A Conversation on Creating Equitable Opportunities for All Michiganders

Aileen Cohen

Friday, February 11, 2022

Michigan’s rich culture and ethnic diversity help to create a more equitable and resilient economy while supporting communities of color. Aileen Cohen, MEDC’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, talks with LeTasha Peebles from MEDC’s Entrepreneurship & Innovation team about how prioritizing support for Black-owned, women-owned and minority-owned businesses, and expanding economic opportunity for women and entrepreneurs of color, can help to drive economic growth and prosperity across all of Michigan.

See below for excerpts and key insights from the conversation and watch the full 20-minute livestream to learn more.

MEDC’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation team helps propel businesses with access to critical resources

Aileen Cohen: Your role with MEDC's entrepreneurship and innovation team has allowed you to work with organizations that support entrepreneurs and small business owners in many different industries. What would you say that experience has been like for you?

LeTasha Peebles: The experience has been great. As part of this role, I get to work with our SmartZones, which are strategically designated business accelerators throughout the state, that help entrepreneurs at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey. Then we have the university programs that are helping commercialize technology. And of course, we have partners like the Michigan Small Business Development Center that are also helping entrepreneurs with business plans and access to critical resources. For me, watching these organizations go out of their way to help entrepreneurs and really drive small businesses forward has been great.

Cohen: In 2020, you were part of MEDC’s effort to partner with Michigan Women Forward to create the Michigan Entrepreneur Resilience Fund, which prioritized support for women and communities of color at a time where there weren't really many equitable resources for diverse owned businesses and entrepreneurs to receive support. How did that partnership come together? And what kind of impact has it had in the last year and a half?

Peebles: My initial introduction to Michigan Women Forward came by way of their business pitch competition. After observing that I was blown away at how well they did in terms of preparing entrepreneurs and the other resources that they were providing. From there, my colleague Maggie McCammon and I really developed a relationship with the organization.

When the pandemic hit, we saw how it disproportionately affected small businesses, particularly those owned by women and minorities, and we knew that we had to do something quickly. Our initial thought was to set up a micro loan and grant program, and we knew through our partnership and relationship with Michigan Women Forward they would be a great candidate for that. We worked diligently on a proposal that became the Michigan Entrepreneur Resilience Fund.

With that launch we were able to help almost 200 small businesses from the U.P. to Detroit. Of those small businesses, 73% were located in disadvantaged areas, 48% were owned by minorities, and 80% were owned by women. We were able to create 115 new jobs and retain 252 positions. These businesses saw an increase in revenue of over $8 million. That, to me, sends a strong message of how we can invest in a very early stage business and see a critical return even in a pandemic.

Planting seeds for Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

Cohen: How can expanding opportunity for women and people of color have a positive impact on Michigan's entrepreneurial ecosystem and the state's economy?

Peebles: We’re kind of conditioned to think that a return on investment must involve a huge company. But we have small businesses that require little investment that will have bigger dividends and returns over a longer term.

A great example is Skinphorea, a clinical skincare line company and boutique out of the Detroit area. They utilized Michigan Women Forward at a time when they were hearing a lot of “no’s”. This is not uncommon for small businesses, especially when you are woman owned or minority owned. An investment from Michigan Women Forward started a trajectory for this company. They were set up in Royal Oak and opened a second location in Corktown. Then recently an article was published showing that they are now bringing in over $1 million in revenue. They have two locations, multiple staff, wages, investment, and they are also looking at franchising opportunities. This is all a return on investment from one small seed that was placed in the beginning.

MEDC offers vast opportunities and resources for Michigan small businesses

Cohen: For entrepreneurs and business owners who are joining us today, what resources are available through the MEDC?

Peebles: Number one, our SmartZone business accelerators. We have 21 across the state that are available to help small businesses. We also have our university programs, our community development base, Pure Michigan Business Connect and many other resources available at michiganbusiness.org/entrepreneurship.

We also have our Capital Access Program, which you have a background on. What would you share in terms of helping entrepreneurs and in providing resources we have available?

Cohen: With the Capital Access team we work with lenders, traditional and not. By connecting with the lender and letting them know about MEDC programming and things of that nature, we can help start the conversation. But I think there's more to come. I think that we are expanding how we assist small business, and especially for small businesses by women, minorities, and entrepreneurs of color. It's going to be exciting to see where MEDC goes.

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