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A $600 course changed Rose Ferdinand's future

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 28, 1985


I'M a fighter,'' says Rose Ferdinand quietly. ``Giving up is not something I do.'' So last year, when the Georgia-born black woman heard an ad on a minority-owned radio station in Boston, she perked up. It described a new management training program spearheaded by a local nonprofit economic development group and run by Boston University (BU).

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Now, with the five-month course behind her, Mrs. Ferdinand is the proud owner of Nia Fabrics, a tiny fabric store in Boston's inner-city Mattapan area. Six months after opening, her 420-square-foot storefront company (run with help from her sister, Patricia Strodder, and, on Saturdays, Rose's husband, Thony) is meeting all its projections, she says -- with ``a lot of support from the community.''

Mrs. Ferdinand is not unlike millions of minority adults in cities all across America -- a group that numbers up to 35 million, according to James D. Howell, chief economist of the Bank of Boston. Many adults are interested in starting their own companies, he says, but need an understanding of the three small-business ingredients: marketing, management, and capital.

Dr. Howell, a nationally recognized expert on economic development issues, helped conceive the BU plan after years of study of inner-city economic opportunities. Working with the nonprofit Council for Economic Action (CEA), he earlier pioneered a method for surveying local communities to see what sorts of small businesses are needed -- and which are likely to survive.

``There are ample nooks and crannies in any large city'' for small businesses to fill, Howell says, if only they can be identified. According to his most recent surveys, Boston itself still can support many more small businesses -- including, for example, bathroom accessories stores, furniture cleaning firms, picture framing shops, and lawn maintenance contractors.

Once a community's needs are understood, the next step is to match these business opportunities with would-be owner-operators -- and to make sure the candidates know how to manage a business.

Enter the Small Business Development Program at BU, which is now gearing up for its second year. It requires no academic background for its participants, although many do have college educations. The program is taught by senior professors in BU's School of Management, but it teaches no complex management theory. Instead, says BU provost Jon Westling, the program is ``directed explicitly to the problems of thinking through a business plan, finding financing, and getting started and owning one's own s mall business.''

While race is not a factor for admission, the program is aimed at the minority population. CEA project director Carol Dillon says that in the 1984-85 year, 80 percent of the participants were from minority backgrounds, largely black. Over half were women, most of whom were single heads of households.

Programs to encourage small minority enterprises are not new. Many of America's 275 cities, facing serious problems with inner-city poverty, are hatching ways to guide minorities into successful business ventures. But Howell, who made a wide study of other programs before helping launch this one, notes that ``almost all the others were failing because they were taking the minorities to the bankers first'' -- before they had written a sound business plan. The result: Banks often refused to f und poorly conceived projects, drawing accusations from the inner-city community that the banks were unwilling to support minority enterprises.