By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
When small-business owner Krishawn Ahmadou was starting out and needed information about filing a business license, she attended an event hosted by a newly formed organization dedicated to assisting entrepreneurs just like her.
“The problem I had was that I didn’t really know what I was doing, so everything I did was just research. I knew what I was doing with coding and billing, but on the business side, I didn’t really know,” she recalled.
That event was hosted by IGNITE! Alabama. Founded by Torin Brazzle in 2019, the nonprofit organization helps to educate and bridge the communication gap between service providers and small-business owners, especially minority and women business owners.
Ahmadou, owner of the Birmingham-based A&O Medical Billings LLC, was so impressed with IGNITE! that she started volunteering with the organization and using its services.
“I joined something they had called the Phoenix Experience. It gave me a business coach and access to an accountant, [both of whom] helped me create a business plan and make sure I had my books together, my business name, my business license. They even helped me [structure the business as a limited liability company (LLC)] to make sure we functioned as a full, legitimate business,” she said.
In two short years, IGNITE! has had a huge impact on small businesses. In December 2020, the organization received 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, entrepreneurs, and nonprofit leaders.
Bridging the Gap
IGNITE! aims to build a support network to connect businesses.
“We partner with service organizations that exist to help us once we learn about opportunities, then we bridge the gap in making sure minorities are informed in a timely manner about all of the different opportunities and resources that are available,” Brazzle said.
She added that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant will “enable us to serve minority business owners in the state of Alabama by making intensive technical resources available. While [DBIA] is a statewide initiative, we have targeted the big five cities: Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa. We’re also targeting Black Belt cities, including Selma and Greensboro.”
The $600K grant will support 150 small businesses by providing business, financial, marketing, and communication coaches, as well as legal assistance.
“When [small-business owners, entrepreneurs, or nonprofit leaders] come into the project, we do a forensic financial analysis, which includes asking the hard questions and requiring supporting documentation,” Brazzle said. “Our ultimate goal is to get these business owners to a place where they have access to capital and … to identify what they need to help cross their T’s and dot their I’s.”
Brazzle came up with the concept for DBIA in July 2019 and reached out to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in January 2020; she applied for the grant later in the year. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, founded in 1930, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States.
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the original thought was we would be able to apply for $250,000 a year for three years; that grant award would have been $750,000. When the pandemic hit, we were offered $600,000, so we submitted [a bid for] that in September 2020 and were awarded the grant on December 1,” said Brazzle, adding that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant is important, especially given the competition for funding.
“When you have a new organization like IGNITE!, it can be challenging,” she said. “When it comes to fundraising for nonprofits, you have to submit at least 100 requests to get 10 ‘Yes’ responses, but the 90 ‘No’ responses are normal. What God showed me with IGNITE!, with all of the possibilities, was that we would need resources.
“Once the Kellogg Foundation gave us this endorsement, it validated our program instantly. … It also allows us to continue to search on a national level as it relates to foundations and corporations to solicit funds to help us help minorities [in Alabama] do business effectively and competitively,” she said.
Brazzle knew she was on to something when IGNITE! launched in October 2019, during Magic City Classic week. The organization hosted an event at Regions Field in downtown Birmingham—and the response was beyond anything she expected.
“We had the room set up for 400 people, and we literally burst out of the seams with more than 650 people! It was an electrifying day,” said Brazzle. “When I began to lay out all of the things that we as minorities need, the first thing I did was begin to look and see who was out here. The reason I chose female and small-business owners and nonprofit leaders was because I believe that if we can get our economics right, it will begin to affect every other area. … That’s why and how we got to where we are.”
The inaugural IGNITE! event focused on minority and female business owners, high school seniors, and students attending historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Eva Robertson, an IGNITE! board member, who serves as vice president for community relations and executive director of the Protective Life Foundation, said the organization has been able to fill a void.
“When [Brazzle] started IGNITE!, she pointed out that there was a gap in communication. … Sometimes there were opportunities and resources available, but small-business owners who didn’t have the access and the networks to get to them were shut out,” said Robertson. “IGNITE! is about connecting all of those dots, as well as providing mentoring and coaching for small businesses. We want to see them get the resources they need to build success.”
