A Non-Profit Trains Disadvantaged Entrepreneurs
BY Josh Spiro
Growing up in Ethiopia, Alfa Demmellash had no idea she would one day start a non-profit that trains entrepreneurs in low-income areas.
Alfa Demmellash: Chief Executive Officer
When a genie grants three wishes to a savvy businessperson, her or his first thought is to wish for more wishes. Similarly, when Alfa Demmellash was looking to make the greatest difference as a social entrepreneur, she chose to empower still more entrepreneurs for an exponential impact. After graduating from Harvard in 2003, Demmellash founded Rising Tide Capital (RTC), a Jersey City, New Jersey-based non-profit that stimulates low-income communities by training entrepreneurs.
RTC is one of the partners in the Kauffman Foundation's Global Entrepreneurship Week and the organization will be hosting a slew of talks, workshops, and screenings in the Jersey City area from November 16th through the 21st. Many of the events are targeting young people in an attempt to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.
When Demmellash, who was born in Ethiopia, started RTC "the big emphasis was trying to figure out what our generation's role is and actually making positive change in the world," she says. "Having a parent who is an entrepreneur that used her earnings from her sewing business to bring me to this country and educate me, played a key role [in inspiring me to start this organization]."
RTC focuses on serving disadvantaged demographics that might not otherwise be able to jumpstart their own ventures. Women, minorities, immigrants, the unemployed, and the formerly incarcerated all benefit from the 10-week course RTC offers several times a year. The organization has graduated 250 participants so far but they have mainly been adults; the program's effect on youth entrepreneurs is an indirect one.
"I think small businesses are the anchors of a stable community," Demmellash says. "When it comes to inspiring young people, most are inspired by watching their parents or people that they trust who've taken the entrepreneurial leap" whether that means a social or a for-profit endeavor.
Jusleine Daniel had an idea but wasn't sure how to implement it. She had long received compliments on the greeting cards she designed for fun. "It's something I like to do because I have a lot of family and a lot of friends abroad," she says. Daniel was looking to supplement her income as a social worker but tax codes and other legal hoops for establishing a business were a stumbling block in her path. After taking the course with RTC, she started Jusleine Greetings. "If it weren't for them I never would have been able to put the whole thing together," she says.
Some community members come to RTC in hopes of learning how to improve a business that is already up and running. Sal Austin had already founded DGX Security when the self-described lifelong learner signed up for RTC's business course.
Initially "we found ourselves being all over the place and not getting much done," he says. His company was offering phone systems, as well as IT and security guard services, but RTC helped him concentrate. They suggested that we "choose one of our services that allowed us to make the most profit and master [it], then we can sell [our clients] everything else [later]," Austin says. Another one of DGX Security's early problems was the Catch-22 of gaining the trust of clients while gaining the necessary experience to be considered trustworthy.
RTC faced a similar issue when they first began engaging with their local community because they needed to distinguish themselves from other less well-intentioned business courses. "We try not to parachute in and say we're the best thing since sliced bread," Demmellash says, rather RTC approaches local leaders as the first step towards earning the trust of the larger community.
Demmellash's husband, who is a fellow Harvard classmate as well as RTC's COO, sometimes says when they discuss capitalism's role in the world, "capitalism is like fire: you can use it to do a lot of good or you can use it to do a lot of [bad]." RTC is opting for the former path. Demmellash stresses that there is still "work that needs to be done to get young people to see that entrepreneurship is valid and that it's got high risks but also high rewards."