By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Jay Johnson, founder and CEO of College Prep U, which specializes in admissions consulting, as well as college and career services, knows where to send small businesses in need of funding.
“If I knew a female entrepreneur starting a business and she needed resources, I would send her to IGNITE! Alabama because I know they would do everything in their capacity to provide the resources available,” he said.
IGNITE! Alabama, founded by Torin Brazzle in 2019, is a nonprofit organization that helps to educate and bridge the communication gap between service providers and small-business owners, especially minority and women business owners. IGNITE! aims to build a support network to connect businesses.
While Johnson supports and sponsors IGNITE! events, he receives just as much in return.
In December 2020, IGNITE! secured a $600,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to fund its Doing Business in Alabama (DBIA) program, a five-year project designed to provide technical assistance, mentorship, and support to minority small-business owners and entrepreneurs. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, founded in 1930, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States.
“At the stage I’m in with my business, my company being able to utilize the resources from the Kellogg grant is priceless,” said Johnson. “I’ll have access to companies that can help me with marketing. I also need to develop an app, so there will be a resource to help us get started with the tech side and financial coaching.
Johnson learned of IGNITE! through Brazzle at the organization’s inaugural event, which took place during Magic City Classic week in 2019. Among the many segments presented during the gathering was one on high school students and college admissions.
“I was invited to come out as a vendor and was one of the title sponsors of the event, as well,” said Johnson, who founded his company in 2017.
Johnson, who has built a partnership with Brazzle, often refers small, minority, or female business owners to the organization. Any organization that can help a business grow provides a valuable service, he said.
“A lot of times, when you go into business, you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of. … As an entrepreneur you do everything: handling customer service, sales, marketing; producing the product. … The first few years, it’s like being back at a job,” he said. “An organization like IGNITE! … helps you see the things you can’t see in your day-to-day actions and puts good resources in front of you that can help.”
When business owner Krishawn Ahmadou needed some information about filing a business license, she turned to IGNITE! Alabama.
“In 2019, I went to IGNITE’s first event, when they were becoming an organization,” she said. “Just listening to [Brazzle] and the ideas she had for small businesses was great.”
With help from IGNITE!, Ahmadou grew her Birmingham-based business, A&O Medical Billings LLC, which she launched in 2018 and has two employees.
Ahmadou received her limited liability company (LLC) license in April 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and IGNITE! helped her through the challenges of the crisis. Because health care providers were not able to see many patients during the pandemic, Ahmadou’s company suffered for about two months.
“A lot of small Black businesses weren’t able to get [Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)] loans … because they didn’t have their paperwork in place,” said Ahmadou. “I was also able to get the $1,000 [Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL)] grant for each employee [of my company]. … If I wouldn’t have had my paperwork from all the tools that IGNITE! had given me, I wouldn’t have been able to get that grant.”
IGNITE! helped keep a lot of small businesses like hers open during the pandemic, Ahmadou said.
“A lot of businesses had to shut down because they weren’t able to provide the documents needed to get those [PPP and EIDL] loans and grants. IGNITE! equipped us to be able to apply for a loan or a grant. Everything that IGNITE! provided me helped my business flourished,” she said.
The five-year IGNITE! DBIA initiative will be a huge help to small-business owners like Ahmadou, who will be part of a cohort of businesspeople who will get assistance through the program, as well as connect with professionals who can help them take their businesses to the next level.
“I’ll have access to a business coach, a lawyer, accountants. They come in and scale your business—and all of that help is free,” she said. “[Other small-business owners and I] also have access to the Small Business Development Center, so we have a coach to help us get our businesses together and our finances together.”
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