For Deborah James, it was a day that was 30 years in the making.
“My husband and I own Freddie Lee’s Gourmet Sauces. He started making it back in 1986,” she explained. “Eventually, he started giving it out to friends and family, and they started using it. And then one day, his friend said, ‘You all need to sell your sauce.’ And that’s where it started.”
Now, it has grown into a St. Louis-based business that supplies dozens of retailers, including a major grocery chain and Amazon.com, with countless jars of the James’ homemade, all-purpose sauce – mild or spicy, your choice.
While James and her husband, the Freddie Lee for whom the sauce is named, are grateful for the success they have seen so far, they know the business has the potential to grow further.
So on this day, 30 years after the first batch was made in her North St. Louis kitchen, Deborah James sat in a university auditorium, paying close attention, taking detailed notes and soaking up information as experts ranging from Harvard Business School professors to local business leaders offered information, education and encouragement aimed at helping small businesses grow.
The intense, day-long education session was part of a program called Inner City Capital Connections or “ICCC.”
Likened to an “MBA on steroids,” ICCC was cost-free for business owners like James and more than 100 other entrepreneurs from the St. Louis area who are working to take their businesses to the next level.
As she heard from two Harvard professors, an entrepreneurship expert from New York University, a business leader from Washington University in St. Louis, and others, James found what she was seeking in terms of growing her company.
“My goal today was to mostly find out about marketing and the strategy of it,” James said. “So that’s what I was hoping for, and that’s what I found today.”
ICCC also included one-on-one business coaching opportunities and a panel of financial industry representatives who offered guidance to locally owned companies seeking to build on their progress.
“I’m just doing what I absolutely love doing right now, and that is teaching practitioners how to grow their companies,” said Harvard Business School Professor Steven Rogers, moments after stepping off the stage, where he led a high-energy course on how entrepreneurs can finance their growth.
“Entrepreneurs don’t have the capital that a Fortune 500 company has, so they can’t afford to make a lot of mistakes,” Rogers said. “Therefore, the better education one has, ideally, the less mistakes that one would make because you’ve learned in the classroom versus learning on the job, which can be extraordinarily expensive.”
While ICCC is cost-free for the small-business owners who participate, the program depends on support from the broader business community to bring education resources to business owners in cities across the country.
In 2016, Regions Bank recruited ICCC to St. Louis for the first time in the program’s history. The St. Louis Regional Chamber quickly joined as a cosponsor as chamber leaders immediately recognized the benefits for local entrepreneurs.
“We were able to engage a couple of key partners in the St. Louis Regional Chamber as well as Washington University,” said Mike Hart, Midwest Area President for Regions Bank. “And when you get that level of collaboration, you get influential nominators, you get community ambassadors – it builds on itself.”
Indeed, both Regions and the Chamber recruited “nominators” who helped ICCC coordinators identify local businesses that could most benefit from the program. The nominators and ambassadors also directly encouraged entrepreneurs to take advantage of the ICCC program.
Specifically, ICCC looks for businesses that are growth-oriented and have a presence in urban or economically underserved areas. Business owners throughout the St. Louis region applied to participate. ICCC approved more than 120 applications from interested companies, setting the stage for the largest ICCC event in the program’s 11-year history.
“There’s hunger. There’s hunger to grow. There’s hunger for information. There’s hunger to connect,” said ICCC Director Hyacinth Vassell, who reviewed all applicants and worked with individual business owners to help determine areas of focus for ICCC that would best meet local business owners’ needs.
“We’re going to be seeing some really wonderful things with those businesses,” Vassell predicted.
Some companies that attended had only one or two employees. Others were much larger. ICCC was for all of them.
“The spirit of St. Louis is really about exploration, discovery, entrepreneurship and innovation, and that comes in all sorts of forms,” said Joe Reagan, President and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber. “One of the forms it comes in is small business owners who take the risk to step out to grow their business.”
“St. Louis is experiencing an incredible entrepreneurship renaissance right now,” added Jason Hall, Vice President of entrepreneurship and innovation for the St. Louis Regional Chamber. “We’re creating businesses at an incredible rate, but we’ve got to have the tools in place with capital and mentorships and the networks that they need to grow and expand.”
ICCC itself is already proving to be an important tool. The program brought experts and capital providers from around the nation to work directly with local entrepreneurs who had not yet had a chance to step away from their small business for a day – and learn how to grow that business over time.
“The companies that participate over the 11 years we’ve been doing this have grown employment at a rate four-and-a-half times faster than their peers and their counterparts,” said Steve Grossman, CEO of the nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, which founded ICCC. “So it works. And it’s very much an empowering opportunity for people to learn about strategy, sales, marketing, entrepreneurial finance, talent management – all the building blocks of how to grow and sustain a successful company.”
Washington University in St. Louis provided the venues needed to facilitate open dialogue between business owners and educators. The university has a long-term commitment to fostering new businesses and innovations throughout the St. Louis area.
“You raise a region by regional collaboration and cooperation,” said Dedric Carter, Vice Chancellor of operations and technology for Washington University. “You really see the benefits of a district where small business is thriving, and new ventures are thriving. Everyone benefits from that because there’s an energy there that’s palpable.”
“We’re in the business of helping those entrepreneurs grow,” summarized Steven Rogers, the Harvard professor. “And if those entrepreneurs can grow, then what it does is it provides them with the opportunity to create jobs for people in St. Louis. And what we know is people who have jobs are self-sufficient. And self-sufficient people live in healthy communities.”
Rogers and fellow ICCC presenters employ a teaching method that keeps the audience involved. The result, as Rogers described, is “active learning.”
“That old model of the old-school lecturing – it’s boring,” he said. “I believe in getting people engaged in the process. The more engaged they are in the process, the more fun they’re having. The more fun they’re having, the better they’re able to receive the lessons being taught to them.”
For Deborah James, the result is a better foundation on which she and her husband can grow their company.
“Finding funding and ways to help grow our business and help employ other people into our business – it’s a great way,” she said of the ICCC program. “Those kinds of things are really important to us because it helps us help somebody else. And that’s helping your community.”