Brian Jenkins: StartingUp Businesses Now

Brian Jenkins: StartingUp Businesses Now

Last year, when UrbanFaith talked to Brian Jenkins, president of Entrenuity, a national entrepreneusrship training organization, about race-based funding disparities in urban ministry, we had no idea Jenkins was writing a small business start-up guide for youth, and perhaps he had no idea it would inspire a move into for-profit business training and the development of a social media platform for aspiring entrepreneurs. So, we thought it was time to talk to this dynamic leader again, this time about his new social entrepreneurship project, StartingUp Now. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UrbanFaith:You’ve been training young people to be entrepreneurs for a long time. Have people been starting more of their own businesses since the recession?

Brian Jenkins:Yes, many people have been coming to us and saying, “We need your help in getting our businesses going.” Part of that discussion led to me writing our new model, the book called StartingUp Now: 24 Steps to Launch Your Own Business, which is a great tool for what we call “new and aspiring entrepreneurs.” We believe we’re the first ones to offer a content/social networking tool with the integration of our business planning guide. We don’t know of anybody else that has that right now, but I’m sure there are others that will follow.

Is StartingUp Now an Entrenuity project?

No, this is entirely new. Entrenuity is my non-profit. StartingUp Now is a for-profit. As an entrepreneur, there’s this model we use called PSA. You state the problem, identify the solution, and create the action. What I have found is that we need less non-profit organizations in urban challenged communities. We need to build more for-profit businesses. One of my goals is to build for-profit businesses, to give people opportunities where they are. It always starts with a business plan to be very strategic.

So you’re not only sustaining your own work, but you’re modeling social entrepreneurship for other people?

Absolutely. I grew up in non-profit culture, but in 2008, when everything crashed, we had to figure out a new way. Many churches, ministries, and non-profits are still operating pre-2008. I’m saying to them, “Being entrepreneurial is about being able to pivot.” We’re still using strategies of going to donors and the donors are telling us, “We want new models. First of all, the money is not there as it was before and we’re just not going to continue to give a blank check towards operating expenses. We’d rather pay for skill development, but not for just general operating expenses.”

Don G. Soderquist, the retired vice chairman and COO of Walmart endorsed StartingUp Now. That’s quite an endorsement.

It’s been pretty powerful. The opportunities continue to open up. Just this week, we were selected to conduct a workshop at the Chicago Ideas Week in October, where leaders like President Clinton and Mark Zuckerberg have spoken. Because StartingUp Now is a tool for someone with no prior business training whatsoever and the book is less than 100 pages, people are picking it up and doing it. And, there is a range in the type of person using it. The youngest person that we’ve had work through it is in sixth grade. We also have some guys that I’m personally working with who have been incarcerated.

Why would someone use the StartingUp Now Skillcenter, which launched April 18, instead of Facebook or LinkedIn?

It’s like Facebook/LinkedIn for entrepreneurs. Let’s say you purchase our book and you want to work on your business plan online. You’re not familiar with Facebook; you’re not familiar with LinkedIn or some of the other tools that exist. In fact, those may overwhelm you. Some of the people we’re working with don’t even have email addresses. It provides one central location for them to be able to access content that we’ve either curated or developed on our own instead of someone who may not be familiar with business planning typing “income statement” into Google and coming up with 25 million hits. Where do they begin?

An executive from SCORE, the Service Corps Retired Executives, said, “This is so much easier than using our Business Plan Pro because it’s not overly filled with content that someone would never use.” That’s one of the strengths. You can start where you are, but you can become as sophisticated as you want, depending on the type of business that you’re in. Now, it does have its limitations. We’re not trying to be Business Plan Pro. We’re trying to be StartingUp Now and reach the first time or new entrepreneur.

Could the program help someone like me who has run a small business haphazardly for a decade?

You’re describing the exact customer that we’re starting to find. What’s happened is when I wrote the book, I wrote it because of my background in youth work, but when we were doing the focus groups with adults, we were finding that adults were saying, “I could use this right here, right now.” It’s for that customer just like yourself: I have a business, but I want to find ways to more effectively marketing my product or my service without being overwhelmed with content. We offer two levels of membership. First, it’s free for a basic membership, which gives somebody the ability to access the content. For the pro membership, we do charge a membership fee. That’s based on whether a person is a youth or an adult.

What does the paying subscriber get?

