Boston University Sociology Study Blossoms Into Innovative Inner-City Business-Building Program
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(Boston) — Building on Boston University sociology professor Daniel Monti’s premise that a thriving local business will help vitalize an ethnic neighborhood, 14 Boston small-business owners are wrapping up the inaugural class of the InnerCity Entrepreneurs (ICE) program. A model that Monti says can be replicated in any inner city, the pilot program is equipping entrepreneurs to break into the city’s larger business networks while strengthening their local communities.
For 20 years Monti has studied how small businesses and local ethnic groups have historically been key builders of American neighborhoods. To harness these constructive forces, he launched the ICE initiative, which applies hard-core business economic tools to jumpstart inner-city businesses — which become case studies — and stimulate the entire community-building process.
“There’s a lot of technical assistance available for inner-city start-ups, but virtually nothing for established businesses that want to grow,” said Monti. “We want owners who have passed the 3- to 5-year survival test, train them, and put them in the same room to collaborate on extending their markets. Then time will tell just how much they can improve both their businesses and their neighborhoods.”
Since January, the ICE participants have been attending 3-hour classes every two weeks that cover financial management, cost analysis, hiring and training, and goal setting. Each business owner also is creating a 3-year strategic growth plan to be monitored, and will take part in a 5-year study of their progress. Along the way they’re being plugged into a network of legal, accounting, banking, venture capital, and real estate experts who will help them continue to grow their enterprises.
A collaborative of BU’s Sociology Department, the Entrepreneurial Management Institute of BU’s School of Management, and Roxbury Community College’s Small Business Development Institute, the pilot ICE program is financed by a $100,000 grant from Citizens Bank. Monti is seeking more corporate sponsors, hoping to have five such programs operating in Massachusetts to act as models for cities in other states around the nation to replicate.
The ICE program grew from Monti’s search for ways small businesses could strengthen inner-city communities. His studies showed that historically while business leaders tend to become civic leaders, inner-city business owners have often marketed only to their own ethnic groups and therefore have become isolated, their business growth stagnated.
Theorizing that this stagnation could be avoided by applying sophisticated business skills and sharing customer bases, Monti approached BU School of Management Professor Andrew Wolk who was mulling similar ideas. Monti and Wolk, who is now the ICE director, joined forces and forged a partnership with Roxbury Community College, which approached Citizens Bank for the financing.
“As a sociologist, I thought the best way for up-and-coming business people to become more successful and assume a broader public role as community leaders was to have folks from different ethnic backgrounds work together,” said Monti. “Discussions across these boundaries have already succeeded in giving them new ideas about how to run and grow their businesses. Figuring out ways to enter each other’s markets will take more time, but this also looks promising. Meantime, they’re all thinking critically about the larger civic role they play in their community.”
After the ICE participants earn certificates in Small Business Entrepreneurship and finish the coursework, each will take part in a learning circle and work with a business mentor to keep to the business plan updated over the 5-year monitoring period. It is hoped they will continue to meet with each other and their mentor/coaches.
Wolk said the ICE program looks to be an efficient use of scarce training resources. “There is a far greater opportunity for wealth generation and job creation by focusing resources on existing businesses interested in growth who can learn from each other,” he said, “without having to share program time with start-ups and sole proprietorships.”
Boston University is the fourth-largest independent university in the United States, with an enrollment of more than 29,000 students in its 17 schools and colleges. The university offers an exceptional grounding in the liberal arts, a broad range of programs in the arts, sciences, engineering, and professional areas, and state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research.