‘We’re building CEOs:’ Nashville’s oldest incubator changes with the times

By   – Editorial Intern, Nashville Business Journal

The Nashville Business Incubation Center is undergoing a big shift, and it could mean big things for minority and female entrepreneurs wanting to get in on Nashville’s boom, according to Executive Director Angela Crane-Jones.

The incubation center, which is a program designed to help small businesses grow sustainably, recently received a $50,000 donation from law firm Frost Brown Todd to hire LeShane Greenhill to a position made especially for him: entrepreneur in residence. Previously, Greenhill served as entrepreneur in residence for San-Francisco based nonprofit CODE2040’s partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs and the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. In that position, Greenhill worked more broadly with the community to ensure African American and Latino innovators were being supported. At the incubator center, he’ll be working more closely with clients. Although Greenhill has moved on to NBIC, he still serves on the diversity and inclusion board at the Entrepreneur Center.

Crane-Jones said the center is a place where entrepreneurs who don’t have the resources can come to grow their business, no matter their race, gender or socioeconomic status. The recent changes expand that mission into the modern era of business, she said. Greenhill, who founded the software company SalesCocktail.comand data-management program Sagents, can break down some barriers for clients who aren’t as tech-savvy, she said, whether it’s helping them install software or something as simple as setting up their website.

“He meets people where they are,” Crane-Jones said. “He had one client implementing technology in 60 days, when before it took us over a year to help them.”

Earlier this year, the center moved from its building on 10th Avenue and Charlotte Avenue to a new location in Germantown. The new space serves a similar purpose to Greenhill’s hire, Crane-Jones said. The center’s previous location was geared toward helping clients manufacture their products, but the new co-working space gives clients a place to work on their laptops and ask questions about technology.

Making it easier to go from a mom-and-pop store to a multimillion-dollar business has never been more important for Nashville’s minority populations, Crane-Jones said.

It’s no secret that Nashville’s urban core is undergoing a great deal of demographic changes. Germantown and the surrounding area has been hit especially hard, with large portions of minority populations moving out of the neighborhood.

“I mean we’ve all felt that shift,” Greenhill said. “I feel it. But regardless of demographics, minority populations still have to operate in Nashville. That’s where the boom is. There’s an opportunity with that shift because residents might be leaving but [minority] businesses can still thrive here.”

Greenhill said the incubation center is drawing companies, many of them minority-owned, into the urban core. There have been 13 companies to graduate from an NBIC program in the past five years. The full program costs $1,000 a month, although there are cheaper options. To graduate, a company must reach over $1 million in revenue or hire an additional five employees.

“Most of our graduates are located within two miles from here,” Crane-Jones said. “We want to revitalize this area. To build jobs and keep dollars local, that’s important.”

She said the center’s emphasis on diversity is rooted in a broader idea: preparing for the future of business.

“In 20 years from now, women and minority populations will be the majority [in business],” Crane-Jones said. “Those businesses have to be scaling, because if they’re not creating jobs it hurts everyone.”

This hits at a local and national issue: Women-owned and minority-owned businesses have trouble scaling.

Nationally, 11 percent of minority-owned companies have paid employees, compared with 22 percent of non-minority-owned companies. And although women-owned companies account for 30 percent of all private-businesses, they only account for 11 percent of sales and 13 percent of employment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Nashville shows a similar trend. If you combine the 2017 revenue of all 19 companies on the Nashville Business Journal’s top minority-owned businesses List, it amounts to less than a percent of the revenue amassed in Nashville’s top 100 private companies. The top 25 women-owned companies fair slightly better. Their 2016 revenue (the most recent available) combined make up about 3.7 percent of that wealth.

Crane-Jones said women and minorities are more likely to be debt-averse and are likely to be supporting themselves and their families through other means than their start-up. Thus social capital — personal connections, emotional support, hand-holding, etc. — becomes especially important during the critical first few years after a company has broken ground, when it is most likely to fail. This is where the Nashville Business Incubation Center comes in.

Mekisha Montgomery, head of Frost Brown Todd’s office in Nashville, teaches classes at the center, as do many members from the professional community, Crane-Jones said. And part of hiring Greenhill was to make sure clients have someone on-hand to answer their questions and assure them they’re doing OK. Greenhill meets with clients bi-weekly and helps them establish goals and strategies for keeping their company growing.

“A lot of the places, you get the training, but you need that emotional support, and that social capital,” Crane-Jones said. “Because you can take money to the bank, but it’s more valuable to know the banker.”

Crane-Jones said the hand-holding the center offers might help women and minorities break into that top portion of wealth, or at least get their foot in the door.

“We’re building CEOs,” she said. “We’re building sustainable companies. … That’s another way of breaking the ceiling — create your own.”

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