if that’s the case?”

Background checks, blemishes on credit reports, and insufficient collateral make obtaining capital difficult for many entrepreneurs. As Podesta explains, “Financing was really, really hard. Banks turned us down. When you look at demographics and access to the money you need to start your business, how are small businesses of color expected to be able to start?”

Eric S. Upchurch II

According to Eric Upchurch II, chief visionary and founder at Opportunity Inc. and Economic Empowerment Wisconsin, entrepreneurs of color in Madison experience poverty and related issues at a higher rate than others, which leads to a number of barriers to success. Upchurch believes the barriers could be overcome with needs-based resource development, including vehicles for funding. He sees “a need for more mentoring and examples of success to not only help our entrepreneurs navigate the journey to success, but to be able to envision that success for themselves, as well.”



Information resources

Lack of clear and reliable information is another difficulty frequently raised by aspiring business owners. Madison has numerous resources and lots of people offering to help. But it can be dizzying to navigate the maze of business advisors, forums, agencies, nonprofits, consultants, coaches, classes, and retired business professionals who each claim to have answers. Hopeful entrepreneurs are given list upon list of names and email addresses, as well as websites to surf. Figuring out what is solid information is hard sometimes, which means finding someone or an organization that understands your business is key.

If you are just starting out, here are a few resources and tips to assist you as you launch:


  1. Eric’s nonprofit, Economic Empowerment Wisconsin, works to provide needs-based resource development for entrepreneurs of color. They will collaborate with economic development organizations and local businesses to connect entrepreneurs of color to resources, including low-barrier grants, loans, and investments.
  2. UpStart is supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. It’s an 11-week training program that connects entrepreneurs with area professionals and other aspiring entrepreneurs to gain the skills needed to launch a business, while working with business owners to establish strategic goals and identify next steps. The focus is on people of color and women.


  1. Don’t go it alone. Starting a business is a lot of work and doing it by yourself leaves you at risk of important details slipping through the cracks. Besides, you need others with whom you can create, innovate, problem solve, and celebrate.
  2. If you don’t have business partners, be sure to get advisors. An advisor can take the form of business coach, as well as an advisory board or an experienced professional in your field. Just be sure to utilize the wisdom of others as you problem solve, or just for a sounding board.
  3. Be sure your advisors understand your business, have an entrepreneurial spirit, and have the time to support you with their time and sound advice. You need a team that is honest, objective, and willing to give you the reality check you need.
  4. Don’t be afraid to network, especially if you need help and funds are limited. Some of my best business advice has come through networking with other business owners. Most are willing to share what has worked well and what hasn’t with marketing, social media, business development, and more. So, get out and meet other business owners.
  5. Manage your time appropriately. There is always something else to do, especially when you have a small team. Balance is key if you expect your energy and your business to last.
  6. Keep up the research. Invest time into understanding your target market, ideal clients, and market trends. Staying current is one key to success.
  7. Do not neglect or underestimate the power of social media. From marketing to funding to research to clients, much of what you need is available by utilizing the latest and greatest social media business tools and services.

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