by Sarah Goh
B.J. Stewart has been Urban Impact’s chief operations officer for the past seven years. Founded to address the nuances of urban poverty in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, Urban Impact works to “break the cycle of social, material, and spiritual poverty.” Stewart specifically worked within economic development and had success launching a small business entrepreneur program in the South End for BIPOC businesses.
After years of serving South Seattle, Stewart has accepted a new position in Chicago as executive director of Sunshine Enterprises. This new position will allow him to serve entrepreneurs in under-resourced communities on a larger platform.
Stewart sat down with the South Seattle Emerald to reflect on his expansive work with Urban Impact and the growth and future of South End small businesses.
South Seattle Emerald: How did you begin your economic development work with Urban Impact?
B.J. Stewart: About 10 years ago, the community came to us and told us they wanted us to do more work within economic development and providing jobs. We did additional listening through focus groups and surveys, and it came down to three things. One, aspiring entrepreneurs in under-resourced communities don’t have the relationships they need to launch their enterprises. Second, they don’t have the business acumen and the knowledge and information. And lastly, they don’t have the cash or the capital.
As we looked to help and empower local entrepreneurs, it came down to these three things to close that gap. Social capital, relationships, and connecting entrepreneurs to the resources and capital they needed to sustain and grow their businesses.
SSE: Could you talk more about the programs you’ve built at Urban Impact?
Stewart: Eight years ago, we started with our first Sharks at the Beach entrepreneurship with a cohort of four. Since then, we have grown. Last year, we served about 100 local entrepreneurs through all of our programs.
Sharks at the Beach is our introductory program. It focuses on aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking to launch their enterprises and those early-stage entrepreneurs who are garage or kitchen hobbyists who have gotten great feedback. Sharks at the Beach focuses on helping these entrepreneurs fully launch their business into a level of sustainability and growth.
What we found with our Sharks at the Beach is that the entrepreneur still needed support. As a result, three years ago, we launched our Thrive Business Accelerator program. It provides a secondary and continual level of support to graduates of our Sharks at the Beach program. We were also able to help other microenterprises and small businesses through Thrive.
SSE: Is there a business that came out of these programs that you’re really proud of?
Stewart: Yes! Monika Mathews with QueenCare. Monika is a long-time Rainier Valley resident and community leader. About four years ago, Monika came to us with a nonprofit she ran and said what she really wanted to do was serve youth through her nonprofit but in a sustainable way. She had an idea called QueenCare that today is a health and beauty enterprise where she provides health- and beauty-related products utilizing the young women, or young ‘queens,’ in her nonprofit.
Monika became a graduate of Sharks at the Beach program and was the first place winner that year. She stuck with the program and joined Thrive Business Accelerator to grow her business. She went from her kitchen to a brick and mortar in Columbia City, and last year she opened a second location in the Central District. Monika is a great example of how an indegenous leader in the community who’s already invested can launch, sustain, and grow.
SSE: How do you think South End small BIPOC businesses fared during the pandemic?
Stewart: Let me point to a national statistic that I think plays out locally. The University of California Santa Clara did a 2020 study that indicated that 41%, or 450,000, Black-owned businesses across the nation had to shutter due to COVID-19. The study further projected that about 50% of those enterprises will never reopen again. I think we are seeing that play out, in particular in South Seattle. These entrepreneurs in under-resourced communities were already struggling with relationship, knowledge, and financial gaps. COVID-19 continued to suppress their ability to launch and sustain. However, what I also see is a tremendous resilience among these small business owners.
Our reaction was multifold. We took all of our program virtual, and what that allowed us to do was serve a wider geographic area and reduce barriers of entry to our programming. The year before COVID, we served about 25 entrepreneurs. But in 2020 and 2021, we served about 100 entrepreneurs and are in line to serve about 150 in 2022. I’m never going to say that COVID is a blessing, but what it has allowed us to do is to partner with other organizations who are already on the battlefield. It really provided an opportunity.
SSE: What do you think the future needs and outlook of South End BIPOC small businesses are in light of gentrification and displacement?
Stewart: At Urban Impact, we can garner a lot of resources and say, ‘Hey, let us do this for you.’ But the reality is, those volunteers and Urban Impact folks will move on to other projects and will leave those entrepreneurs to fend for themselves. Our approach in building capital is to empower these entrepreneurs to be the leaders of their own enterprises and communities.
Our tagline is ‘We transform local entrepreneurs so they can transform the communities where they work and live.’ We want them to advocate for their own position and the resources they need. We’ll walk beside them to be a funnel and hub for the resources they need. I think that logic model in the past 10 years has played out well.
As we grow, we hope to maintain the depth of relationship and engagement and impact on these entrepreneurs where they are able to transform themselves and invest in their families and serve the communities where they reside. Then we will see community wealth building. And if you have community building of those folks who are already in place, you don’t have gentrification. If you have the market growth that is inevitable, that we aren’t going to be able to stop, but you also have investment in folks who are already in place, those people will be able to stay and participate in the rising tides of economic activity.
Sarah Goh is a Singaporean American journalist who is also a medical student at WSU College of Medicine. At the intersection of community, science, and humanities, she hopes to elevate marginalized voices and explore the overlooked and unexpected through her writing. Find her at sarahsgoh.com or on Twitter @sarahsgoh.
📸 Featured Image: Danielle Jackson, center, reacts as B.J. Stewart hugs her, after Jackson won first place at the fifth annual “Sharks at the Beach” pitch event at the Emerald City Bible Fellowship in Seattle, Washington, on April 26, 2018. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
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