THEY came from all walks of life: A single mother of seven who wants to open a discount store. A DJ who wants to market chitlins and other foods to blacks. A delivery man who wants to set up a barbecue restaurant.
What they had in common was one simple desire: to open their own business.
The three dozen people sitting in a tidy church classroom in South-Central Los Angeles were attending the first session of a new entrepreneur-training program.
The goal, as with many similar programs, is to turn wistful ideas into dollars and jobs. But this one is aimed at serving people in the inner city, in this case South Central. The program goes to the heart of what experts say will be a predominant need in rebuilding the impoverished area after recent riots.
"Pride of ownership is important," says the Rev. Edgar Boyd of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a sponsor of the program along with the city. "If the community knows the business is owned by members of the community, they can join in a partnership with it to do as much good as possible."
Citywide, blacks own an estimated 29,000 businesses. That is the most of any city other than New York. But experts say the number is still far too low.
African-Americans have been outspoken about too much "absentee ownership" in South Central. Last year a black was shot by a Korean-American merchant across from Bethel AME. African Americans boycotted the liquor mart until it shut down. The program to encourage start-ups and fledgling businesses at the church has taken on added significance in the wake of the incident. It is one of four similar initiatives about to begin in neighborhoods across the city under a program conceived by the city's Community D evelopment Department two years ago.
Forging new ventures will not be easy. Under the best of circumstances, launching a business is a long shot. South Central has the added burden of a diminishing middle class and a limited base of good-paying jobs. Education often lags, too, and banks have been reluctant to invest in the inner city.
"The area has a fragile economic base because of insufficient employment," says Jon Goodman, an entrepreneurial expert at the University of Southern California. "Thus, the supply and demand of goods and services is lower and there is less money flowing through the neighborhood."
Still, ideas are bubbling up on how to nurture new ventures:
* One community group, the Brotherhood Crusade, is launching a nonprofit economic development corporation to encourage black-owned mom-and-pop stores.
* Another organization is trying to persuade supermarket and drug store chains to sell part-ownership of stores to local residents.
* The Recycling Black Dollars Foundation is soliciting $50-a-month donations from 1,000 churches to bankroll small firms.
The entrepreneurial program at AME is funded with $75,000 of city money and matching contributions from the church. It puts would-be business owners through three months of classroom training and then monitors their efforts at setting up an enterprise.
Most of the 32 participants are seeking to start a venture for the first time. A few want to expand businesses they already own.
"We're not interested in fly-by-nighters," says Joe Gardner, program director. "We're looking for people who are determined and who have the ability to follow through."
Participants learn accounting, inventory control, and other skills needed to develop a business plan and run an enterprise. Some graduates will be paired with entrepreneurs to hone skills. Local banks are being approached about offering low-interest loans. Eventually organizers hope to establish a revolving fund using money from successful start-ups in the program.
Talk of long odds doesn't seem to deter those in the classroom. Toshi Gay, an unemployed single parent, wants to open a 99-cent discount store. She is concerned about the image she is portraying to her children by being on welfare. "It is not a good way for them to see me survive," she says. "I'm going to change that."
Jeanette Hughes has worked as a teacher, run a couple of rib restaurants, and now works as a gospel music DJ. She hopes to develop a line of frozen foods marketed to blacks - and employ 200 to 300 people in the process.
"The jobs are badly needed in the community," she says.
Several participants say they have worked too long and too hard for other people. They want to put sweat into their own creation.
Eddie Craig, a security guard, wants to open his own clothing boutique. "It would be a lot more fulfilling," he says.
Out of this pluck, organizers hope to revitalize neighborhoods, one dream at a time.