Plans for an incubator and accelerator program for Black business owners called Rock County Jumpstart are underway in the Beloit/Janesville area. Organizers are actively seeking mentors, participants and Black-owned businesses.
The program, which is in development, is the brainchild of longtime business owner and entrepreneur Genia Stevens.
Stevens is the founder of consulting firms Belwah Media and Belwah Strategy, and also founded the peer mentoring group Dane County Masterminds. She is also an Entrepreneur in Residence at Madison College’s Goodman South Campus.
Stevens ran her business out of Beloit for 18 years in the face of difficult circumstances. For Stevens, the community around Beloit was not a welcoming one for a Black business owner and, worse, there didn’t seem to be any effort underway to pave the way for moreh Black business owners to develop.
“There’s nothing out there in Beloit saying ‘we want you to be successful, we want you to make it’”, Stevens said of the environment for Black business owners. “At least there’s things in Madison that’s being presented to the Black community. Those programs don’t exist in Beloit. None of the four Chambers around Rock County have anything in place to develop Black entrepreneurs. None have any program in place to help specifically women and minorities.”
Stevens’ business was physically in Beloit for 18 years but she says that the majority of her business dealings were with clients outside Wisconsin. When she attended events or meetings for business owners or geared towards professional people, she was always one of just a couple Black faces.
“Going into spaces that are supposed to be entrepreneurial spaces in Beloit, Chamber events and other professional events, professional networking events and being only one or two people of color. If I walk into those spaces and I don’t necessarily feel all that comfortable, how are others feeling, who may not be as advanced in their careers as I am? I’ve been in business a long time but I’m going into these spaces and I’m not even feeling that comfortable or welcome. Being snubbed by organizations where, you know, I’m a marketing company in Beloit but yet you don’t even call me to say ‘Hey, there’s an RFP available and we know you’re a marketing company in Beloit’. But yet you skip over me and call the white guy. Stuff like that goes on in Beloit.”
That frustration led Stevens to move her business to Madison in 2018 and when she arrived here she saw the environment was completely different. While there is still the same old, same old perhaps in terms of going to a business event and being a lonely face of color, the amount of resources devoted to helping people of color attempting to embark on entrepreneurial enterprises was completely different than what was happening in Beloit.
“When I got to Madison I saw all these great opportunities for Black business owners, people of color. Programs like (Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s) Upstart and the Social Good Accelerator, and just all these resources and tools that were available,” Stevens said. “All those things that weren’t available to me to help get me to where I was and just thinking about all the struggles that I went through in Beloit and thinking things would have been so much easier if I had these things available in Beloit. That got me thinking that I can do this. I can take all this back to Beloit.”
With the help of seven friends, Stevens was able to identify about 20 businesses around Beloit that were Black owned. Her idea is to bring together Black business owners into one space and have more experienced business owners mentor people who are still on the basement floor of building their business.
But Stevens never imagined the scope of the project in terms of how many Black owned businesses there truly were in Beloit.
This year at the annual Juneteenth Celebration, Stevens and her friends were discussing all of this and decided to put a sign-up sheet on the RSVP table there at the Juneteenth Celebration. The sign up sheet asked for anyone who either ran their own business or knew a Black person running their own business to just write it down on that piece of paper.
By day’s end there were 55 Black-owned businesses identified in Beloit. And that was just from the people who wrote it down at the Juneteenth Celebration.
“We don’t even know what we’re looking at for the numbers in Rock County,” Stevens said. “We ended up with 55 and that’s just from sitting down at a Juneteenth Celebration. We have to do research. We’ve only done Beloit, not Janesville yet.”
Stevens anticipates that after some researching and canvassing of the Rock County area, they will choose maybe 20 business owners to be part of their first incubator. Some business owners, who are more experienced, will be able to participate in an accelerator, but Stevens is still in the process of deciding how that will happen. As it is, the 55 business owners they’ve already identified are at a wide variety of levels.
“You know, there’s some that are still on the basement of their business. They’re running it out of their homes, they’re going to events and putting out a booth and selling their stuff. They’re ready but they’re running it out of their home. Some are graphic designers, some are doing marketing, some are making homemade health and skin products, others are making customized gift baskets and things like that. We have a Black owned pet care and grooming business. We have a Black owned drive-thru convenience store which nobody even knew existed. Those kinds of businesses.”
Stevens’ big picture vision is to have Black business owners become members of Rock County Jumpstart. That membership brings them into the co-working space and gives them access to trainers from Blackhawk Technical College who will be providing weekly workshops on how to run a business. Members would get all the things one would normally receive from a co-working space, such as mailboxes, working space, wifi, and so on.
Additionally, there will be mentors and coaches there to meet at the co-working space with the business owners who are participating.
Members who have been in business for several years or who are further along in their business would have the opportunity to apply for an accelerator program. The accelerator is for people who already have businesses up and running, have “been there and done that,” as Stevens said, but are just trying to move up to the next level.
“Part of that is also leadership development,” Stevens told Madison365. “Because of what’s happening in Beloit with our School Board… I wanna say that a lot of our problems go a lot deeper than what we’re seeing with the Madison School Board. And there’s a lot of problems in our city council. So what we’re building into our program is a leadership development program. You agree when you become a member of Rock County Jumpstart that you’re going to be involved in your community, so what we would like to do is keep our members very updated on what’s happening in the community.”
Members who join the co-working space will be part of an incubator that is ongoing.
“It’s an ongoing, long-term incubator because the classes run all the time,” Stevens said. “There’s always a class. As long as you’re a member here you’re always in a workshop and there’s always mentors and coaches available to you. And we hope to turn the members who are there into coaches. In the beginning, we’re going to bring in mentors and coaches who have been in business awhile and mentor people who are new and then the people who are new to the community will eventually take over as the mentors.”
Rock County Jumpstart is working closely with Blackhawk Technical College, who is making space at the college available for the program. Stevens anticipates that Rock Valley Jumpstart will have its own physical space inside of a building that is currently being constructed in Beloit.
Rock County Jumpstart is also actively looking for experienced mentors who own or have owned their own business. Anyone interested in mentoring, as well as anyone who is a Black business owner in Rock County, should contact Genia Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org
“There’s no reason another Black business owner should feel the way I felt,” Stevens said. “There’s no reason another Black business owner should have to pick up their marbles and move them someplace else. No reason a Black business owner from Beloit and Janesville should feel the way I felt. And, historically, that’s what happened in Beloit and Janesville. You have Black business owners who they either feel unwelcome and they either close their business or they move it someplace else and I don’t want that to keep happening.”