Entrepreneurship incubator boosts local businesses
Jai and Marques “Baba Cupcake” Raven met at a New Year’s Eve party in 2012. Within a month, they were discovering the spiritual practice of Ifá at a compound in southwest Nigeria, spending hours talking on a porch.
The journey laid the groundwork for their small businesses — and, eventually, their marriage.
Marques derived his nickname from the first pastry he mastered and Babalawo — a spiritual title denoting priests of Ifá.
He later started his vegan pastry business, The Luvin Oven, in June 2014, just one year after Jai founded The Woman’s Earth — a yoga and spa studio run out of the couple’s home in Third Ward.
“It’s interesting because we would have our talks in Africa on the porch of the home we were staying in,” Jai said. “So everywhere we’ve stayed together, we’ve always said, ‘It has to have some kind of a porch for us to talk.’ It’s kind of our thing.”
Marques and Jai are two of more than 500 local entrepreneurs who graduated from the University of Houston’s Stimulating Urban Renewal through Entrepreneurship Program, which partners student consultants from the Bauer College of Business with entrepreneurs from underserved communities in the Houston area. SURE is holding its next application day on Aug. 19, when it expects to accept somewhere between 70 and 75 entrepreneurs.
“All over the country and all over the world, there are medical schools where people go in and get health care from students. It’s the best way to produce doctors,” said Charlie Becker, UH alum and assistant director of the SURE Program. “So why is that model not applied to every discipline?”
The SURE Program — originally launched by UH accounting professor Saleha Khumawala as the Microfinance Initiative in 2012 — is the first group to apply that model to business, Becker said.
“Instead of physical health, we’re bettering the economic health of the community,” Becker said.
The program has two separate tiers, he said. First is the SURE Entrepreneur Academy: a semester-long course in which the entrepreneurs work with the student consultants and attend Saturday classes where experts give lectures, hold discussions and organize activities.
After the semester, the entrepreneurs have life-long access to the SURE Incubator — a separate student-run program that meets once a month instead of every Saturday.
“They do more hands-on, kind of one-off events,” Becker said. “That’s where they sign up for their mentor.”
The students earn grades based on participation, a few early assignments, the business plans they devise and a review by their entrepreneurs, he said.
The SURE Program considers three factors when choosing its entrepreneurs after each semester’s application day: if they have a concrete business idea, if they’ve demonstrated commitment to that business idea and if they’re either from or will serve an under-resourced community.
If the applicants satisfy all three factors, they’re accepted, Becker said. The rest of the entrepreneurs are chosen if they meet two of the criteria.
“That might be someone with a dynamite idea who started a business, but they’re not from an underserved community,” he said, “or someone from an underserved community with a great idea that for whatever circumstantial reasons has not been able to do a lot of work on that idea.”
The definition of under-resourced has evolved over time, Becker said.
“That can be anyone from a specific neighborhood, like Third Ward, to female founders or a founder of an ethnic minority,” he said.
According to SURE’s Summer 2016 Impact Study, the program launched 87 businesses and educated over 500 entrepreneurs. Seventy-seven percent were women and 27 percent were Hispanic or Latino. The average participant is a 41-year-old African American female with some college education but no degree in a three-person, low-income household, Becker said.
In the nick of time
Over 90 percent of the applicants are referred by people who graduated from the program and community partners, like the Third Ward Initiative and the Emancipation Economic Development Council, which send out emails to prospective businesses, Becker said.
Jai Raven was one of the recipients of those emails.
“I remember getting the email like the day that the applications were due,” she said. “I had to show up for our interview because my husband was working, so I interviewed for both of us, and we got in.”
The experience she gained from the SURE Program was invaluable to her business and her ability to help her clientele, she said.
“African American women largely do not have a lot of self-care in their lifestyle,” she said. “We do yoga and meditation, and we also have women’s circles. I’ve partnered with professional therapists to come in and facilitate the circles.”
Her husband agrees: he started his own trucking business in 2007, but it caved when the oil market tumbled in 2011.
He made a business plan for the trucking company, but it wasn’t as thorough as the one he devised with SURE.
“It affected us tremendously,” he said. “It exposed me to people that I’d probably never be exposed to. Also business-wise, just the people they had come in and speak with us about business and all aspects of business and how it works was very good.”
In addition to the student consultants and getting a working business plan, SURE provided the Ravens with legal counsel from the UH Law Center and marketing assistance from the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication.
“That was just amazing,” Jai said. “It helped us a whole lot. It’s kind of the gift that keeps on giving.”