Diversity & Inclusion
DEI / Resources / Small businesses / Startups

‘We’re trying to create wealth’: E3 initiative makes minority-owned small businesses think big as it expands south

The Wilmington pilot is going full steam, with Dover and Georgetown pilots following.

Gwanyan Barker, founder of Kpelle Designs. (Photo via Instagram)

Check-in alert: It’s been a couple of months since E3 — or the Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem — first launched its pilot in Wilmington with three entrepreneurs on board.

E3 is an initiative to offer coaching, mentoring and comprehensive resource support services to small businesses. The program was announced over the summer, highlighting two timely missions: to help businesses recover from the economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to foster racial equity in Wilmington, a city where Black and brown business owners continue to struggle to find resources, contracts and funding.

Here’s who was included in the first round of the program:

  • Gwanyan Barker, Kpelle Designs — A first-generation Liberian American, Barker’s company designs jewelry, head wraps and fabrics to honor her father’s tribe.
  • Anthony Argon, Spekciton Biosciences — Argon retired from DuPont in 2016 and formed his own biosciences company that focuses on understanding plant science, including plant, water and health.
  • Markevis Gideon, NERDiT Now — Not your average tech repair shop, NERDiT Now focuses its business goals on bridging the digital divide between those who have access to technology and those who don’t.

“It’s going very well so far,” said Stephen Sye of the Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation, one of the organizations that developed E3, along with Wilmington Alliance and Barclays Bank. “The entrepreneurs have a strong sense of what they need to move to the next level. It was very clear what each of them needed to focus on in order to grow.”

Barker, a solo entrepreneur, spoke at the virtual event The Shift, part of the WIN Factory’s Masterminds series, on Wednesday evening as part of an E3 presentation.

“I found out about the E3 program through NextFab,” Barker said, noting that she works at home and out of NextFab’s Wilmington makerspace. “I’m so glad I applied. Wow. They got nitty gritty — literally there was a report card. One of the questions that stood out to me was when they asked me to think big. They forced me to think big. It really opened me up to more possibilities and opportunities and broadened my perspective. They then nurtured me, wrapped their arms around me with resources and access to all of these things I honestly didn’t even know was going on.”

Sye told Technical.ly about some of the things the E3 team recommended for Barker, including transitioning to a corporation and challenging her to create a staffing plan. They also recommended using her existing (and sizable) social media following by establishing herself as an expert influencer and creating content that could position her with an additional revenue stream.

With the first cohort running along smoothly, E3 is starting to establish pilots in Kent and Sussex counties. Two Dover-area businesses, First State Hood & Duct and Before & After Thought Life Coaching have been selected, and a committee has been assembled in Georgetown, with selections there coming soon.

“It’s exiting,” said Jenn Cho, head of citizenship for Barclays US. “Entrepreneurs are a big part of [COVID-19] recovery in our communities. We want to make sure we’re there for them, when things open up and they’re able to grow and expand.”

For the pilot, businesses were selected through a referral process, but in 2021, there will be an open application process, with applications opening in late winter or early spring.

E3, with its mission to help even the playing field in Delaware for underrepresented entrepreneurs, focuses on businesses with a Black or brown founder, in any stage of business life cycle, primarily in the for-profit sector.

“We’re trying to create wealth,” Sye said.

How should interested businesses prepare if they plan to apply in the spring?

“If you’re early stage, really think about what kind of long-term impact it can have on the community and Delaware,” said Sye. “If you’re mid tier, start to think about what else you could do to innovate, especially in this changing environment with digital and ecommerce growing.”

Even if you aren’t selected, you can still benefit from ongoing E3 events and resources, such as The Shift. To stay in the loop on available resources, visit wilmingtonalliance.org and The Freedom Foundation’s E3 page.

Companies: Wilmington Alliance

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