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Torin Brazzle: Birmingham’s Small Business Champion

Torin Brazzle, founder, executive director, IGNITE! Alabama. (Marvin Gentry, For The Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Torin Brazzle felt a spark. And that glimmer ignited an entire organization designed to serve minority- and women-owned businesses in the state of Alabama.

“As a Black woman, as a mother of inner-city schoolchildren, and as a nonprofit leader, over the years, without fail, every time I heard about an opportunity one or two things would happen: the opportunity would be over, and I would say, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t even know that was happening’; or it would be so close to the deadline that I didn’t have the opportunity to compete,” said Brazzle.

With that in mind, Brazzle founded IGNITE! Alabama, in 2019, a nonprofit organization that helps to educate and bridge the communication gap between service providers and minority and women business owners. IGNITE! aims to build a support network to connect businesses.

Brazzle, 44, who also serves as executive director, chose 2019 Magic City Classic week to launch her organization “because we have hundreds of thousands of Black people that descend on the city at that time, and I thought, ‘Hey, we’ll have a captive audience.’”

In April 2019, she started planning an empowerment event to be held on the Tuesday or Wednesday of Classic week that would “give [small-business owners, and entrepreneurs] the tools and resources they needed before going back to their everyday lives when the Classic was over,” said Brazzle.

By July, Brazzle realized that IGNITE! was becoming a movement. When it launched on October 23, 2019, in a conference room at Regions Field in downtown Birmingham, it was bigger than she imagined.

“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,” recalled 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 within the ecosystem doing these things, who was best at it, and intentionally partnering with them and plugging them in. 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.”

Brazzle said she wanted to create a program that could be replicable and garner national attention. After two years, she’s off to a good start.

In December 2020, IGNITE! 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. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, founded in 1930, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States.

Nonprofit Professional

Torin Brazzle, founder, executive director, IGNITE! Alabama. (Marvin Gentry, For The Birmingham Times)

Prior to founding IGNITE!, Brazzle had a 20-year career in the nonprofit sector, most recently working with the Alabama Rural Coalition for the Homeless (ARCH).

She said, “I oversaw the disaster case management program, which was responsible for replacing and rebuilding mobile homes and houses that were destroyed or damaged during the April 2011 [Tornado Super Outbreak that spawned 62 confirmed tornadoes across the state of Alabama].”

Brazzle, from Cleveland, Ohio, moved to Birmingham in 1995 to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She eventually transferred to Samford University, where she majored in counseling and criminal justice.

“My goal was to become a juvenile probation officer,” she said. “When I was doing my internship at family court, I quickly realized that I would be more effective operating outside of the system at an independent agency than working within the confines.”

Brazzle graduated from Samford in 2003 with a degree in counseling and criminal justice. She then took a position with UAB’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, where she was an office services specialist, assisted with finances, ordered supplies, and worked with professors.

In 2008, she became program manager and director with Rebirth Community Development Corporation, where she handled case management projects.

“One of the bigger grants we worked on was doing case management for the [Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program],” she said. “Then the [April 2011] tornadoes hit, and we got a contract with ARCH. After working with them from mid-March until the first of May, I was offered the position of supervisor of the Birmingham office, which covered Jefferson, Shelby, and St. Clair, and Blount counties. By September 2012, I was offered the program manager position, through which I oversaw 22 counties in the state.”

Brazzle worked with ARCH until December 2016 and then did some independent business consulting until she founded IGNITE! Alabama in 2019.

Family First

Brazzle is mom to Chelsea, 22, who attends Lawson State Community College, and Alexis, 21, who is a junior at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University; they both attended Avondale Elementary, Wilkerson Middle, and P.D. Jackson-Olin High schools. She is also wife to Dexter; the couple at UAB and have been married for 21 years and together for 25.

Brazzle, who lives in the Belview Heights area of Ensley, is an avid reader. In fact, if she is not working, she is reading or enjoying her other pastime: spending time at home with her husband and daughters. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she traveled quite a bit, as well.

Her other focus is positioning IGNITE! for growth.

“I see it becoming the true hub and trusted resource for the African American community,” Brazzle said. “IGNITE! is truly an organization that has something for everyone. … If you are Black—whether you are a man, woman, or child; small business owner, entrepreneur, or nonprofit leader—and can get to the IGNITE! Alabama website or Facebook page or sign up for our email newsletter, there is going to be something [for] you … on a daily basis.

“I want us to be a major information hub, where people can obtain tangible resources and assistance that will help them take their businesses to the next level. We’ve hired a fundraiser, we have three grant writers, we’re looking for national opportunities. My goal is for IGNITE! Alabama to be that trusted source.”

For more information about IGNITE! Alabama, visit www.igniteal.org, call 855-717-0171, or email info@igniteal.org.

To read more stories about IGNITE! click one of the links below.

IGNITE! Alabama’s $600K Grant from Kellogg Foundation Boosts Local Businesses

How Area Business Owners Found Success Through a Local Nonprofit