Program offers entrepreneurs training – and some cash to get a business started

The owner of Mrs. J's Cookies took part in LaunchRALEIGH, a program for entrepreneurs.
The owner of Mrs. J's Cookies took part in LaunchRALEIGH, a program for entrepreneurs.

When Matthew Kane was asked to come up with a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the North Raleigh Rotary Club, the first thing he did was ask a few questions. Where was help needed, and what kind? He learned about LaunchDETROIT, which supports entrepreneurs in under-served communities, and he decided to bring the program close to home.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Southeast Raleigh when you brought LaunchRALEIGH, part of the LaunchMYCITY platform, to town?

A: A good friend of mine is the executive director of Passage Home (a nonprofit dedicated to breaking the poverty cycle in Raleigh), and I went to visit her. She said, "Over the past 20 years, we’ve offered job training, low-income housing and after-school care, but one thing we’ve never been able to do is provide any entrepreneurship training."

Q: How does the program work?

A: It’s eight weeks of business education. People are given access to loans of $2,500. They’re assigned a mentor and then there are networking opportunities for them to help build their business.

One of the things that’s hard to measure is the camaraderie the group feels. On 5:30 each Tuesday night, we provide a meal to the students and then the class goes from 6 to 9 p.m. It’s very interactive, so there’s talking and laughing and breaking into small groups to figure out how to move forward, what are the best answers to put a plan together, how’s my cash flow and who’s my target audience.

Q: In March 2017, LaunchRALEIGH graduated its first class of 20 students and is now on its third class. What kind of businesses is the program growing?

A: There’s Mrs. J’s Cookies, owned by Janel Johnson, a veteran who was looking to branch out and sell more cookies. She’s in at least one grocery store and at the farmers market now. I think the class helped her turn her business into a solid vision.

Q: Who teaches the class?

Rotarians aren’t doing all the work. I tell people as we expand this model and when I’m talking to clubs, "If Rotary is doing all the work you’re doing something wrong." It’s supposed to be a partnership program.

Q: Who are your partners?

A: The education component for North Raleigh is handled by Wake Tech Community College. The Carolina Small Business Development Fund puts together a loan package for our students, giving a special low-interest rate. Shaw University provides meeting space each week for the training program as well as space for interviews. St. Augustine’s University has provided leadership for the program, and one of the professors helped with development.

Q: What’s been your biggest surprise about the program?

A: The biggest surprise has been how capable and qualified these entrepreneurs are. They come into the class and some have plenty of experience running a business, but what they don’t have is any kind of formal training. So the program puts them in a classroom setting where they can ask the basic questions like how should my business be structured, who should be my target audience, and where do I find these customers.

You can run a business a long time just by the seat of your pants. One of the entrepreneurs said the other day he’d been running his food truck for years but had really not known how to go about it professionally. This class helps do that.

Q: Launch programs are now taking off in Durham, Rocky Mount and Johnston County. LaunchWAKEFOREST graduated students a few weeks ago. Will you continue to spread the word?

A: Yes. I’m doing a presentation in late June at a Rotary International Convention in Toronto on the LaunchMYCITY platform for an audience that will include people from around the world. I was also just in Apex giving a presentation to the Apex Rotary Club, one of two that will create LaunchAPEX for its first class in the fall.

Just the number of Launch programs around here exceed the rest of the Launch programs in the whole country. So we’ve definitely taken it by storm.

Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Matthew Kane — Tar Heel of the Week

Born: Jan. 25, 1960, in Washington, D.C.

Residence: Raleigh

Education: Studied marketing at Virginia Tech

Family: Wife Sonia and three children — Ryan, 30; Connor, 26; Colleen, 23

Fun fact: He is one of eight siblings

Find out more:launchraleigh.org