Antwan Hodges (left) and Arnold Smith stand outside the Paul Engle Center for Neighborhood Arts in Cedar Rapids, where they will participate in the Cedar Rapids Entrepreneurship Program. PHOTO DAVE DEWITTE
By Dave DeWitte
A new GoDaddy-backed program is working to help aspiring entrepreneurs hurdle economic and social barriers in Cedar Rapids’ Wellington Heights neighborhood.
The Cedar Rapids Entrepreneurship Program (CREP) will help “under-resourced” entrepreneurs like Arnold Smith, a single dad who works third shift.
Mr. Smith was “one of those kids who got into trouble in the summer” during his teenage years, but is now ready to give back. Last summer, he launched Eastern Iowa NFL Flag League, a summer co-ed flag football program designed to provide a positive summer experience for kids from low-income households. He brought in Antwan Hodges, another single dad who had earned his respect, to work with the kids.
Mr. Smith wants to incorporate as a nonprofit and expand in scope, but admits there are a lot of puzzle pieces to find before he can put it together.
“We’re excited to go into the program – it will help with the marketing, the networking and just the credibility,” Mr. Smith said after a program launch event April 25.
CREP is one of two pilot projects by GoCommunities, a new outreach program by GoDaddy. The global provider of web hosting and domain name registration services was founded by former Cedar Rapids resident Bob Parsons, and now has one of its largest customer service centers in Hiawatha.
GoDaddy decided last year to refocus its social responsibility efforts toward empowering low-income and disadvantaged entrepreneurs to start their own businesses, explained Stacy Bennett, corporate social responsibility manager for the company. That led to CREP and another pilot in the Phoenix metro, where it has the largest employee presence.
“Our vision is to radically shift the global economy toward independent entrepreneurs,” Ms. Bennett said.
Under a partnership with the nonprofit Jane Boyd Community Center, GoDaddy is providing funding for two staff members, computer equipment and online services to help local entrepreneurs launch businesses. GoDaddy employees will provide one-on-one counseling and mentoring to help businesses establish their web and social media presence – a critical need in an increasingly digital world.
Jane Boyd’s coordinator for the program, Selinya Carew, said Wellington Heights was chosen as the base for the pilot because it “has a lot of need.” It’s a diverse neighborhood with a large low-income population, and has received a greater share of attention from social service agencies and the city, in part because of increased gun violence in recent years.
Ms. Carew said the program at the Paul Engle Center for Neighborhood Arts on Fourth Avenue will provide entrepreneurs with connections to startup resources and help navigating them. Just as importantly, the program is partnering with organizations like Horizons: A Family Service Alliance to provide what she called “wrap-around services” to the entrepreneurs.
“We know the buses stop running at 6 o’clock, so that will be a barrier for some people who don’t have vehicles,” Ms. Carew said.
Jane Boyd Community Center has arranged with Neighborhood Transportation Services (NTS), a Horizons unit, to provide rides to evening workshops and counseling sessions for CREP participants who need it. Many participants will be single parents with limited childcare options, so the program will also offer childcare and nutrition services through Jane Boyd.
The program will be divided into two groups, described as budding entrepreneurs and established entrepreneurs. The latter will be early-stage startups like Mr. Smith’s Eastern Iowa NFL Flag, which are still finding their way. The former will be entrepreneurs with only an idea.
The first five-month program kicked off earlier this month, with 15 budding and 10 established entrepreneurs. A second group of 25 will begin in November.
The program was bound to draw comparisons to the city’s only existing startup program, the Iowa Startup Accelerator (ISA). Although both programs help entrepreneurs achieve success, NewBoCo’s ISA works primarily with more experienced entrepreneurs who have business plans involving tech or the digital economy. Beyond providing space, mentoring and a network, it also invests about $20,000 in each startup, taking a 6 percent stake in the companies in exchange.
CREP is focused on low-income entrepreneurs in the Cedar Rapids area with ideas that can provide services and jobs to strengthen low-income communities. It isn’t investing in them.
“We’re not trying to duplicate what they’re [the ISA] doing; we’re coming in as an on-ramp to what they’re doing,” Jane Boyd Executive Director Dorice Ramsey said. She also made a strong appeal to the business community to lend their support and resources to the program.
From the two initial startups introduced at the April 25 event, it appeared the CREP program will also be supporting entrepreneurs who want to address pressing social issues.
Mr. Arnold and Program Director Antwan Hodges said they are deeply aware of the challenges facing single parents from their own backgrounds, and want to offer programs that help strengthen families by offering strong role models and character building.
Sofia Mehaffey, director of community health and nutrition programs at Horizons, entered the program with the goal of providing alternatives to the processed and fast food diets that have caused an epidemic of diabetes and obesity among low-income households.
The results of CREP and the GoCommunities program in Phoenix will be carefully monitored. Ms. Carew said the University of Iowa will be evaluating the performance of the program and offering recommendations for improving its effectiveness.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett remarked on the strong bipartisan community backing for the program at its launch event, and recalled his own experience starting a neighborhood business, Peppy’s Ice Cream, in his youth.
State Sen. Liz Mathis and State Rep. Liz Bennett, both Democrats, have been supporting the program. Ms. Bennett, who works for GoDaddy, represents Wellington Heights.
“People here have good ideas,” Ms. Bennett said. “They know how to hustle, but there are also so many barriers.”