A couple years ago three serial entrepreneurs got together to create a different kind of entrepreneurial venture: a nationwide community that would foster small-business ownership among minorities, and those from low-income areas of America's biggest cities.
The result: 100 Urban Entrepreneurs, a nonprofit foundation headquartered in New York that hosts city events where entrepreneurs can pitch start-up business ideas to judges, meet mentors, apply for funding—the best ones get a $10,000 grant—or just sit in the audience and learn from other aspiring entrepreneurs. Think Stand and Deliver meets Shark Tank.
To date, 100 Urban Entrepreneurs has awarded close to $1 million to 48 companies including, for instance, Maryland-based Size12, a plus-size shoe retailer, and Creative Turkey Cuisine, an all-turkey catering company in Chicago. The objective, ultimately, is to back 100 such start-ups.
It all began with an email. In 2007, Lucas Riggins, who grew up in a rough area in Queens, New York, had read in an online article about Magnus Greaves, the serial entrepreneur behind Doubledown Media, a luxury-lifestyle magazines publisher, as well as global trading company MacFutures. (Greaves is also speaking at this year's Inc. 500|5000 Conference outside Washington, D.C.)
"When I read about Magnus, I was in awe," says Riggins, who, at the time, was working in marketing for author Teri Woods. "He took an idea and made it possible. I was around hundreds of kids in the projects with great ideas and they can’t get a dollar for any of it. That's what I wrote to him about.”
Greaves was immediately drawn to Riggins' concerns about supporting young entrepreneurs from troubled areas. The two men met soon after in New York, and decided to start a foundation that would provide financial support and mentorship to under-privileged entrepreneurs. Months later, they took the idea to another successful serial entrepreneur, Dan Carriere, who had spent decades building and selling start-ups, like commodities exploration firm Corriente Resources that recently sold for $700 million.
"We want to change the collective mindset," says Carriere, who donated $1 million to get the foundation off the ground. "Entrepreneurship is the only way to get the U.S. economy back on track, and it won't happen in two months. So I knew creating a community to keep building on was important for the long-term."
100 Urban Entrepreneurs officially got off the ground in 2010, when it was certified as a foundation. Celebrity supporters include Tyler Perry, and P. Diddy, who donated $100,000.
To participate, aspiring entrepreneurs submit online applications with details about their business ideas including the target customer, and a personal statement that lists qualifications. The three founders assess each proposal and select 10 to 20 per city to be presented at pitch events in ten U.S. cities including Atlanta, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, and Akron, Ohio. Greaves says they typically receive about 200 submissions per city.
While some pitches are hosted by the foundation, Greaves says they also piggy back on college events, or partner up with other existing programs like the Black Enterprise Entrepreneur Conference.
The applicants pitch business ideas on a stage in front of a live audience that's filled with dozens of local business owners, other entrepreneurs, and the three founders. The judges give instant feedback. "After the events, we encourage everyone to socialize, meet each other, and exchange ideas," says Greaves.
Most of the applicant ideas are straightforward. "The people that pitch us don't need to have an MBA," says Greaves. "But they do need to have a clear idea, and some life experience that uniquely qualifies them to run the business."
He cites Size12, a Maryland plus-size shoe company founded by Toni Hall and Natalie Prather. "It's as simple as the fact that, for example, Toni and Natalie both lived not having shoes fit their larger feet. They knew there was a market for it."
The terms of the 100 Urban Entrepreneurs grants also help engage the entrepreneurial community. “We don’t ask for equity, just that the entrepreneur document and share their journey, like on a blog, so others can learn from them," says Greaves.
But the money may not be what will help struggling entrepreneurs the most.
“Some of the kids say ‘I don’t care about the money or being number one, having someone hear out my idea is enough,’” says Riggins. "Where they come from, negativity is the norm. There's no support or education. These events let them be a part of something that's positive, that's encouraging."