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Columbia Business Monthly

Business Development Center helps Minority Businesses Grow

Apr 06, 2018 03:24PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Emily Stevenson

   When Lasenta Lewis-Ellis opened her company, LLE Construction Group LLC, in February 2011, she struggled to find affordable office space.

“As a start-up, I could not afford market rate lease options,” she says. “I didn’t want to work from home because I wanted to form a construction company with a physical office location, outside my home, where potential clients and clients could visit.”

After a lengthy Google search, one of the few options that Lewis-Ellis found was the Benedict College Business Development Center, which, among other amenities, offers an incubator program and office space. After several attempts to secure a spot in the incubator, she was finally granted a place. And after seven years at the BDC, Lewis-Ellis has purchased a building, and plans to move her company out by this summer.

“Providing lease space is one of the most costly expenses for small business owners, so being located in the BDC helped to keep our lease expense low, which allowed us to invest the monies saved into building more small projects,” Lewis-Ellis says.

Affordable office space is just one of many offerings from the Business Development Center. The Center was established in 2002 by Benedict College’s then-president, Dr. David Swinton, and officially opened in 2003. Swinton, a Harvard-trained economist, saw the need for business development, particularly in the minority community.

“What we found was that a number of those businesses were helping to grow jobs and some of the predominant minority communities around the state,” says Center director Larry Salley. “We found we needed some sort of engine to help build those communities. That was primarily the major focus, trying to rebuild, revitalize, put new businesses in the communities, put more economic resources in the area, and to attract families that wanted to be part of these communities.”

To do that, Salley says, the Center needed to do more training and bring Benedict College’s faculty expertise out into the field.

The Center, which primarily works with businesses in the service industry, offers training and technical assistance, including HR, marketing, and accounting. They offer business plan development and next-level training for businesses looking to expand and grow. The Center also hosts community activities to promote small business and development throughout Columbia.

Benedict College’s new president, Dr. Roslyn Artis, has made the Center a major focus of her administration, including strengthening the technical assistance program and offering management training programs. The Center is also looking to launch a virtual incubator to begin this summer. It will allow individuals who don’t necessarily need a physical office space to still receive technical assistance and to benefit from the shared and common spaces.

In the 15 years since its launch, Salley says they’ve been able to make a real difference for the businesses they’ve assisted.

“These are people who have a lot of expertise in what they do, but not a lot of business expertise,” he says. “What we see now is more stabilization in terms of businesses. We see more businesses that are in a position to go out, gain other contracts.”

Obtaining contracts is perhaps one of the biggest challenge to small, minority-owned businesses.

“Most of them have a difficult time breaking through that barrier to even reach out to business, particularly corporate-level businesses,” Salley says. “Most of them need a stronger mentor/mentee relationship to help them gain contracts and network with some of the larger businesses.”

It’s a frustration that Lewis-Ellis shares. She is currently serving her second term as the first female president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors. Through her experience, she’s learned that entrepreneurship and small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and in order to participate in building wealth, minorities need to develop and grow sustainable businesses. But while training and educational opportunities abound for these businesses, work opportunities are rarely tied to the training.

“We need business or contracting opportunities in order to grow the economy and our communities,” Lewis-Ellis says. “Without it, we do not thrive as entrepreneurs, and access to capital is not available.”

For her part, Lewis-Ellis spends plenty of time mentoring other contractors, including having interns in her company and allowing job-shadowers to see what she does.

“It’s my duty, as I learn and grow,” she says. “When I started my business, not many business owners who I reached out to were open to help me or offer advice or share their experiences. So I share because I want others to learn from my experience...the good, the bad, and the ugly.”