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ISED Ventures makes business ownership accessible


The staff at ISED Ventures knows that business owners come from many different backgrounds. The group, which is a subsidiary of the Institute for Social and Economic Development, has served thousands of Iowans and fostered small-business success stories in Des Moines and across the state for women, minorities, the poor and disabled.

In October, ISED Ventures received a $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will help it deliver its self-employment and small-business services through a partnership with Lutheran Services in Iowa.

“As part of the planning process, Lutheran Services in Iowa identified that the churches in Iowa could serve as a delivery network for programming geared toward creating new jobs in communities,” said Marybeth Foster, ISED Ventures’ director of development. “They heard about ISED Ventures and our small business program and came to us and asked if we could offer services together.”

According Foster, the joint effort, called Project Fresh Start, will educate the unemployed and underemployed living below the federal poverty line on how to start their own businesses or get training for job placement with local health-care providers. She said Iowa’s Public Policy Group will also have a role with community outreach for Project Fresh Start, helping ISED Ventures and LSI identify candidates for assistance.

“We might have people referred to us by a church, or they might hear about ISED in general,” Foster said. “We’ll also the state Public Policy Group, which is also based here in Des Moines, helping us with community outreach. Between the three organizations, we’re pretty confident that we’re going to be able to reach our potential clients.”

It is estimated that Project Fresh Start will serve 150 people, helping them to become employed full time, either by operating their own business or by working for someone else. The project will provide scholarships to Des Moines Area Community College for individuals to be trained as certified nurses assistants or to be educated through ISED Ventures’ microenterprise small-business classes, which have been offered around the state since 1988 and in Des Moines in the mid-1990s, resulting in many new small businesses, Foster said.

“We have served more than 10,000 clients around the state since 1988, which has resulted in more than 1,800 new or expanded businesses and about 2,300 new full-time and part-time jobs,” she said. “One reason that our classes are so successful is because our business advisers have operated a small business of their own in the past or in the present, and they do a great job of teaching other entrepreneurs how to do what they do.”

The 12-week microenterprise classes walk people through the creation of a business plan for their enterprise and arm them with a completed plan that they can implement or take to a lender. ISED Ventures can offer the classes at no charge to its clients because of funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration and other grants.

Stacy Mitchell, director for the Iowa Women’s Enterprise Center and a business adviser with ISED Ventures, was a student of these classes in the late 1990s. She was a senior at Iowa State University at the time, and interested in starting a vending business for extra income.

“My instructor was really helpful,” Mitchell said. “She allowed me to say what I wanted to do, and then do the research to support my idea or rethink my own idea. I was able to come to my own conclusion instead of going off of her opinion. At that time, I didn’t start my business. I went ahead to get my master of public administration at Drake [University].”

In 2000, Mitchell opened a retail store called Special Occasions Unlimited in the Drake neighborhood. She ran the store until 2002, when she began working for ISED Ventures as its primary microenterprise instructor in Des Moines, applying in teaching what she thought was most valuable from her experience as a student.

“The one thing that I learned is that instead of me pushing my ideas off on them, I provide them with the tools they need to make that decision for themselves,” Mitchell said. “We put them through a personal assessment to see if they have the talent and the skills and if they are really ready. Going through the class helps them to investigate their business idea to decide on their products and services, who their customer is, location, business structure, start-up costs. They conduct a feasibility study to see if they can move forward.”

Right now, Mitchell is also working one-on-one with future business owners planning to locate in the Sixth Avenue corridor, which is being redeveloped by the Neighborhood Development Corp. Carol Bowers, executive director of the NDC, said the current project, the Wherry Building, and related new construction on Sixth Avenue between College and Washington avenues, will add 24,000 square feet of retail space for small businesses to serve the River Bend neighborhood.

“It (the Wherry Building) will be a business center, kind of like some of the renovations that are going on downtown with retail stores on the bottom and efficiencies or one-bedroom lofts on top,” Mitchell said. “We’re providing technical training to business owners like Esther Kiobel, who plans to open a store that will sell African clothing, vases, as well as Italian suits for men and cosmetics from Africa.”

Mitchell said once Kiobel’s business and others – so far a dry cleaner, a Christian bookstore and a salon – are open, she will continue to provide assistance to the business owners. Mitchell is working with St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is taking on the Wherry building as the first project for its new faith-based community development corporation.

“I’m more of a coordinator and the connect between St. Paul’s and the business owners,” Mitchell said. “Once the businesses are up and running, ISED Ventures will continue to provide support to help address some of the issues that may arise in running them.”

Bowers said she is pleased to see the local groups taking an active role in helping businesses locate and succeed in the distressed, high-traffic Sixth Avenue corridor, which the NDC and the city have invested significant time and resources into redeveloping.

“We’re hopeful that for-profit Realtors and developers will take an interest in Sixth Avenue and the possibilities once they see how we’ve jump-started development” Bowers said. “Being able to provide the commercial and retail business to serve the neighborhood is essential to sustaining this historic neighborhood.”

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