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Tampa chamber's minority business program accelerates into second year

Edmon Rakipi and Corey McCaster, current advisers in the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's Minority Business Accelerator prograom, and Carolyn Lawson and Derek Mateos, current program participants, served on a panel during a June 28 information meeting . Courtesy of Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce
Edmon Rakipi and Corey McCaster, current advisers in the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's Minority Business Accelerator prograom, and Carolyn Lawson and Derek Mateos, current program participants, served on a panel during a June 28 information meeting . Courtesy of Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce
Published Jul. 2, 2018

TAMPA — A year ago, Carolyn Lawson was paying a business coach $25,000 to advise her on the best practices to grow her marketing firm, Chameleon Custom Solutions.

The results she yielded proved ho-hum, at best.

Then she signed up for the Minority Business Accelerator, a two-year program sponsored by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce that's designed to help Black and Hispanic-owned businesses expand by identifying barriers to growth and gaining greater access to suppliers.

Today, the firm's sales are up by 20 percent and a new staff member was added recently.

Lawson said she dumped that pricey business coach in exchange for monthly interactions with chamber-sanctioned mentors, access to gatekeepers who can award her contracts, and in-depth insight on her business' strengths and weaknesses and how best to map out a plan for expansion.

The future looks very bright, she said.

"With a map, you can see the steps," she said. "As we're taking those steps, we can see now how we're growing."

Lawson shared Thursday her experiences in the accelerator program with about 20 prospective applicants at an informational meeting. After a successful launch last fall, the chamber is now recruiting its second cohort.

Based on similar initiatives operating in Cincinnati and Greenville, S.C., the chamber's accelerator program seeks to boost the profile of minority-owned businesses which traditionally can be hampered by limited access to capital, resources and key decision makers.

The accelerator program provides participants a slew of amenities including peer-to-peer strategy sessions, a chamber membership, and guidance on leadership development, organizational change, and employee engagement.

But that comes after businesses complete a rigorous application process that requires submission of bank records, tax returns, letters of reference, and other documents. An interview also is part of the process to gain entry into the accelerator program, which has just four to six slots per cohort.

The companies must be a black or Hispanic-owned and operated business, headquartered in Tampa or in Hillsborough County, with an active business plan with a well-defined growth strategy, and have an annual gross revenue of $500,000.

The latter is important in determining if a business is a good fit for the program, said program director LaKendria Robinson.

"We want to make sure we have companies that have been successful," she said.

Statistics from the first cohort reveal the four businesses participating — Chameleon, Matcon Construction Services, McKenzie Contracting, and MidFlorida Armored & ATM Service — are performing well, Robinson said.

Since beginning last November, those businesses have added a total of 12 new hires and created two new positions in addition to dedicating 73 hours to business planning and gaining exposure by attending 17 chamber-related events, she said.

The accelerator program has taken off thanks to the commitment of both the participants and the Chamber members and investors who see the value in the program, said Bob Rohrlack, chamber president and chief executive officer.

"The more successful they become, the better the community becomes," he said.

Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com.