A $600 course changed Rose Ferdinand's future

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).

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.

But in this program, Howell says, ``we're not asking [the bankers] to do something [they] wouldn't otherwise do.' By the time candidates pay a visit to a loan officer, they have done a lot of homework -- and had a lot of thoroughly professional advice.

So far, the bankers have liked what they have seen. After its first year, the BU program has already generated more than 20 new companies.

Equally important, however, are the numbers of people who have not tried to start up businesses. Another role of the program is to discourage people from going into business if they're not ready, says Howell.

The course, in fact, is designed to cull the less prepared. It begins with a two-day ``short course'' (costing $60), during which each student writes a brief prospectus. Of the 180 students who enrolled in the weekend-or-evening short course last September, 45 stayed on for the ``long course'' (costing about $600), which lasted from October to January.

``The people who came in with an idea [for a prospective business venture] got the most benefit out of it,'' says Ernie Bannister, a graduate of the program, who is now buying his own commercial printing business in Cambridge. He credits the BU staff for teaching him ``the intricacies of knowing what to do and when to do it,'' as well as for pointing out ``both the upsides and the downsides'' of running one's own company. After the course is over, its graduates remain in contact with CEA, which continue s to advise them.

As it enters its second year, the program is advertising locally through newspapers, radio, and even announcements from the pulpits of inner-city churches. There are plans afoot to replicate the program in Milwaukee, Wis., and Stockton, Calif. And the federal Department of Housing and Urban Affairs is searching for three other cities in which to set up similar projects.

What does a city need to qualify? Obviously, a school capable of teaching sound business-management techniques, Howell says. Beyond that it needs ``a locus of concern concentrated in one or two people,'' as well as some kind of minority bank or foundation to help move the project forward. The community, he adds, ``has to want it really badly.''

That, on a more personal level, is the story of Rose Ferdinand. Fascinated with clothing and fabrics since she was 13, she was living in Boston and working at a job with a pharmaceutical company when she heard about the BU program. She had known since she was 18 that she wanted to open her own store. But it took the BU course to show her how.

What led her to Mattapan? Mrs. Ferdinand says she ``wanted the store to be in the community'' near her home. That turned out to be a solid business decision.

In doing her market research, Mrs. Ferdinand, whose husband is Haitian, discovered that the area has a large number of people of Caribbean extraction -- who, she says, typically make their own clothes.

She offers fabrics, patterns, and advanced sewing lessons, and is already casting an eye about for larger quarters. ``From the research I've done,'' she says, ``we can make three times the money with larger space.''

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