By Maggie Rotermund, Senior Media Relations Specialist, Saint Louis University
Putting entrepreneurs in the room where it happens. Without Saint Louis University’s (SLU) Habitat for Neighborhood Business program (HNB), Travious Brooks, the owner of Brooks Family Entertainment in St. Louis, MO, would not be where he is today.
HNB was founded in 2006 by SLU alum Douglas Brown (CSB ’66), who saw a lack of businesses in economically challenged neighborhoods when visiting cities throughout the U.S. while working for Enterprise Rent-a-Car. With assistance and collaboration from SLU, Brown spent two years meeting with people in local neighborhoods in need of renewal. Armed with this information and support from the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business, Brown launched HNB with several fellow SLU alumni.
HNB helps entrepreneurs and small business owners return retail and service businesses to struggling urban neighborhoods. The businesses must be located within HNB’s service area in the city of St. Louis. “The thing that I think is most important is that we’re not really in the job creation business: we are in the career creation business,” Brown said.
Gladys Smith, Ph.D., is the program director of HNB. She started at SLU in 2018 when the program, which already had strong ties to the University, became staffed by the University after being run by volunteers. “The goal is to provide services to minority business owners in the underserved areas of St. Louis and to provide them access to the resources to help them become a success,” Smith said. “Doug Brown had a passion to make a difference. He saw a need and he went about finding a solution.”
Participants in the program have access to an advisory board of established businesspeople from the community; access to an industry-specific mentor when available; discounted or pro bono accounting and legal services; help with web design and hosting; and access to reconditioned and discounted equipment and software.
“Participants have done the work to start – our main focus is to mentor and help them grow their business,” Smith said.
HNB participants range from new entrepreneurs to those with years of experience looking to grow their ventures. Travious Brooks owned a costume jewelry store before looking for something he could do with his children. He started Brooks Bounce Houses five years ago by renting bounce houses and running them at events. Brooks Family Entertainment is now a full-fledged event services company, with a game bus, 360 photo booth rental, and table and chair rentals.
He credits a meeting with Smith at an Urban League event with changing the trajectory of his business. “Habitat for Neighborhood Business has gotten me in front of people I never would have met otherwise,” Brooks said. “Gladys got me mentors from big companies that I could call on a whim, reporters from newspapers to cover my business, [and a connection with] Enterprise Bank to get a credit line to help my business grow.”
Smith said that the key to HNB is mentoring and collaboration. “It is our intention to build relationships,” she said. “We want participants to build relationships among themselves and with the seasoned business owners who serve as mentors. We want to help them network and promote their business.”
Brooks said HNB reinforced the fundamentals of what he knew about operating his business while bolstering his confidence. “It’s a big deal to start a business,” he said. “It’s always hard and you never get to the end. There are always hurdles, but being a part of this group makes me want to say, ‘let me see what I can do.’”
Undergraduate business students at SLU, through one of their first courses in the Chaifetz School of Business, get the opportunity to engage in service learning by helping HNB program participants with business and marketing plans. “I’ve gotten to work with so many SLU students and they always bring a lot of ideas,” Brooks said. “Being from a younger generation, they’ve helped me with some fun ideas, as well as practical items.”
Emma Gude has been involved in HNB since her sophomore year. The SLU senior served as a marketing intern for the program, sending out a monthly newsletter and sitting in on mentoring sessions. The finance major said she appreciated getting to work with the entrepreneurs. “It was so rewarding to see how the work I did to inform people with the newsletter was appreciated,” she said. “I’m not an expert – I’m just a student, but my input was valued. I learned as much from them as they have from me.”
Participants in the program who want a deeper dive into the long-term feasibility of their business plans are paired with a student enrolled in Strategy and Practice, a capstone course within the school’s Professional MBA program. Students are put into teams and spend the semester working with their partners to strengthen their businesses. HNB participants who complete the consultant study receive $2,500 toward implementing their plan at the end of the review.
“It’s a great collaboration between the School of Business and HNB,” Smith said. “The students get to establish relationships with the business owners and see their passion and commitment to making it work.”
Smith said that the University recently received a grant from a SLU alum, who donated $100,000 to support the service leadership connection. “This funding will keep us going for a while – it’s a real commitment to the students and their work,” she said.
Finding the Right Fit
Habitat for Neighborhood Business works with a variety of businesses in St. Louis. “The entrepreneurs run the gamut – we have auto tire shops, construction, hair salons, hair products, an entertainment company, and food that goes from fast food to gourmet,” Smith said.
Smith explained that each application is reviewed to ensure that it is a business that will enhance its surroundings. “We want the businesses to add value to their neighborhoods,” she said.
Smith said that the participants sell HNB better than any marketing campaign could. “They refer their friends and family because of their experience in the program,” she said. “It is a privilege to be a part of this work sharing the resources and helping underserved communities.”
This article was originally published on slu.edu and is republished in Connections with permission from Saint Louis University.