In honor of National Black Business Month, Program Director Messay Derebe speaks with Guy Lambert, the host of Community Focus Hour on WPGC 95.5. Tune in to learn why we launched the Enterprising Women of Color Business Center in partnership with the MBDA. This interview was made possible by our partners at JP Morgan Chase.
Guy Lambert: Hey, folks. Welcome back to another edition of Community Focus right here on WPGC 95.5. I’m your host, News Appearance Director, Guy Lambert. We have a power-packed show lined up for you today. I’m so excited about it. Going to get to that in just one second. Before we do so, I need to remind you that the comments and opinions expressed during the course of this program are not necessarily the views of WPGC Radio.
As you know, all month long we’ve been chitchatting about August being National Black Business Month. As we recognize the Black-owned businesses across the country, we want to shed some more light on the Enterprising Women of Color Business Center. You see, one day at a time, they are truly helping others reach their dreams. That’s where Messay Derebe comes into play. “Who is she?” you ask. She is the Program Director of Enterprising Women of Color [DMV] Business Center (Center), which by the way, falls all under the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (Wacif). With that, I give you none other than Messay. Good morning, ma’am. Welcome to the program.
Messay Derebe: Good morning, Guy. Thank you for having me this morning. I’m excited about this conversation.
Guy Lambert: Why did you create a business center focused on women entrepreneurs of color?
Messay Derebe: Yes, that is a great question. Minority women are actually the fastest-growing population of entrepreneurs in the U.S. Even according to a recent article by the Harvard Business Review, 17% of Black women were actually in the process of starting or running new businesses in 2021, which is really incredible.1 Despite these tremendous gains, women of color still face many obstacles as entrepreneurs, including accessing affordable capital.
For Wacif, whose mission is to promote equity and economic opportunity for underserved neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C.-area, supporting women of color is not new, it’s actually in the organization’s DNA. It really felt like it was the right time to expand and deepen this work, given the tremendous growth that we’re seeing in the number of minority women that are starting or growing their businesses.
The initiative is supported by a grant from the [United States] Minority Business Development Agency, and our goal is to support women entrepreneurs of color to build their businesses, secure contracts, and capital, increase partnership opportunities for them, and also build an entrepreneur community of like-minded support. We’re really taking a long-term view of investing in women of color entrepreneurs and addressing both barriers to entry into entrepreneurship and barriers to scaling up their businesses. This is really the right time to start the Center. We’re very, very excited about it.
Guy Lambert: A little birdie whispered in my ear that you have experience as an entrepreneur. I’m curious, how does that shape your approach to this work?
Messay Derebe: I do. My own experience, of course, as an entrepreneur has really influenced my approach quite a bit. It’s really initially what even inspired me to take on the Program Director role. I started my own business about four years ago. Before that, I never thought of myself as someone who could ever be an entrepreneur. It just felt like a foreign concept, I couldn’t do it, it’s for certain types of people and that’s not me.
Starting that business was completely transformative for me as a person. It gave me a confidence that I didn’t know I could have. It really opened up new avenues for me professionally and personally. It really opened my eyes to what entrepreneurship really means. It also made me really intimately familiar with the challenges of running a business, of which there are many, from having to be everything for your business, the accountant, the lawyer, sometimes the janitor, sometimes the social– everything. You really are everything for your business, which is tremendously challenging.
Also, the fact that as exciting and rewarding as entrepreneurship is, it can be lonely because you’re really going at it by yourself. The success and failure of your business often falls solely on your shoulders, and so that experience really influences the way that I think about the Center. At the same time, of course, we are making sure that our approach is driven not by my own experience, which is helpful, but by what we’re learning from our clients about what they need.
We are still in the process of doing a hundred discovery calls with women of color entrepreneurs from the region and one of the questions we’ve been asking is, “What keeps you up at night as it relates to your business?” Yes, it’s by experience, but also it’s the constant feedback that we’re getting from our clients that influences how we approach the Center.
Guy Lambert: I’m wondering if you could share with me, possibly a story of someone you worked with and how you were literally able to change not only their life, but their business?
Messay Derebe: I think we have so many stories, Guy, to really highlight. We recently partnered with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in D.C., OSSE, to operate a grant program to help childcare providers recover during COVID. It was an industry that was really impacted by school closures and parents staying at home. The fact that we ran this grant program where we ended up giving out grants to over 400 childcare providers in D.C. was so helpful. It was almost like a saving grace for a lot of childcare providers who maybe didn’t know how they were going to cover their bills month to month during the pandemic when their client numbers had reduced pretty significantly. We also have our lending clients who, with Wacif’s support, are able to scale their businesses in a way that they might not have been able to otherwise, and so we get a lot of stories.
Part of the discovery calls that we’re doing this summer was just listening to people’s experiences of what it meant to run businesses during the pandemic. We heard a lot of heartbreaking stories, of course, because it’s been such a catastrophic time for small businesses, but we also heard so many inspiring stories of how women are able to transition their businesses or pivot their strategy and still end up successful even while this horrific thing was happening in the general environment. There are so many stories we can tell, and we hear those stories every day.
Guy Lambert: Folks that are listening right now and they’re saying, “You know what? I think I want to reach out, but I’m still not sure.” They’re teetering on the fence. Any inspiring last words perhaps you can provide so that they will pick up that phone and give you a call?
Messay Derebe: Do it, if you haven’t started a business, or if you’re running a business and you’re like, “I need help, but I’m not sure how to do it.” We have the exact service for that. We have free one-on-one advisory services because often we know, even before you can take advantage of capital or anything else, you need help just navigating the questions that you have. Get online, fill out our intake form, call me, and we can have a conversation, we can help you navigate how to get started, or how to get your funding.
If you need training, we can help you do that. In fact, get on the website and look at the services we offer, and just do it. That’s what I would say.
Guy Lambert: Easy as one, two, three. Folks that want to find out more information, is there a telephone number or a website one can log onto?
Messay Derebe: Absolutely, Our website is https://ewoc.wacif.org. You can also reach us on social media, and absolutely, they can definitely fill out our intake form on the website and connect with me directly.
Join Our Growing Ecosystem
Connect with other women of color entrepreneurs to help grow your business. Subscribe to our newsletter.