The pro user gets access to the StartingUp Now business plan online. They can work on their business plan from their computer, their tablet, or their smartphone with any internet connection. The free membership basically gives someone the ability to learn about the platform and find out if this is a model for them. You can curate your own custom profile. You can access those curated business topics and resources. We’ve identified about 1,500 different resources that fit within the categories that are there. It allows a person to market their business. It allows you to connect in 72 different languages. It also provides the ability to post resources and then share them with those that are in your network, similar to what you would do with Facebook. With your privacy settings, you can adjust those resources so that they are available just for yourself, your friends, or other members. That’s one of the things people really like.

On the site you have sections for entrepreneurs, facilitators, and the community, so the Skillcenter is designed for more than just individuals?

Chicago public schools are running two pilot programs right now. We trained their teachers. It’s for the individual user, but it’s also for the classroom. So we have a facilitator’s guide. All the content that’s in the facilitator guide is online as well. A teacher can use this in the classroom to teach entrepreneurship and also provide access to the Skillcenter for their students. There is content that’s facilitator specific as well.

We also just found out that a couple that we’ve been coaching and that has been using StartingUp Now as their guide are runners up in the city’s small business competition here in Chicago for their catering business plan. And, a group came to our March 1 launch party from Grove City, Pennsylvania. What’s unique about them is that they’re using the book with business owners who have never written a business plan. They were saying how easy it was to sit down with people who have never done it before. It’s really expanded our marketability beyond traditional under-sourced urban neighborhoods. Now we’re selling to adult training centers. We presented to Willow Creek Community and they thought it would be a great resource for their own members, not just their outreach ministries.

You’re working with both faith-based groups and public schools. Is there a Christian dimension to the program?

It’s values based. We do quote Scripture within the book, but it’s not strictly faith-based. We definitely have a strong appeal to ethics. Since it’s values based and character based, it’s gotten me into places that I couldn’t go with a faith-based model.

You’re not an engineer, so you had to partner with a developer to launch the site. What kind of advice would you give people about choosing partners?

Integrity, integrity, integrity. This is why it took me so long to get the platform up and running. Our initial developer was a Christian. We eventually found out that after paying him several tens of thousands of dollars, he was not doing anything as far as the development. In fact, he had deceived us by using shareware, something that you can get online for free.

When I first found out, I went directly back to our investor. I didn’t hold anything back. Our investor’s response to me was, “Now you’ve learned. Just don’t make the same mistakes again.” It was a very humbling experience, because he and his family have been behind my work for over ten years. To say that I made a decision, put this money with this guy, and then I had to go back and say, “I don’t even know if we’re going to get anything back.”

The Skillcenter was built on a platform called EntreOasis. We worked with a company called Media Spark to integrate the StartingUp Business Plan Template and customize the EntreOasis platform for StartingUp’s purposes. I don’t even know if the CEO of Media Spark is Christian, but he has become a great friend through this period. I let him know that this developer came and took our funding. He said, “Hey, I believe in what you’ve got. I want to impact the world.” That’s the phoenix story. That situation is what spurred StartingUp Now.

Who Gets the Money?

Who Gets the Money?

Trust is vital to any relationship, but when it comes to funding African American-led urban ministries, it can mean the difference between success and failure. At least that is what Urban Faith heard from several notable leaders who identified lack of trust as a key factor in race-based funding disparities.

Brian Jenkins is director of Entrenuity, a ministry that helps urban youth start their own businesses. Although the organization has been featured on public television and has trained more than 700 adults and 4,000 youth since 1993, Jenkins says, “What I have found is that when it comes to people saying ‘we’re brothers and sisters in Christ,’ that’s fine, but when it comes to supporting my work and me as a minister in Christ, that’s where the breakdown occurs.”

Jenkins (left) was honored to be a presenter at a recent urban-ministry event with an audience of 200, but disheartened to find that he was the only black speaker when every organization there was working with minority populations. He says, “I just felt like, Wow, how can I be the only one here? … I have a directory full of people, you know, good Christian leaders, black men, black women, Latino men, Latino women, yet I was the only one there, and it was so frustrating because their stories weren’t being told, relationships weren’t being created, and the funding kept going to these same [white-led] organizations.”

