Drummond Bell is in the business of bootstraps. A resident of Southport, Connecticut, a town adjacent to Bridgeport—the eighth poorest city in America according to U.S. Census data—Mr. Bell wants to provide everyone in the Bridgeport area who wants it a pair of bootstraps to pull themselves up by. In this case, the bootstraps are a 16-week training course that teaches aspiring entrepreneurs how to start and operate their own businesses.
It’s not a snake-oil pitch. The course is offered by the Workshop in Business Opportunities, or WIBO, a New York-based nonprofit started in Harlem that began teaching entrepreneurial skills in 1966. Today, WIBO boasts 9,000 graduates, over half of whom are successfully running their own businesses.
“If you own your own business, the sky’s the limit,” says Amini Kajunju, executive director of WIBO in New York.
Bell, a member of the board of WIBO for a number of years, was so impressed with the organization’s success that he decided to bring it to Bridgeport. “I saw the need,” he says. “This city . . . needs to have a workshop.” Since opening in 1999, the program has graduated 240 students, with approximately 120 currently running businesses of their own in western Connecticut.
He started the program with a modest grant and a working relationship with Family Services Woodfield, a nonprofit organization serving Bridgeport’s poorest residents that supplies free of charge the facility in which classes are held. Brian Langdon, the president of FSW, latched on to the idea and has been its biggest fan. He even worked as a discussion leader for a full 16 weeks to understand how WIBO operates.
Bell’s foundation continues to fund the program annually. “We got started with a $50,000 grant and have been giving to FSW and WIBO ever since,” Bell says. A major supporter from the start of WIBO in Bridgeport is the Smith Richardson Foundation. “They gave us a significant challenge grant, and without it WIBO would not have been able to continue,” says Bell. WIBO’s current annual budget in Bridgeport is $100,000.
As important as the financial contributions are the volunteers. The program is able to continue because “everyone involved with this,” with the exception of the program’s director, the Rev. Kevin D. Ginyard Sr., “is a volunteer,” says Bell.
WIBO students also support a small portion of the costs. Each student must pay $95 for the course. This doesn’t come close to covering the actual cost, but that’s not the point, says Bell. “It’s important they commit” by buying in to the program, he explains. While it may not seem like much, for many WIBO students that $95 is a significant investment. Nearly 60 percent of WIBO’s Bridgeport students have been African American, 60 percent have been women, and a quarter have been Hispanic. More than one-third have had annual incomes of less than $30,000; it’s not surprising that those who put up the money stay in the program. WIBO Bridgeport’s retention rate stands at 90 percent.
That $95 may well be the best bargain in business education today. “We do everything from marketing to break-even analyses for them at the classes,” says Bell.
One night each week for three hours, a maximum of 32 students meet for three hours. For the first 90 minutes, the class is broken down into groups of five to eight students each that review the assigned homework, which can require anywhere between three and 20 hours to prepare. The groups are run by a volunteer business professional or successful WIBO graduate who has volunteered for the entire 16-week span. Currently, nine WIBO graduates serve as group leaders.
The full class then reassembles for the second 90 minutes, during which another volunteer business professional introduces and then leads a discussion of some relevant topic.
Those who complete the curriculum participate in a joint graduation ceremony with their fellow WIBO grads from New York in a ceremony held at the historic Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.
Family Assets, LLC, a subsidiary of FSW, can supply WIBO graduates with a small-business microloan from a revolving loan fund for that purpose. Family Assets also helps manage Individual Development Accounts for some grads. WIBO alumni are also given, among other things, access to legal services, discounts on office supplies, and low-cost printing services.
“We have a pretty good feel for these people afterwards,” Bell says. “We know . . . who’s going to really try.” To ensure that graduates don’t fall through the cracks, Rev. Ginyard has organized an alumni association of Bridgeport’s WIBO graduates. “The biggest problem our graduates face,” says Bell, “is developing a network. Starting a business is scary, and it’s scarier once it gets going.” The alumni association continues the education process by bringing in speakers to address problems new businesses typically face and by providing a forum for graduates to show off their products and share their struggles.
The whole point is to alleviate graduates’ fears as they move from the classroom to the real world. The fact that one-half of Bridgeport’s WIBO graduates are successfully running their own operations demonstrates that Bell’s strategy is working.
As for the half who don’t make it, Bell sees an upside here as well. “If the people don’t start their own businesses, they become very good employees.” That’s because they have a greater appreciation for what makes a business work, they understand the connection between their individual performance and the business’s bottom line.
Despite the success, Bell says FSW and WIBO have to scramble each year to ensure funding. Kajunju is familiar with the funding problem. “It’s harder to raise money for adult entrepreneurship” programs and projects, she laments.
Perhaps, but Bell remains optimistic. The program, he believes, is easily replicated—as he demonstrates in Bridgeport. It’s just a matter of finding the right people to make it happen, and giving them the appropriate bootstraps.
Michael Hartmann is a visiting fellow at The Philanthropy Roundtable. He is writing a guidebook on philanthropic strategies for helping the poor.