One of the most diverse neighborhoods in the U.S., according to 2010 census data, Seattle’s Rainier Valley is home to residents of Hispanic, African and Asian descent who are fostering a dynamic culture of history, food, art and diverse shopping.
Rainier Valley is also known for its less admirable attributes including high crime, concentrated poverty and growing income inequality. Amid these troubling social issues, increased development (owed to Seattle’s growing population and high-skilled job opportunities) threatens the neighborhood’s long-term economic sustainability for both residents and business owners.
Urban Impact in Seattle has been addressing the acute needs of the Rainier Valley community over the last two decades by intentionally adding value and jobs through several economic development projects. The organization boasts several academic support programs, parenting classes, a fitness center and a 61-unit, mixed-use affordable housing complex, which opened in 2013.
Urban Impact is now also equipping entrepreneurs in the neighborhood with the acumen and a bit of small seed capital to start businesses that will positively impact the community and grow local jobs.
“About four years ago, the Urban Impact board made the decision to take a strategic focus on the area of economic development, thus establishing a think tank of business leaders, community organizations and our academic partner, Seattle Pacific University,” says B.J. Stewart, the organization’s chief operating officer. “We identified one of our main areas of impact as being able to help develop jobs through social entrepreneurship training.”
Urban Impact worked with Seattle Pacific University to let residents audit SPU’s existing social venture planning class. Budding entrepreneurs get access mentors to help build effective business plans in a welcoming environment. According to Stewart, a dozen teams cycled through this year’s course. Of those, five went on to participate in Urban Impact’s “Sharks at the Beach” business pitch competition — named affectionately after the area’s Rainier Beach neighborhood. For the first time, this year’s entrepreneurs all had specific ties to the Rainier Valley, as former or current residents or business owners.
Presenting entrepreneurs tackled everything from healthy food access via mobile markets to heart monitoring bracelets designed for non-English-speaking immigrant neighbors. This year’s winner, Karl Hackett, says the nearly $2,500 micro-seed grant he won will go a long way.
Hackett’s business, Community First Development, aims to acquire commercial properties in at-risk neighborhoods in Rainier Valley to secure long-term sustainability of local small business owners where many have been ousted by rising rents. Properties will be converted into co-ops, allowing local business owners to purchase their unit and pay a small monthly fee to the co-op board.
“The winnings represent the first portion of fundraising based on our plan to really get things off the ground and moving forward,” explains Hackett. “[They] will be allocated towards establishing our licensing and purchasing and securing ownership of the logo designs, which were created through the Seattle Pacific University collaboration.”
Hackett’s goal is to quickly fundraise a total of $35,000 to secure what he says will be the first “proof of concept” property in the community.
Stewart has no doubt that Hackett, who owns an antique furniture store and sits on the local business board, will be successful in the endeavor.
Stewart affirms that the Sharks at the Beach competition will continue to lay the groundwork for establishing an eventual startup school in the community. Ideally, the school would mentor and help take a half-dozen hopeful entrepreneurs from concept to launch in a continuous cycle each year.
Additional funding to support seed grants will be made possible through continued business partnerships and sponsorships.
“[Urban Impact] is only at the beginning of building out this new economic development initiative,” says Stewart. “And we’re sticking with our entrepreneurs to provide ongoing mentorship and support, and connecting them with our business partners in the community to help them become even more successful.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology and digital inclusion. Her work has been featured in Black Enterprise Magazine, Triple Pundit and Inhabitat.