small-business owners meet at a Regions Bank branch in Birmingham,...

Small-business owners meet at a Regions Bank branch in Birmingham, Alabama.

Category: Economic Development

Providing Hope to Small Business Owners: Assistant Secretary of Commerce Sees Results of Financial Education Program in Birmingham

Jay Williams discusses efforts by Operation HOPE and partners dedicated to reaching business owners and individuals with cost-free financial education.

By practically any standard, Carletta Amos is a small-business success story.

She runs a shopping complex with eight businesses ranging from a real estate office to a consignment shop to a hair salon – all of which she owns.

Yet, instead of feeling like a tycoon, Amos at times felt overwhelmed.

“I wasn’t swimming. I was drowning,” Amos said.

Amos and other small-business owners met at a Regions Bank branch in Birmingham, Ala., to share their stories with Jay Williams, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development.

Williams made the stop to see the impact of Operation HOPE, which provides cost-free financial education, resources and business planning to help Birmingham-area business owners as well as prospective business owners. Additionally, Operation HOPE is partnering with Regions to offer economic empowerment to individuals who want to improve their personal finances through free, one-on-one financial education and community workshops.

The stories Williams heard resonated with him. The assistant secretary worked as a bank teller as a student at Youngstown State University in Ohio. He later was elected mayor of Youngstown, a city that has worked to overcome economic challenges in recent years.

“I understood how important financial education was then and how important it remains today,” Williams said.

Cynthia Martin told Williams how she created a secretarial service that she hopes to expand internationally. She said her work with HOPE has soothed a lot of anxiety, specifically in teaching her more about marketing and research.

“I appreciate Operation HOPE for letting me enjoy this journey,” Martin said.

A 12-week program for small-business owners requires weekly, two-hour meetings and some weekend seminars. The tutorial concludes with a graduation ceremony.

The graduation ceremony was a byproduct of the first class of business owners. Torenea Horton owns an events solution company. The wife of a musician who is now taking HOPE-organized classes to further his own career, Horton admitted she was initially unprepared to make her business successful.

“I had already started the company, but I knew I needed more education about being an entrepreneur,” Horton said. Working with Damian Carson, the financial wellness counselor for Operation HOPE, made the building blocks snap together like Lego bricks. “He just made it easy,” she added.

Even as she added businesses to her portfolio, Carletta Amos said she was intimidated before working with Operation HOPE.

“Everything they give you is so hands-on. It’s not techie. It’s not full of jargon,” she said. “They have so many resources available – in class, in their booklets and online. This program helped me find my niche.”

Operation HOPE also counsels individuals one-on-one and provides home ownership classes that first help people in the community reclaim their credit. The counseling is provided through HOPE Inside, which is based at Regions’ Five Points South and Woodlawn branches – the first branches in Alabama to partner with the HOPE Inside program.

“Our average credit rating is 560 (for class participants) coming in,” said Shante Ross, an Operation HOPE financial counselor who oversees local HOPE Inside counseling. “They leave here with a minimum score of 630 to 640. This is all about empowering people. A lot of people are afraid to come in to a bank and ask for help. But they find out that they can get non-judgmental, free help. And the big plus is that we will provide continuing education.”

After hearing some of the stories and examples of the impact on Amos and other entrepreneurs, Williams confirmed his interest in seeing what is going on in Birmingham expand.

“We will continue to support this program and see it replicated in communities across the country,” Williams said.

People interested in individual financial counseling through HOPE Inside can dial (205) 478-0557 or email Shante Ross at [email protected]. Small business owners can reach Damian Carson at (205) 949-4363 or [email protected].