Janel Johnson bakes hundreds of chocolate chip cookies every week.
After spending months perfecting a recipe, Johnson last year launched her own business, Mrs. J’s Cookies, selling homemade cookies online and at events. Customer feedback was always positive, but Johnson wanted to expand her customer base.
That’s when she saw an ad on Facebook for Launch Raleigh, a new program aiming to help entrepreneurs start and expand their businesses in Southeast Raleigh. She applied, interviewed and was accepted into Launch Raleigh’s first class of 21 entrepreneurs, who will spend the next eight weeks learning the basics of building a business, from outlining a vision to identifying a customer base to writing a business plan.
“It’s been a great step in the right direction,” Johnson said. “The networking and knowing that people are there to help you out is great. It’s helping me build a strong foundation.”
Created by the North Raleigh Rotary Club and a series of partners, Launch Raleigh is made up of four components: business training, micro-loans, mentorship and networking. Participants are asked to devote eight hours to the program every week. They spend three hours in class at Shaw University one evening per week and five hours completing homework assignments on their own.
Before each class, they’re given a free meal provided by the program and spend time getting to know their classmates. They’re assigned a mentor, who provides advice and support, and they can apply for micro-loans, which range from $500 to $2,500.
“Entrepreneurship can be very isolating,” said Katie Gailes, director of entrepreneurship initiatives at Wake Technical Community College, a partner of Launch Raleigh.
Launch Raleigh grew out of a conversation that founder Matthew Kane had with Jeanne Tedrow, CEO of Passage Home, a nonprofit working in Southeast Raleigh, about a year ago. There were very few opportunities for entrepreneurs in the area and no co-working spaces or incubators, Tedrow told Kane as they walked through the neighborhood.
Kane, a member of the North Raleigh Rotary Club, had been involved with micro-lending and entrepreneurship ventures overseas through the club and built his own engraving business. Drawing on Launch Detroit, a similar program started by a Rotary Club, he reached out to people and businesses about creating a program targeting Southeast Raleigh and brought his club on board, which raised $25,000 to help fund the program’s micro-loans.
Gailes was one of the people Kane contacted, and she immediately liked the idea for Launch Raleigh. She led the push to get Raleigh’s historic black colleges and universities involved and hopes students will participate in the program.
“There are a lot of people doing a lot of things in Southeast Raleigh, but there’s not structured support for them,” Gailes said. “There’s a lot of excitement downtown, but it stops at Wilmington Street. It doesn’t reach into the African-American community.”
Launch Raleigh’s partners include St. Augustine’s University, Wake Tech, Wells Fargo, Carolina Small Business Development Fund and Shaw University, where the program’s classes are held. Fifty-two people applied to be part of the first class, and applications are open for the next session, which begins in the fall.
“I’ve never seen a program that fills up this quickly,” Kane said. “That confirms that it meets a need in the community.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler
For more information about Launch Raleigh and to apply for the next round of classes go to http://launchraleigh.org/.