The pandemic has damaged businesses across the country. Federal aid in the form of Paycheck Protection Program—which began April 3 and ended Aug. 8 and handed out 5.2 million loans worth $525 billion—provided an essential crutch. But some businesses, particularly Black-owned and minority-owned businesses, were largely locked out, according to a recent report from the Association Press and CBS.

Joy Briscoe, talent acquisition and outreach specialist with Waterloo Schools, and Lindi Roelofse, program manager at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, certainly noticed the discrepancy. At the time, they were working with high school students interested in entrepreneurship. Then they starting talking: How can we help these minority-owned businesses struggling to find help?

“We realized there wasn’t a representative amount of PPP dollars going to our Black- and Latino-owned businesses, and that was one of the big spurs,” Roelofse said. “We said, ‘Why don’t we do something for the existing businesses who are already up and running to give them a boost to get through this difficult time?’”

In response, they partnered with other business leaders and organizations to create the Cedar Valley Minority Business & Entrepreneurship Accelerator (MBEA). The goal of the program is to accelerate the economic and social impact potential of minority businesses in Waterloo. The five founding organizations include Waterloo Career Services, UNI Business’ Business and Community Services, Red Cedar, Iowa CORE and the City of Waterloo.

The first cohort, with 14 business, launched in September and ends in February. The program offers weekly classes on specific business topics, like budgeting, financial statements, marketing and more. Participants also receive 1-on-1 mentoring with experienced business owners around the area, in addition to creating three to five goals to accomplish in the six-month accelerator.

ReShonda Young, the program facilitator and a serial entrepreneur herself, has been encouraged by the progress of the business owners so far. She was in program planning discussions from the very beginning. Seeing this come to life has been a positive from a tough year.

“The biggest thing has been the hope that so many of [these businesses] saw wane during the pandemic,” Young said. “There were a few of them that were in pretty tough spots. It’s been huge helping them to make sure they get the inventory and supplies they need during the pandemic.”

Matthew Gilbert, the president of the Iowa Center for Opportunity Resources and Equity, Inc., and a business owner, was one of the mentors. He’s helped participants connect with local opportunities for assistance.

“Some of these participants have been on the fringe of the infrastructure for starting a business in the Cedar Valley,” Gilbert said. “They may have known about a few things, but they didn’t necessarily participate or know how to participate. I’ve been excited to map the infrastructure specifically for them and their situations.”

For participants, the MBEA has been a huge help. DaQuan Campbell (Business Management, ’19) was one of those assisted by the program. Campbell founded and operates We Arose Co-op, a network of local food producers with the mission of elevating urban farming cooperation. He discovered the MBEA through an email from ReShonda Young, and it intrigued him from the start.

It’s lived up to the expectations.

“I’ve had an amazing experience so far, just having a safe and secure space for minority entrepreneurs to share, learn and collaborate with one another,” Campbell said.

Campbell said some of the biggest positives have been the exposure to small business resources and networking with other minority business owners. He’s also learned a lot about financial forecasting, making 60-day, 90-day, and 180-day action plans.

“You’re setting long-term goals, and these have been helpful to shape the vision of We Arose Co-op and what milestones we want to be hitting as we go into the growing season this upcoming year,” Campbell said.

The program is also important for another reason. 24/7 Wall St. named Waterloo as one of the worst places for Black Americans for three straight years. Programs like the MBEA help foster a better culture for minority business owners and their families.

“The MBEA can be a part of growing these businesses so they can become a part of the larger economy,” said Denita Gadson, one of the mentors in the program and student diversity programs coordinator with UNI Business. “This first cohort is a test of all of that, to see how we support these businesses long after they’ve transitioned from this and connect them with opportunities.”

Going forward, MBEA organizers hope the work they are doing now will make a difference long down the road. The next cohort is planned for April. You can register for that here. Ten businesses will be admitted.

“The tangibles might not show right away, and it’s hard when you just plant a seed, but you have to nurture it and wait while before it can grow, right?” Briscoe said. “So this is the same concept. We have to trust the process and give things time to grow.”