Program helps turn strengths into careers
When Wakike Jones of the West End completed training in denture repair, he knew that he wanted to work for himself.
But he soon learned that it would take more than entrepreneurial enthusiasm to convince a bank to give him a loan.
“I was turned down because I didn't have enough assets, and I wasn't already in business,” says Jones, who learned about Christian Evangelical Economic Development — CEED — a Garfield-based nonprofit, at a networking fair in East Liberty.
Without help from CEED to create a plan, Jones might never have opened Urgent Denture Repair, a now-profitable venture in South Park.
CEED is helping Naomi Johnson of the Hill District go into business for herself. Last week, she and her mother Deborah Skillings of McKees Rocks opened the doors to Something Borrowed, a gown-rental shop in Bloomfield.
“My dream has always been to own my own business,” says Johnson, 31, who turned to CEED for help in developing a detailed business plan.
Although she and her mother are funding their start-up, CEED is providing technical support and helping to pay for their website. “Our CEED representative has held our hands through the entire process,” Johnson says. “He believed in our idea from the beginning.”
Johnson and Jones are two of dozens of fledgling entrepreneurs helped by CEED since it launched its Skills to Wealth initiative in 2008, according to the organization's executive director Rufus Idris.
Although initially intended for the region's growing immigrant and refugee populations, the program is open to any qualified candidate underserved by the mainstream, Idris says.
“People approach us with skill sets, whether it's catering or sewing or making wigs, and say they want to start a business,” Idris says. “But, there may be language and cultural barriers. They may lack credit or collateral.”
A combination of public and private sector funds, including those from the Heinz Endowments and Poise Foundation, and in-kind support from other partners enables CEED to assist clients with writing business plans, securing retail space and providing legal advice.
Clients also can apply for micro-loans.
Nigerian-born Moses Onwubiko used a CEED loan to add a mail-order component to the Global Food Market he has operated in East Liberty since 2004.
“CEED paid for my website design,” says Onwubiko, who sells foods from Africa, South America and the Caribbean. “I just wish the loans were bigger, because I'd like to expand my shop.”
Haitian-born Kazanda Tamo was able to open Kazanda's Cafe in East Liberty, thanks in part to a $5,000 low-interest CEED loan. Her husband, Alain Tamo, also got assistance from CEED for his computer shop, Laptop, Etc., next door.
“We met CEED at the right time,” says Kazanda, who serves coffee grown on her father's plantation in Haiti. “They helped us negotiate with ELDI (East Liberty Development Inc.). Now things are going quite well.”
With clients subjected to a vetting process, CEED claims a 90 percent success rate among the businesses it has helped to launch. Prospects who are turned away are encouraged to hone their ideas and reapply, Idris says.
Once a venture is off the ground, CEED assists with marketing and accounting, and buffers the cost of keeping books and filing taxes, until the business can function on its own.
“The whole idea,” Idris says, “is to help entrepreneurs become self-sufficient.”
Idris is an immigrant who came to Pittsburgh seeking technologies he could take back to his native Nigeria. He decided to stay after meeting the Rev. Ray Parker, pastor of the Morningside Church of God in Christ and CEED's founder.
Idris was inspired by Parker's vision of enabling new Americans to capitalize on their unique talents and enrich the broader community.
That philosophy has resonated with philanthropic leaders, too.
The Buhl Foundation has helped fund International House of Fashion, a CEED-run shop in Bloomfield that functions both as a retail outlet and an incubator for talent. Besides selling locally produced goods, International House rents professional-grade sewing machines to dressmakers and offers workspace to knitters, quilters and other crafters.
“Rather than try to teach immigrants and refugees new things, CEED takes the talents they bring to this country and plays to their strengths, which makes our community more culturally diverse,” says Frederick W. Thieman, Buhl Foundation president. “Even with Pittsburgh's indigenous African-American community, where unemployment may be an issue, rather than force everyone into the same round hole of workforce development, CEED helps people use their skills in an entrepreneurial way.”
Many of the artisans who sell items on consignment at International House also vend at Pittsburgh Public Market, which is open on weekends in the Strip District.
CEED underwrites three months' of kiosk rental for qualified vendors, with the understanding that they will work toward independence.
Mya Zeronis, a Burmese immigrant, says she could not have opened Zest Wishes, a juice and condiment stand at Pittsburgh Public Market, if it hadn't been for CEED.
“I had a business plan in place, but I needed money to get it off the ground,” says Zeronis, who lives in Squirrel Hill and operates a catering service, Lean Chef en Route. “My personal credit wasn't good. But I learned about CEED at the Center for Women's Entrepreneurship at Chatham (University) and they gave me a $1,500 loan.”
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.