NEON a magnet for Black entrepreneurs

Submitted photo People using NEON’s space to work

A Black activist and community stalwart hoped to acquire a printing company in Minneapolis in 2015. Despite having 30 years of experience, excellent credit, 30 percent to put down and a relationship with a bank, Frank Brown was unable to get a loan to buy the business. 

With the help of Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), he was able to get a loan and purchase MinuteMan Uptown. In two and a half years he raised sales from $200,000 to $2 million. 

Brown, who lives in North Minneapolis, runs a union shop with living wages and health care. He does not discriminate against potential employees with a criminal record. He believes in second chances. 

“Imagine if all our community businesses did this,” says Brown, “gave people second chances, supported other businesses that hire people who are Black and Brown. We could change things, and that’s what it’s about, making a change. Not just making a living, but making a difference.”

NEON, located off West Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis, provides resources for Northside businesses and entrepreneurs through an ambitious program of services, education and counsel. 

Stephen Obayuwana, who heads up business development and capital funds, acknowledges that credit problems and lack of access to capital are significant barriers to Black entrepreneurship, but believes the issue goes deeper. 

Without the generational wealth and social capital that are available to people with families in business, good ideas are poised to falter. Mistrust of financial institutions due to redlining and a history of banks giving Blacks bad interest rates means Black entrepreneurs may have little knowledge of finance.

Black entrepreneurs might have desirable products or services, but they are often unfamiliar with techniques for identifying their target market or might not be equipped to analyze their success with tools such as a profit-and-loss statement. “We don’t expect our clients to be an MBA,” Obayuwana says. “We meet them where they are.”

NEON executes its mission to “expand economic development opportunities and build wealth for low- to moderate-income entrepreneurs in North Minneapolis and surrounding communities” through programs and services that foster a “culture of entrepreneurship” for people with good ideas and ambition, but little in the way of backup. The Thinking About Business workshop helps would-be entrepreneurs turn a product or service into a business model. 

Participants can then apply to meet with a NEON business advisor who will help create a business development plan. Business advisors can also help successful small businesses take the next step in expanding. NEON curates marketplace events where clients can both sell and assess interest in their products and services like a storefront in the West Broadway building that acts as a retail incubator. A qualifying business can spend up to a year in the space before moving on to a space of their own. 

In the past year NEON has served 624 individuals with their programs. “Our primary focus is North Minneapolis,” says Obayuwana, “but we’re getting people from surrounding communities like Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Crystal, and as far away as Woodbury and Stillwater. We’ve become a magnet for minority businesses that know we provide the grounding they need.”

Photo by Justin Cox Minneapolis businessman Frank Brown, despite having excellent credit, 30 percent down, was turned down by banks. Northside Economic Opportunity Network helped him finally secure a loan, which he used to form a profitable business.

Although NEON does not push its clients into any specific line of business, it does try to foster a philosophy of communal wealth and benefit. Anisha Murphy, who heads up community engagement, asserts that “It is not enough for clients to just make money for themselves or their families.” Businesses should serve both community needs and create more opportunity.

Aside from the job opportunities he provides himself, Brown sees a chance to do the right thing when it comes to purchasing material for MinuteMan Uptown. “When I bought the company, they were buying the paper from a company in St. Paul, and I didn’t see any Black or Brown people working there. So, as a business owner and a business leader in our community, I pulled all my paper away from that company and go to another company where I see Black and Brown people working. They employ people from our community. 

“I am a leader in the community,” Brown says, “and I lead by example. We really need to keep money in our community so we can have economic development.”

Marriage and family therapist Anissa Keyes opened Arubah Emotional Health to help overcome barriers to Black mental health care by providing onsite care in places like chemical dependency treatment centers, homeless shelters and churches. Unlike many private practices or nonprofit agencies, Arubah therapists are also willing to meet clients at home or in a coffee house, in addition to office hours at any of three locations in North Minneapolis, St. Paul and Brooklyn Center. 

Keyes worked with NEON to open The Healing Center in North Minneapolis. Keyes said she wanted to expand to provide integrative services to include body work support. “We needed to create a space for integrative services. NEON helped us go through the process of purchasing through SBA [U.S. Small Business Administration) and community reinvestment funds.

“NEON was the catalyst to help me put my books together and tell me what [funders] are looking for as far as creditworthiness, and then they connected me to funders,” said Keyes.

NEON is considering acquiring the building next door for their coworking program, which has been at 100 percent occupancy since its 2015 inception and has a waitlist at present. The coworking packages go from a $10 drop-in guest pass with access to a shared workstation and an hour of conference room time all the way up to a private office at $500 a month, with levels of office amenities and access to a NEON business advisor in between.

For more information about NEON programs, call 612-302-1505 or visit NEON’s website, www.neon-mn.org.

One Comment on “NEON a magnet for Black entrepreneurs”

  1. Dear Ms. Vilankulu, I have a comment about the article highlighting Frogtown non-profits and Rep. Rena Moran. (This article is in the September 5 issue | V 86 No. 5). I am a resident of Frogtown and like the job Ms. Moran is doing. But… Frogtown is perhaps the most diverse neighborhood in Saint Paul. It is not just “the Black neighborhood in Frogtown.” It is this vast diversity of Frogtown that gives our neighborhood its strength. I only wanted you to know. Thanks for listening.

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