By: Brendan Landry Issue: Innovation, Growth, Job Creation Section: Community
A Curriculum to Grow Your Own Job
Here is a staggering fact — as of the print date of this article a minimum wage job was paying roughly $7.36 per hour in the State of Colorado, meaning that a minimum wage worker was only grossing a weekly wage of about $240. That doesn’t seem all too bad until you put it in the context of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency — what does that mean?
Simply put, self-sufficiency is defined by the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute as an individual’s ability to meet basic needs — food, shelter, and clothing — without public or private support. And when you consider the fact that the required annual wage for a family of three living in Denver, Colorado to be considered self-sufficient is over $45,000, you start to see just how paltry that $240 a week actually is. In fact, that’s a weekly cash gap of over $500 for anyone keeping tabs. So what does job growth mean to the one in five families in Colorado currently living within this constant cash gap? Short answer: Maybe another $240 a week—which still leaves a cash gap of about $260.
Even the most successful job-creation strategies across the country often do not provide extensive opportunities for these low-wage workers to grow personally and professionally, to earn more, and build assets and wealth, and move off of public assistance over the long term. Instead, the problem is addressed with short term, ‘band-aid’ solutions that require these individuals to take on yet another low-paying job, further sacrificing their quality of life, and spending more time away from the family; all without the promise of advancement or the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s face it, even the best minimum-wage earning lunch lady in the United States—the best of the best—is not going to be promoted to even a teacher’s salary based on her outstanding performance. So where is the opportunity for upward mobility? How can someone earn a living that more fully provides for the family and allows them to live outside the realm of low-wage employment?
To answer these questions, many people have turned to business ownership as a third option. They are “growing a job” and creating another source of income for themselves and their families. Called microenterprises, these very small businesses are generally operated by five or fewer employees (but most often just the proprietor), and require less than $35,000 in startup capital. “Microenterprise can be a great path for someone with limited economic opportunity,” says Rob Smith, executive director of the Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute (RMMFI). “It’s all about using a skill and a willingness to work hard to create a new and grow-able income stream that wasn’t there before.”
RMMFI is a Denver, Colorado based nonprofit organization that specializes in providing learning, lending, and coaching to help low-income entrepreneurs launch businesses. The group has recently unveiled its Business Launch Boot Camp to help low-income entrepreneurs create self-sufficiency through business ownership. The focus of the program is not just business planning, but actual launch; and Smith is careful to reiterate what it means for these businesses to be launched in the community. “At the end of the day, launch means that our clients have a new way to generate income. Is the business covering all the household bills right out of the gate? No. But it’s a start.” Smith refers to what RMMFI calls the parallel path to income generation, a philosophy that is encouraged among their clients, and involves combining income from a job, from public assistance, and other sources while the business continues to grow. RMMFI believes that with the experience the clients are provided through the Business Launch Boot Camp, they will have the ability, in the long term, to move away from less sustainable income streams, like public assistance programs, and essentially grow their own job through the business.
The Business Launch Boot Camp is a 12-week intensive program that provides a mix of learning, lending, mentorship, and coaching with the aim of having the business launched at the end of the program. “We are all about the launch,” says Smith. “There is a clear need for increased income in the population that we serve and our goal is to get these businesses to sustainable revenue-generation as quickly as possible.”
RMMFI is currently in the midst of the pilot run of the Business Launch Boot Camp and is working with eight entrepreneurs toward the launch of business concepts that range from a residential cleaning service to a gardener, and from photography to an eco-friendly terrarium builder. The group will undergo eight intensive weeks of learning and business planning before transitioning into the four-week launch phase, and throughout the process, each boot camper is provided with regular access to a one-on-one mentor, a business coach, and a roster of volunteer business experts to help with specific areas of the business plan. The overall goal is to surround clients with as much “real world” exposure as possible, and have that outside expert support be a supplement to the learning they receive through core programs. In addition to the learning opportunities and expert guidance, each boot camper is preapproved for some level of microloan as part of being invited to take part in the program. “The preapproval essentially starts out as a $0 loan,” says Smith, “but through the process, if they do the work and demonstrate the learning and the capital needs of the business, the clients can be eligible for a loan of up to $2,500.”
RMMFI’s overall philosophy is that poor planning equals poor results, so each program component is designed to help the client put together a viable plan that takes into account both the skill sets of the individual and the feasibility of the business concept. The process results in a business owner who can clearly and concisely tell the story of what their business does and demonstrate numbers that back it up. But what really sets RMMFI’s program apart from more traditional business planning agencies is the focus on the business launch and moving the boot campers beyond the planning phase and into implementation. “This is where we think the coaching and mentorship aspects are so crucial,” says Smith. “It can be a daunting task to move from an idea to actually having a business out on the street, and we designed the Boot Camp process to help push the entrepreneurs through that fear factor.”
Just three weeks into the Business Launch Boot Camp, Pam Tanino, the mind behind PVA4U.com, a virtual personal assistant service, has a good idea of where she wants to be on graduation day. “I hope to have a solid foundation for my business in the form of a thorough business plan,” she says, “…and client contracts with commitments that represent a 300% increase in monthly revenue.” Tanino is a prime example of the type of entrepreneur that RMMFI targets. She has a need for increased household income, and has decided that business ownership is a viable option for her. Furthermore, she possesses a marketable skill — something that she is good at — and she has committed to the Boot Camp process to help her build a business around that skill.
RMMFI’s first group of boot campers will graduate on July 30th and each client has set their sights on an end goal, and most of these goals link back to that concept of job growth. The work they will have done planning for the business will lead to clearly defined revenue paths and a solid foundation on which to grow the business. “Initially, it’s another line in the water,” says Smith, referring to business’s immediate focus on generating revenue, “and because of the experience they’ve had, because of the work they’ve done, the clients have a good understanding of how to maintain it and grow their revenues to a point where it provides the income they need to take care of their families.”
Microenterprise, in and of itself, is a long term solution for the ongoing issue of growing viable jobs for people at all levels of our economy that has been tried and tested for years and years to varying degrees of success. But it is these creative takes on that model, like RMMFI’s Business Launch Boot Camp, that have the potential to cause a new ripple effect in the job market — to hand over some ownership to the people in need of more personal income.
It is about moving beyond the short term “band-aid” solutions; it is about increasing household income, and decreasing reliance on public assistance, and ultimately growing more jobs; but first and foremost, it is about launching the business.
Brendan is co-founder and Director of Programs for the Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute (RMMFI), a Denver-based nonprofit that offers learning, lending, and coaching to grow community entrepreneurs who build businesses to advance along the pathway to self-sufficiency and self-worth. To learn more about RMMFI, please visit www.rmmfi.org.