he holiday season is all about giving. In that spirit, Wells Fargo and CASSIUS are highlighting a group of young people who are committed to using what they have to empower and impact the lives of others.
From the time Donte Miller began his studies at Morehouse College, the intended path for sharp, business-minded students was always clear.
“If you were smart and into business, the pinnacle of everything you’re learning and doing is supposed to be Wall Street,” Miller says. “That was the goal. That’s how we were trained.”
But once Miller and classmate Nathan Jones beat out more than 250,000 other applicants and spent the summer of 2013 interning for Goldman Sachs, they began to question their professional trajectories. Though thankful for the wealth of knowledge, hands on experience, friendships, and professional connections gained while working at the famed financial institution, something was off.
Miller’s expectations of Wall Street life, shaped by movies, television and what he’d learned at school, didn’t prepare him for what he encountered when he actually made it to New York City. “There was an immediate disconnect,” he says. “It didn’t feel like a place I belonged.”
The young men wondered if this fast-paced, high-profile, and potentially lucrative work would really empower them to give back to underserved and undervalued communities like the ones where they been raised.
“We were there doing what we had been educated to do, making our families proud, learning all this so-called important stuff,” says Jones, who was a senior at the time. “But I started wondering if I wanted to be a 40-year old partner at this firm where nobody back where you’re from knows what you do, just that you ‘work in New York’ and make a lot of money.”
After that awakening, they returned to Morehouse and called on their networks to find people open to volunteering professional services and guidance to local business owners. Miller and Jones partnered with classmate Robin McKinnie to create Village Micro Fund (VMF), a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting and empowering innovators and entrepreneurs in Metro Atlanta through education and guidance, access to capital, and a dynamic support system.
The founders believe disparities in Black business ownership in Atlanta and elsewhere are due to a lack of opportunities rather than a lack of talent. They opted to bring all their vigor, knowledge, and experiences back to the people they actually believed in, those who need them the most.
Observing and considering the relative success of Rudy’s Chicken and Sweet Georgia Brown, two popular Dallas fixtures near his hometown of DeSoto, Texas, made Jones curious. If people were driving an hour from the Dallas suburbs each week and standing in lines that wrapped around the building twice, why weren’t there 50 locations? Why aren’t these types of businesses major community pillars, employing more people?
“Mainly, it’s a lack of support and know-how,” Jones says. “If you don’t know that you can reach out to a bank for a loan or where to find resources to grow your business or don’t know there is help to attain a second or third location, you’ll stay there where you are, and may not grow beyond being the beloved hood spot.”
Their strong belief in the brilliance and capabilities of the business people they saw daily fueled the trio to offer vital resources and connections to help people take their businesses to the next level. It also inspired their quarterly cohorts, self-funded workshops where entrepreneurs can take advantage of financial and business education, panel discussions, consulting, networking, and opportunities to connect with capital. And the crowdfunding side of VMF allows clients and neighbors to invest in—and earn a return from—their favorite establishments.
Since 2015, Village Micro Fund has worked to prove that entrepreneurs in low-income areas can make a tremendous impact on on the direction of their communities. The founders say this work is particularly urgent in light of the cultural, economic, and political changes taking place in Atlanta, where several historic Black communities have seen their Black population decrease drastically in recent years.
“Banks, investors, big development projects don’t come into these neighborhoods and they view these areas as risky,” Jones says, “Now these places go without. We can be the people to solve the problem, to help mitigate gentrification and encourage community involvement.”
One way to be the change was to foster a sense of ownership, which, they learned, changed the way people interacted with their neighborhoods. They could see it clearly with their first client, Keitra Bates, who attended their inaugural small business cohort event. VMF engaged the community to help Bates raise the $4,000 she needed to buy a new oven and make necessary upgrades to her restaurant. Now, Miller says that whenever they walk into Westview Pizza Cafe, they see at least one investor who contributed to the business via their crowdfunding efforts. When surveyed, investors and VMF members said that when given the choice between Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and the pizzeria they owned a piece of, they were far more likely to support Bates and suggest their personal networks do the same.
But the benefits go beyond that. “The change even reflects in the way they care about the area,” Jones says. “They won’t litter there. They’re concerned with crime and development and what’s going on nearby.”
And when businesses thrive, the surrounding areas do as well. Jones also cites increased amenities, improved lighting and roads, and a greater sense of safety as additional side effects that happen when local business are strong.
As of the end of 2017, VMF has worked with 31 businesses. But that’s just the beginning. In addition to exploring the creation of an international cryptocurrency that can be used by Black businesses to exchange goods and services, future plans for greatness include securing a building to house the next generation of changemakers, ideally on the campus of Morris Brown College. They want to partner with the school to provide education and housing for entrepreneurs. Beyond that, the plan is the keep the party going, duplicating their efforts in other cities with the same social and economic issues.
“The issues in Atlanta are the same as back home near Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, etc. The stories are the same.” Jones says. “The lack of access is the same, the need for information, backing, and a village is there.”
In addition to navigating the “nonprofit industrial complex” to secure funding and accelerate growth, Miller hopes to bring Atlanta’s community of innovators together.
“Atlanta has a lot of dope things happening, but everything is happening in silos. Everyone is keeping their heads down and doing their work,” he explains. “So you have people in the same city, struggling on the same things, that don’t know each other but may have valuable knowledge, advice, or tools to offer one another. Our job is to connect some of these people and builder a bigger, stronger village.”
Find out more about giving by visiting this article’s sponsor at WellsFargo.com