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Incubator brings new beginnings to disadvantaged community

by Brittany Timmons

June/July 2009

Amidst disheartening stories of a dreary economic climate, an innovative incubation program is creating a buzz with its unique focus and achievements. Launched in October 2008, the BEGIN New Venture Center in St. Louis – which focuses on helping the homeless or those at risk of becoming homeless start businesses or find jobs – has experienced booming success and overwhelming community support.

The incubator is a program of the St. Patrick Center, Missouri’s largest provider of services for the homeless. The BEGIN New Venture Center is the first and only incubator of its kind in the United States and is a perfect next step in St. Patrick’s mission of helping homeless individuals achieve self-sufficiency, says Director Jan DeYoung.

DeYoung carefully screens prospective incubator clients to ensure they are sensitive to the mission of the St. Patrick Center. An entrepreneur must already be a client of St. Patrick Center or make a commitment to employ the center’s clients or to provide training programs to the clients to be considered. According to DeYoung, more important than the drive to create revenue is an entrepreneur’s passion for helping others and creating positive change in their community.

“This incubator is not for everyone.” DeYoung explains. “[A potential incubator client] has to have a viable business, but more importantly we are looking at the people behind the business.”

Start-ups accepted into the incubation program receive access to a number of business development services, including personalized guidance and mentorship, access to investment capital, networking opportunities with other entrepreneurs and service providers, and a professional space to conduct business. Currently, 12 businesses are located at the BEGIN Center, and DeYoung expects to sign on three additional clients soon.

The incubator facility also is home to the BEGIN Training and Education Center, where St. Patrick’s clients receive job training, and the Catholic Charities Conference Center, a 250-seat community conference facility. Together, these programs and the incubator contribute to St. Patrick’s holistic approach of providing homeless and impoverished individuals with opportunities to become independent.

The idea for the BEGIN New Venture Center came from local community leaders who believed that business incubation opportunities needed to be made available to the disadvantaged sectors of their community. The bulk of the funding for the program came from a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Department Administration. Additional funding came from the Catholic Charities Archdioceses of St. Louis and the St. Patrick Center itself.

In return for federal funds, the BEGIN Center agreed to work to establish a best-practice model for helping to create entrepreneurial and job opportunities disadvantaged communities, which could then be replicated in other urban settings around the country. The BEGIN Center, the recipient of Washington University’s 2008 Skandalaris Award for Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation, takes a successful entrepreneur support model – a business incubation program – and applies it to a community development initiative, DeYoung says. “You will not see a closed door,” he says. “Everyone becomes family. It’s like brothers and sisters coming together to succeed.”

One of the most inspiring aspects of the program is the breadth and depth of support it receives from community members and local businesses. Area attorneys, human resource specialists, marketing specialists and others contribute their time and skills to the program. Incubator clients also have inspired other community businesses to hire St. Patrick’s clients. In addition, DeYoung’s previous experience as executive director of the St. Louis County Economic Council’s Enterprise Centers program has allowed the BEGIN Center to reach out to other incubators if the center is unable to assist a promising entrepreneur. These networks foster the success of the center.

“What you see here is really the intersection of economic development with social consciousness,” DeYoung says. “That is the underlying foundation of what we’re doing.”

Keywords: social entrepreneurship

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