Five months after the inaugural event, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, meaning Brazzle had to take the organization in a different direction.
“[The pandemic] presented me with a defining moment: I was going to either embrace technology and leverage it or become irrelevant,” she said. “Becoming irrelevant is never an option, so I am now the Facebook queen and Zoom diva. We were the one of the first organizations to livestream a public event via Facebook discussing the pandemic on March 15. We assembled doctors and lawyers; we had someone talking about insurance.”
The virtual conferences have proven beneficial, Brazzle said.
“Before COVID-19, we saw 1,650 people. Once we [began] doing things virtually, we had more than 30,000 views for our events, so it helped us as it relates to our reach and our ability to operate more efficiently,” she said. “I am able to do what I do so much more efficiently and effectively—and at half the price of what it was costing me to do events in person.”
IGNITE! helped many businesses through the health crisis, including Ahmadou’s A&O Medical Billings LLC. Because health care providers were not able to see many patients during the pandemic, Ahmadou’s company suffered for about two months.
“[IGNITE!] provided us with [Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)] loans. A lot of small Black businesses weren’t able to get those loans … because they didn’t have their paperwork in place,” said Ahmadou, which she launched in 2018 and has two employees. “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!] provides the tools to make sure that you are a real, functioning business and that you’re not just doing it without all of those necessary resources.”
Robertson said it’s important that IGNITE! Alabama creates an ecosystem that removes barriers, makes connections, and links resources “so we can get behind and strengthen the people who have the initiative, knowledge, and capability to build small businesses that will truly make the entire state stronger.”
“For too long and for whatever reason, there has been a gap in communication,” she said. “If minority businesses are going to have any chance at truly succeeding and competitively competing in the marketplace, they have to stay in the loop and stay informed, as well as take advantage of the technical assistance and resources that are available for them.”
Making sure small business count
IGNITE! Alabama wants every minority-owned business to count with its Counting Us initiative.
“It is the official outreach tool that we use for [Doing Business in Alabama (DBIA)], but the purpose of it is to intentionally count and document as many minority business owners as possible throughout the state of Alabama,” said Torin Brazzle, IGNITE! Alabama Founder. “When I sat down to write the [W.K. Kellogg Foundation] grant, I could not find any reliable statistics or data as it relates to the state of our minority businesses, particularly Black businesses in the state of Alabama. … That’s a problem because if it is not documented, it didn’t happen.”
IGNITE! Alabama, founded 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.
In December 2020, the organization received a $600,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to fund its DBIA program, a five-year project designed to provide technical assistance, mentorship, and support to minority small-business owners, entrepreneurs, and nonprofit leaders. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, founded in 1930, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States.
To keep track of minority businesses, IGNITE! Alabama conducts a census four times a year—in February, June, August, and November, from the fifth through the 20th of each month—to record as many minority businesses as possible throughout the state.
“Things are so fluid with our minority businesses, and that was even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Brazzle. “You could count a business in February, and they could be closed by July. We’re trying to get reliable data, so our team suggested that we count the businesses four times a year.”
Other IGNITE! Alabama initiatives include:
Annual Empowerment Summit. Held each fall, the summit will “touch anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 [people],” said Eva Robertson, an IGNITE! board member, who serves as vice president for community relations and executive director of the Protective Life Foundation. “In the course of that summit, a great deal of information about resources, networking, access to capital is provided. It’s a huge forum that invites lots of people to be involved to hear about the opportunities that are available.”
Contract Opportunities Symposium. The symposium, which focuses on helping small businesses, is held in February. It provides a broad range of resources, including “county, city, and corporate contracts that put out long-term contracts for providers,” Robertson said. “[During a recent symposium], about 500 participants listened to representatives from these entities about what is required, how best to grow to get that contract, and how to communicate.”
Social Media Community. The IGNITE Alabama! online community connects about 5,000 people. “They’re meeting people, jumping on monthly sessions with banks,” Robertson said. “We have sessions with both the Regions and BBVA [financial institutions] to help small businesses understand their credit rating and learn how to get stable and grow. … Those kinds of things are going on all of the time.”
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