The Equity Factor

Baltimore Deal Will Support Black Entrepreneurship

An HBCU and a makerspace partner in first-of-its-kind venture.

(Credit: Open Works)

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An entrepreneur hub in Baltimore and one of the city’s oldest institutions announced Nov. 29 a new partnership that both sides say will expand access to business mentoring across black neighborhoods.

Open Works, a co-working space built to nurture the next generation of small manufacturers, and the business college at Coppin State University (CSU), an academic beacon in the city for more than 116 years, say it’s the first such collaboration in the U.S. between a historically black university (or HBCU) and a nonprofit makerspace. Ron Williams, dean of CSU’s College of Business, says that protests last year following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody, partly inspired the union.

“Coming into the community, we’re a trusted institution. It’s primarily white across the makerspace community in the U.S., but we want to help the community here become aware that [spaces like] Open Works exists,” he says.

Williams sees the partnership as significant because of a history that’s still influencing the city today. Baltimore was a manufacturing hub for the greater part of the early 20th century, and its booming shipyards and steel mills attracted workers from the South and paved a way for unemployed black populations, disenfranchised by the legacy of slavery, to enter the eight-hour work day. But major steel producers like Bethlehem Steel slowed production by the 1970s, and jobs moved South to escape Baltimore’s strong union presence or overseas to cut labor costs.

In addition to searching out aspiring entrepreneurs in Baltimore, where around 63 percent of the current population is black, the partnership between CSU and Open Works will take shape around three main efforts.

First, CSU business students can guide younger community members in the Open Works space in a playful, non-formal way. The goal would be to let the youth know that, if they have an innovative idea they want to test out, there’s a facility in their hometown where they can get guidance — and can potentially use.

Second, CSU has the capacity as a research facility to track ebbs and flows in the black entrepreneurial climate in Baltimore, and part of that will be done through a new program called DataWorks Baltimore. They’ll also use the space as a launching pad to build up externship program opportunities with Baltimore businesses that are up and running.

Finally, there’s the Center for Strategic Ingepreneurship. That portmanteau was created by Williams to address the roadblocks minority entrepreneurs face when they’re not in a social or economic position to access the resources that can help their ideas flourish.

Traditionally, those with interest in starting their own business follow a simple formula: Recognize opportunity, and then move to expand their idea within that opportunity to try and satisfy it. But in a white paper authored by Williams that introduces the concept of “ingepreneurship,” he contends that this definition fails “to address the social needs of many who are attempting to navigate the road to successful entrepreneurship from positions of extreme poverty or socioeconomic deprivation.” Ingepreneurship, then, is the process of seeing business training as a process that seeps deep into the community, and far beyond the individual entrepreneur, to help make entrepreneurship cross every sector of society.

“Families, religious institutions, financial institutions, community organizations, and businesses are necessary to build an environment that will nurture the potential of emerging ingepreneurs,” Williams wrote.

In Baltimore, addressing those social needs means making opportunities to connect with business-minded organizations free or easy to access.

“We can help that by developing a trust framework [between Open Works and the black community],” says Williams.

Will Holman, general manager of Open Works, points out a few ways his space is already achieving this. Locals can access seminars on small business development, and social events that help put entrepreneurs in touch with others interested in starting their own ventures, all for free.

And in September, Open Works began talks with local entrepreneur group Moms As Entrepreneurs, which was founded by Jasmine Simms and Coppin State University faculty member Tammira Lucas to give an eight-week training session to mothers interested in starting their own business in the Baltimore area.

Partnerships like these, and the push to offer free business advice to the West Baltimore area, are part of Open Works’ strategy to help reduce the barriers to entrepreneurship faced by black residents in the city. Linking up with Coppin State University will open the gates for more, while giving both stakeholders the resources necessary to track down entrepreneurship data and make their programs even stronger.

“We’re unusual as makerspaces go, in that we’re located in a majority African-American city, and several very majority African-American neighborhoods,” says Holman. “If we’re not committed in a lot of deep and real ways in assisting our community, we’re not going to succeed.”

Correction: The percentage of Baltimore’s population that is black was corrected and now reflects 2015 census numbers.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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Tags: jobsbaltimoreanchor institutionsmanufacturing

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