The event organizer later told Jenkins he was limited by the people he knew. Jenkins responded, “You have to be intentional in finding and creating new relationships and also relationships that you don’t necessarily try to control.” As an independent, free thinking urban leader, he says, “A lot of times when you work with another organization — when you work with anybody — you give part of your freedom up, but what I have found is that some African American men and women who are successful in majority-culture organizations oftentimes have given up some of their cultural identity, and I’ve just refused to do that.”

Mark Soderquist is a Christian philanthropist, urban minister, and a good friend of Jenkins. He sits on several nonprofit boards and has lived and ministered in the predominantly black Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale for the past 20 years. Jenkins says of Soderquist, “He didn’t come in and try to use his family’s wealth or resources. He came in and served under a church. He didn’t come in starting a ministry; he came in serving.”

As Soderquist (left) talked to ethnic pastors (including his own), he kept hearing things like, “We could use help, but we don’t need another white organization to move in and set up shop and act like we don’t even exist.” It was an education for him. “Here I had grown up in the church outside of a major city, gone to a Christian college, had five years overseas with a great mission organization, got a master’s degree [from Wheaton College] in Intercultural Studies, and none of those experiences challenged me about the issue of race in this country and how it relates to my faith and how it relates to justice.” Soderquist, who serves as U.S. Director of Urban Ministries for International Teams, approached his pastor and elders at Westlawn Gospel Chapel about moving his work under the church’s local leadership. “I was saying the right words,” he says, “but what I didn’t realize at the time was they had very little faith or hope, based on their experience, that I would actually minister under their leadership.”

Fred Smith is founder and president of The Gathering, a group that encourages Christian philanthropy. He has seen similar dynamics in the Dallas area and agrees that lack of trust and latent racism can be factors, but says, “I suspect the predominant cause is a lack of networks that are peer-based.”

Soderquist acknowledges the reality that white-led ministries often have an easier time getting funding than black-led ministries. “It’s like urban ministry’s dirty little secret in that we are often the ones who speak prophetically to the majority culture church about issues of justice and issues of race, and yet we continue to fit into this system where we seem dependent on the white leadership of organizations.” He says it’s a catch-22, because inner-city ministries need resources, but funding more easily flows from white resources to white-led organizations. “There is the issue of contacts and connections at work here,” he says, “but I also believe race is a factor. I believe there still is mistrust of black-led organizations by white funding sources and we don’t openly recognize or acknowledge this since white-led organizations are dependent on those same resources.” (For statistical data on nonprofit funding bias, see the sidebar below.)

Another nationally recognized black ministry leader who asked not to be identified told Urban Faith about the painful experience of having to ask white associates to elicit funds from donors who had turned him down. “At least I was smart enough to say, ‘This is life as it is.’ I could either fight it or take advantage of it.”

After three decades of success, this leader has the clout to court donors independently, but says, “I’m watching 30-year-old white guys … Everyone wants to give them the world, and they haven’t done a thing yet.” His voice trails off. “But I’ve had to build this whole history of successful ministry that goes 30-plus years, and now maybe, maybe somebody might trust me that I might be able to do something constructive on their investment.”

Elmer Jackson sounds a similar note. As the charismatic founder and principal of West Side Christian Academy in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Jackson says, “What I’ve found is that I’ve had to make relationships and show myself faithful. People are looking to see what our end product is.” (Among West Side’s early supporters was musician Bruce Springsteen.) Jackson says he’s had to outperform his white peers in order to secure comparable levels of support, but the former Marine adds, “I’ve been doing that my whole life.”

For all these leaders, race-based funding disparities present a significant spiritual challenge. Though they remain confident that God has called them to their work, they find it difficult to have confidence in the current system. Says Jenkins: “There’s just this lack of trust, and oftentimes I feel that if the body of Christ cannot be representative of a new model, then how will we have any credibility to speak about what the kingdom looks like?”

Nonprofit Funding Bias: The Numbers


Presentation by Andrew Sears of TechMission.

Tomorrow’s Entrepreneurs

Tomorrow's EntrepreneursAs our country sinks further into uncertainty about its economic future, I find hope in the fact that some of us have been down this road before and lived to tell about it. In 1999 I was laid off from the company I’d poured my life into, my wife and I had just welcomed our second child, and I was struggling to figure out exactly how God was ordering my steps. To be honest, I didn’t see it. For six years, I had been teaching youth how to start and operate businesses, and now I had to put those lessons into reality for the sake of my family — and to see if I could live out what I had been teaching for years.