It was hard enough for Evon Roquemore when Brightside Clinic in Denham Springs flooded right after it opened in 2016.
Roquemore, CEO of Bright Enterprise, remodeled her behavioral health clinic and pushed ahead. Her revenue and employee head count steadily grew. She also created Everso, a case management software platform for behavioral health providers.
Then came 2020, when Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office trumpeted a planned Brightside and Everso expansion. The attention brought new clients, which put pressure on her to scale up her business quickly.
Roquemore thought banks would lend her money for her expansions based on government contracts she had in place. But she discovered after a rough “bank tour” in 2022 that lenders were skeptical because the government money would take so long to trickle in.
Facing a crossroads, Roquemore found out about Drive, a new Baton Rouge Area Chamber program that aims to accelerate minority-owned businesses from startups to superstars.
Roquemore was hesitant to join. She felt “fatigued” from past startup programs and asked how Drive would be different. Satisfied with the answer, she signed up.
“I prayed to have groups that would understand what I was going through and offer some support,” said Roquemore, who is Black.
A lack of economic and entrepreneurial equity in Baton Rouge is a long-standing problem, business leaders and government officials acknowledged. But the momentum is changing in a positive direction as a slew of initiatives — including Drive, the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce and the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District — have been formed to address the greatest challenges minority entrepreneurs here face.
The same barriers to entrepreneurial equity remain. Access to capital is a perpetual challenge, as is networking and education on business formation and management.
But there’s a cautious optimism in Baton Rouge that the support ecosystem for minority entrepreneurs will keep growing, as will greater economic equity with it.
“I’m optimistic about the direction and the trajectory that we’re showing, knowing and understanding that we have a long road to travel before we become the thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem that we can be,” said Brace “Trey” Godfrey, BRAC’s senior vice president of policy.
‘It’s going to take all of us collectively’
The source of the entrepreneurial momentum is multifaceted, business and government leaders said.
BRAC launched Drive after data showed Baton Rouge ranked poorly compared to peer metros for economic inclusion, Godfrey said.
Some of this push is tied to social change spurred by both COVID-19 lockdowns and George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020. Another key is a wave of federal packages that have offered investments for disadvantaged communities.
Ted James, a former Louisiana legislator and the Region VI administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, noted the American Rescue Plan set aside $150 million for community organizations to help entrepreneurs navigate the SBA’s loan process. The Baton Rouge Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce is one of those organizations.
James said the SBA is also working with the city-parish to co-host events that offer advice on business entity formation, market research, financial management and the like.
“We’ve always had a lot of entrepreneurs, but now we are connecting those Black entrepreneurs with resources,” James said.
Myra Richardson, former executive director of the Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce and a Louisiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation representative, called it a “meeting of the stars” where federal, state and local leaders are “fighting the same fight.”
Richardson noted that East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s administration has pushed the amount of city-parish contracts with Black female-owned businesses from 3% to 20%.
“I think people are finally saying that it’s going to take all of us collectively,” Richardson said. “It’s going to take our small businesses, it’s going to take our elected officials, it’s going to take our faith leaders, and then our business stakeholders, our large business stakeholders, to come up with solutions that are innovative that meet people where they are.”
In the past, people “tiptoed” around conversations of economic inclusion, said Na’Tisha Natt, director of community engagement at Nexus Louisiana, a nonprofit that helps fledgling entrepreneurs.
“Now we’re talking more openly about it and people are being more receptive and understanding how they can help push the conversation forward,” Natt said.
For Roquemore’s Brightside Clinic, capital has been the greatest challenge, particularly as a second-stage company with several years under its belt.
Though she loves her business, Roquemore called her experience as both a woman and minority entrepreneur “hell.” On her 2022 “bank tour,” bank leaders frequently told her, “Where are you from? You can’t be from Baton Rouge.”
“There were a lot of days I looked in the mirror and asked myself, ‘Why did I choose to grow?’ I was at a sweet spot, and I didn’t have to do a damn thing different,” she said. “I decided to dream bigger.”
Roquemore said the Drive program has been a “safe space” for her to share her experiences with similar entrepreneurs. Her fellow participants routinely offer help, including new avenues for capital.
“It’s been invigorating,” she said. “I leave there feeling like I know what my next step is going to be.”
Business and government leaders agreed access to capital, technical education and mentoring are the biggest barriers minority entrepreneurs face when growing their business.
One Drive session dealt with accessing capital from traditional lenders, and “very rarely” do lenders tell entrepreneurs why they’re rejected, Godfrey said. However, he said that issue is being addressed.
“I’ve had companies in the (Drive) cohort come and tell me that they never understood that part of it, but now that they do, they go into it from a position of strength,” Godfrey said.
While large contracts for a small business can be game-changing, the money from those contracts trickles in slowly, James said. That forces businesses to “float the work” until the revenue arrives.
“For a small-business owner, you get a contract and that contract may require you to hire more people. It may require you to purchase more equipment,” he said. “You immediately have an issue in access to capital.”
Richardson said technical assistance is the “missing key component” for minority entrepreneurs looking for government loans. That assistance includes navigating the complicated application process for federal support.
“A lot of times, business owners have all of the natural resources to be a great applicant, and then they struggle through the application process,” she said.
Looking into the future
Richardson said the best tool to support minority entrepreneurs is providing education on programs that have long been available, such as SBA loans. She said having James, a Baton Rouge native, as a regional SBA administrator is helpful.
“I think providing our business owners with access and information has been the most transformative thing,” she said. “Some of these programs are not new programs. They’ve been here before this administration, and people just didn’t know about them.”
Stephen Loy, executive director of Nexus Louisiana, said entrepreneurs need greater education about their available funding options. Sometimes it’s “friends, families and fools” first, then angel investors, and then “professional money” from traditional lenders.
“You want to make sure that you’re very strategic when you talk to those different organizations,” he said.
Natt said business leaders and elected officials also have to continue keeping the minority entrepreneurial conversation top of mind.
“As long as the leadership is championing these causes, it will continue to remain relevant,” she said.
April Hawthorne, executive director of the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District, said her organization is looking into creating a small business incubator for north Baton Rouge. She’s also working on grant applications for Inflation Reduction Act funds to further spur entrepreneurial growth.
The district has also implemented a $200,000 grant program to improve the façades and signage at north Baton Rouge businesses.
“We’ve seen already when one business has been improved, another business has done the same thing,” Hawthorne said. “Sometimes they didn’t even come to us for assistance. That has been amazing.”
Roquemore said she’s hopeful the momentum has “real intention behind it.” She said the energy is growing in Baton Rouge in spaces that matter, like board meetings and fundraisers.
“I don’t think there is the right infrastructure in place for people to act on the energy, and that’s where the work needs to happen right now,” she said.