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National nonprofit helps minority- and low-income-owned businesses grow

Mandile Mpofu
National nonprofit helps minority- and low-income-owned businesses grow
Interise CEO Darrell Byers PHOTO: Courtesy Darrell Byers

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In the late 1980s, Darrell Byers ran a small business designing and selling air filtration systems to companies across the country. In the four years he ran his business, he said, he faced barriers that hindered his journey, including being disregarded when it came to lucrative business contracts.

Now the CEO of Interise, a national nonprofit, Byers said little has changed between then and now.

“What’s been disheartening for me is the roadblocks that were there in the late ’80s, early ’90s, are still there in 2024,” he said. “Now, starting a small business is hard for anyone.”

The challenge is greater for women- and minority-owned businesses, which have often been overlooked in business contracts.

In 2021, for example, while 12% of businesses registered to receive federal contracts had Black owners, according to federal data, only 2% were awarded contracts. Overall, just 3% of federal contracts were awarded to any minority-owned businesses, even though they made up a quarter of eligible businesses.

Under the Biden-Harris administration, however, minority-owned small businesses have made gains in federal contracting. From 2020 to 2023, the amount of federal contracting dollars awarded to Black-owned small businesses increased by $800 million, according to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Hispanic American, Asian American and Native American small business owners also saw increases of $900 million, $2.1 billion and $2.8 billion, respectively, in that same period.

But minority business owners still lag behind their peers.

For the last 20 years, Interise has been working to change that by helping minority and low-income business owners grow their enterprises and equipping them with the tools necessary to do so.

Origin and growth

Interise was founded in 2004 by a Boston University graduate in partnership with the university. Inner City Entrepreneurs, as it was known at the time, worked with women-owned businesses in Greater Boston, with wealth-building as the core of its mission.

What started as a research project in Boston evolved into a nonprofit that has served more than 10,000 people in more than 80 cities, according to Interise.

“What we know is that by providing these businesses the tools to work on their business and not in their businesses, that they can grow,” said Byers, who also said he wishes Interise had been around when he was a small-business owner.

With Juneteenth around the corner, Byers took a moment to reflect on how Interise’s work aligns with the core message of the June 19 holiday.

“We are building community,” he said. “Juneteenth allowed the freedom for Black people to finally grow their own businesses, to build generational wealth over time.” Interise’s goal, he said, is to give people of color “the same opportunity everyone else has … We live this mission every day and we’re proud of our mission, and it means so much to everyone in the company.”

Byers added that the businesses Interise works with hire most of their employees locally, allowing them to pour back into their communities.

Vicki Gray, founder and owner of New Chapter HI Services, said Streetwise MBA helped her grow her business. PHOTO: Bethany Versoy

Streetwise MBA

Interise’s primary offering is Streetwise MBA, a free seven-month-long, five-module customizable program that teaches entrepreneurs what they need to know about accessing capital, marketing and financial literacy.

During the StreetwiseMBA program, small business owners working in various industries including transportation, hospitality, construction and retail meet with a network of peers to learn in tandem and brainstorm.

“One of the most fascinating things we found with our research over the years [is that] one of the most important things that you can do for a business is provide peer-to-peer mentoring,” Byers said. “Because we know that being a CEO is a lonely job.”

Small businesses that have been operational for at least two years and have at least two employees and $250,000 in annual revenue are eligible to apply for the program. The course requires a significant commitment, with participants, many of whom work more than full time, attending classes for three hours every other week.

For Vicki Gray, the time investment paid off.

Gray, the founder and owner of New Chapter HI Services, a company specializing in interior and exterior painting services, was about four years into her entrepreneurship journey when a friend told her about Interise’s Streetwise MBA program.

Her business was unprofitable and losing money, she said, and was at the tipping point where startups either fail or succeed.

So, she enrolled in the Streetwise MBA program, “where they taught us … to focus on what you’re good at and then expand from there,” Gray said.

She learned that she had been operating backward. Instead of honing one area of expertise to start, the business had been offering all sorts of services — renovation, plumbing, electrical — without a trusted network of contractors and an understanding of pricing. The business was “failing miserably,” she said.

Almost a decade after completing the Streetwise MBA and learning how to effectively run a company, Gray said her business has “grown tremendously.” New Chapter HI Services brings in over $800,000 in revenue annually and is on track to reach the $1 million threshold. The company has also worked with big-name clients, including Harvard University and Boston Logan Airport.

“As a Black female business owner, my experience, my opinion is that we’re automatically perceived as uneducated or not knowing, and there has to be a constant battle to change that perception,” she said. “What Interise did … is they provided me the areas that I needed to do better in as a business owner.”

Ongoing support

To this day, Gray said she still receives support from Interise.

Even after business owners complete the program, Byers said, they have access to webinars to help them run their businesses and keep them updated on the changes in the business industry, including workshops about employee wellness, mergers and acquisitions.

In the future, Byers said, Interise will introduce new programs and update its curriculum to reflect the economy at that time. This means assisting small business owners with pandemic preparation and helping them discover ways to access capital and expand internationally.

“We’ve been committed to this for 20 years. We look forward to doing it for the next 20 years,” said Byers. “The best thing that can happen to us is that the playing field is leveled and there’s not a need for companies like Interise.”

business, Interise, minority-owned small businesse, Streetwise MBA