She calls herself a “solopreneur.” From paying the bills to navigating social media to washing dishes coated in essential oils and soapy residue, Javela Singleton knows how to run a business. But she, like many other graduates of Village Launch’s Business Entrepreneur Academy, was hardly alone in the process.
Singleton, the founder and owner of Gifted Hands Artisan Soaps, said starting her own business and being a part of the Business Entrepreneur Academy not only gave her control over her income but helped her personal growth. “You find value in what you already know, what you can share with everyone, and what others can share with you,” Singleton said.
In 2016, Village Launch started the Business Entrepreneur Academy to provide formal business knowledge and meaningful business relationships for aspiring entrepreneurs. The program is designed off a nationally implemented model to give students business skills for long-term success.
The microlending organization, a branch of Mill Community Ministries, began in 2012. It was founded with the name Nasha Lending, a nod to the Hebrew word “nasha,” meaning “to lend.” Searching for a fresh and more recognizable name, the hearts behind Nasha Lending have rebranded as Village Launch, ready to equip entrepreneurs and creators to start or expand their own businesses.
Since the first BEA class, 47 businesses have graduated, but Village Launch isn’t stopping there. An expansion includes a co-working space at Textile Hall in the Village of West Greenville. And now that a fourth of the businesses coming through BEA are food-related, a DHEC-approved, incubator commercial kitchen is available for use at a reduced rate.
Village Launch is expanding the BEA curriculum with its new partnership with Grace Church Espanol to offer classes taught by several native Spanish speakers.
From the ground up
Before there was Village Launch, Dan Weidenbenner, executive director of Mill Community Ministries, and his team noticed a pipeline problem for entrepreneurs in Greenville.
“When you look at the two greatest creators of wealth in this country, it’s through homeownership and small-business ownership,” Weidenbenner said. “How do we build small businesses so that folks and families can build wealth so that they are upwardly mobile?”
The staff at Village Launch decided they could build a bridge to success. The goal was to create an economic tool not only for entrepreneurs themselves, but for the community they serve.
“That’s the theory of change of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Weidenbenner said. “It is this mechanism to get people out of poverty and create economic opportunity for them and others.”
Program Director Mallory Boyd said Village Launch is designed to be a community approach, hence the name.
“Our vision is to enable individuals to become providers, creators, and contributors in their community,” Boyd said. “We provide programs and resources to grow entrepreneurs’ capacity to provide for themselves and employ others.”
From chefs to life coaches to candlemakers to banana-bread bakers, Village Launch is committed to equipping any and all under-resourced entrepreneurs. The 10-week course follows a unique curriculum to launch and support entrepreneurs. The only qualifications are to have a business idea and to be ready to put in the work and time.
“We like to say,” Boyd said, “running a business is not hard work, but you have to work hard on it.”
Chef Tyler Kelley, another BEA graduate, affirms this reality. He now works full-time running his catering business, Emerald Plate Experience LLC. Kelley does it all, from the taxes to the trash.
He says that regardless of the long hours, he’s happy to be doing his own thing. “You have to take the leap of faith. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it,” Kelley said.
An advocate for local foods and luxury dining, Kelley gained the leverage he needed from BEA and now wants to generate opportunities for others.
“I took the class and quickly realized that some of my systems for the business were not going to be effective,” the chef said. “I adapted and reworked the system, and I haven’t gone a month without a steady income since.”
Creating a meaningful network
Strategic planning, financial organization, and building social capital are only some of the logistical tools taught at BEA. At the core of the program, it’s about community. Boyd explains that the most powerful part of the process is the relationships built.
“This is an alumni network,” Boyd said. “It’s important with our grassroot entrepreneurs to connect them to those community resources which are otherwise seemingly out of reach.”
Creating an encouraging space of creators, entrepreneurs, and thinkers is critical to the development of Village Launch.
Weidenbenner and Boyd agree that having a support system is a significant factor in success. But this isn’t something all entrepreneurs have.
“It’s not uncommon for folks in our community to not be encouraged at home or in their communities,” Weidenbenner said. “To have folks to encourage them to pursue their dreams and to have role models of success within this entrepreneurial space I think has been hugely important.”
Starting a catering business can be daunting, but Kelley is thankful for the network he built in BEA. He pokes fun at being the only man in his class at the time, but he’s grateful for the friends, referrals, and clients he now has as a result.
Like Kelley, Singleton speaks with admiration of the ambitious entrepreneurs she met. Although she started Gifted Hands Artisan Soaps before enrolling in BEA, Singleton attributes the flourishing of her business to the strategic connections she made in the program.
“I met a tribe of women trying to help each other figure things out about our businesses, and to grow,” Singleton said. “Getting in touch with the facilitators who have been growing businesses for a while and letting them guide me through the process has been tremendously valuable.”
At the core of Village Launch is camaraderie; it’s fellowship with the common goal of financial success and being a self-starter.
“It doesn’t mean that they don’t have valuable information they can share and it doesn’t mean that you don’t have valuable information to share,” Singleton said. “You’re not alone.”