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Workshop in Business Opportunities: Fighting Racism By Empowering Minority Entrepreneurs
At a time when communities of color are being rocked by multiple national crises, the Workshop in Business Opportunities (WIBO) is out there doing what it’s been doing for 55 years – quietly building economic and political strength by empowering minority entrepreneurs. WIBO’s mission has stayed relevant since the 1960s – and it remains a crucial piece of the puzzle now confronting American society: how to dismantle a legacy of systemic racism. Now enrolling for its fall 2020 virtual workshop series, which begins September 21, applicants can register at https://wibo.works/how-wibo-works/.
WIBO has an unmatched track record: 18,676 entrepreneurs trained, more than 34,000 jobs created, and 54% of businesses built by WIBO grads still up and running after five years – compared to a national average of 20%. Its core program is now offered through affiliates in five U.S. cities and several countries around the world. Because the classes are currently offered exclusively online, they are available everywhere.
Launched in 1966 by the late Walter Geier (a white sales and marketing training consultant for Fortune 500 companies) and Mal Woolfolk (a legendary Black lawyer and advisor to the Harlem political elite), WIBO was the nation’s first comprehensive entrepreneurship program – 16-week nuts and bolts training workshop designed to help people from low-income and minority communities build growing, profitable (never “small”) businesses. From its beginning at a Brooklyn site, which quickly expanded to 10 locations throughout New York City, since its founding WIBO has since grown to include locations in eight other states, including Native American Territories, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Arizona. The program workbook has even been translated into Chinese and Tibetan and used to train entrepreneurs in those countries. And, after WIBO’s first Wall Street Journal article, colleges and universities across the United States began requesting copies of the program workbook.
“WIBO was born at a time of intense national strife, a time of protest and unrest in the face of persistent racism,” says Stephen Jackson, WIBO’s energetic CEO. “Walter and Mal had a message – ‘you want Black Power? That means economic power!’ They understood that with economic growth comes political power, and the ability to fight racism and change society.
“The same is true today,” Jackson continues, “but communities of color are still up against it. Only 3% of venture capital money goes into minority-owned businesses. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it so much worse, closing 40% of Black-owned businesses, many of which won’t be able to re-open. And now, of course, the uprising around Black Lives Matter has cast light on underlying problems in our society that never went away.”
Jackson argues that WIBO’s original prescription is one important cure for these ills: “We need to be building profitable businesses in our communities because if you’re not creating jobs and generating tax revenues, economic growth becomes stale and communities lose power. A lot of jobs lost in this pandemic are not coming back – and starting their own businesses will be one way for folks to take control of their lives, build something for themselves and their families, and empower their communities.”
Jackson himself is a 1992 WIBO graduate who used his training to build and sell not one but three multi-million-dollar media businesses, plus a successful nonprofit organization. Driven to give back, he served as a WIBO volunteer for more than 15 years, became CEO in 2018, and since then has worked to build and expand the program – and now guide it through a challenging time.
“The level of hate and division in this country today is terrifying,” says Jackson, “and a lot of it is driven by economic insecurity and the delusion of scarcity – that if people of color get ahead, it somehow takes something away from white people. This is the myth that fueled the massacre of a prosperous Black community in Tulsa in 1921, and frankly it is the same myth that drives hatred today, including the demonization of immigrant communities.
“The reality is: we can all strive and compete and grow successful businesses and prosperous communities. WIBO has worked for a half-century to answer this lie of economic scarcity, by sharing the knowledge necessary to start and grow a profitable business, and providing access to networks and capital. Our goal is to create entrepreneurs who hire from their communities, build political power, and fight back against racism with economic power.”
The core of WIBO is still the original 16-week, peer to peer workshop, taught entirely by volunteer business-people, that walks participants through every stage of designing and implementing a business – from market research and shaping your message, to prospecting and sales, to financial and human resources management. “Businesses don’t fail for lack of hard work,” says Jackson, “it’s lack of practical business skills. That’s what we provide.”
But WIBO also recognizes that starting a business can be lonely and stressful, particularly for those working to escape poverty or re-enter society after incarceration. The core workshop is therefore now complemented by an Entrepreneur Mindset Program, a separate experiential program for current students and graduates that teaches methods for handling the stresses and challenges of starting and growing a new business. WIBO has also launched the WIBO Academy, offering advanced programs for graduates on such issues as marketing, customer experiences, and business management. Tuition for all programs is modest, and WIBO offers scholarships for targeted groups like veterans, public housing residents, and formerly incarcerated persons.
And of course, WIBO has had to pivot to adjust to the coronavirus epidemic. “We were already pretty much a virtual organization,” jokes Jackson, “since we’re made up entirely of volunteers, and we were already moving programs online to make them more accessible in more places. Obviously, now, that’s accelerated, and we’re doing all of our programs online.”
WIBO has also developed a streamlined 10-week version of its core workshop aimed at freelancers and online businesses – helping entrepreneurs in the “gig economy” get up and running fast. “Unemployment is going to remain high for a while,” says Jackson. “But there are many ways for people to use their gifts and talents – maybe turn their side hustle into a real business.”
“A business workshop isn’t going to end racism by itself,” says Jackson. “Obviously there are other ways that hatred must be confronted, other battles that must be fought. But this is one way to move forward that all people of goodwill can get behind. It’s really about making the American dream a reality for everyone, and creating prosperity that raises all boats.”
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