When looking at the District’s entrepreneurship landscape, typically the same demographics come up. Millennials are coming to the city for tech-centric jobs. Universities are launching programs for on-campus founders left and right. The District attempted to create a tech corridor from Shaw to Petworth, up Georgia Avenue back in 2014.
That’s why Melissa Bradley and her team launched a program dedicated to entrepreneurs that don’t fit the mold.
Project 500, created through a public-private partnership with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity in May 2015, provides three different business development programs for local business owners, with a special focus on East of the River entrepreneurs, to bring jobs, income and resources to underserved communities.
The first cohort of Project 500’s Ascend 2020 high-growth business development program just graduated Saturday from their eight-week program hosted at Georgetown University, where Bradley is a professor at the business school. Throughout the program, the 10 entrepreneurs took advantage of free accounting, legal, tech and other business services to help them find new paths to revenue or push their company into its next phase of growth. More than 100 businesses applied to be a part of the first cohort.
“We’re totally focused on growing businesses,” Bradley said. “We still have not found a lot of programs that are focused on scale. We have lots that are focused on startup, from universities to incubators, but not a lot that are specifically looking at scaling the business.”
Entrepreneurs in the first cohort range from mother-son duos to mid-career hoppers, and from construction to tech. All of them were between the ages of 38-52. Seven out of 10 were women. Half of the participants were lifelong D.C. residents, and all of them were African American. Ascend 2020 participants typically have at least one-to-two years of significant market share and customer traction in the area.
In May, JPMorgan Chase donated $500,000 to all of the Ascend 2020 partners, including Project 500, Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, Washington Area Community Investment Fund and Latino Economic Development Center. Ascend 2020 is a part of a nationwide initiative led by the University of Washington business school, with locations in Atlanta, the Bay Area, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C. In the next three years, they aim to collectively support 350 businesses to increase revenue by $1 billion.
Ascend 2020 is different than the typical startup incubator found in D.C. Participants walked away gain confidence in their business and find new funding options seeing as many of them depended on either the District or the federal government for small business financing.
“Someone’s final comments were that ‘The best thing about this program that it forced me to think big, and now I believe that I can scale,'” Bradley said. “Confidence was key.”
At the end of the day, Bradley said the program is out to help the D.C. entrepreneur of the future.
“With a little bit of help and a lot of will, these are the folks who will transform the city,” she said. “Tech companies come here, and they start here, but they leave. These are folks who have been here for 10, 15, 20 years, they’re not going anywhere.”
Applications for the second edition of the program are now being accepted, and the program will kick off in late January.