“Believe in yourself, and you can do anything.”

They were the words Julius B. Anthony heard from his parents as a child.

It’s a message he instills in children as part of the youth literacy program he now runs.

And it was the encouragement he received – and needed – from fellow entrepreneurs and business coaches at ICCC St. Louis.

Anthony went to the Inner City Capital Connections “mini-MBA in a day” program with nearly 100 fellow entrepreneurs. Interactive and high-energy, ICCC sessions are led by nationally recognized business and education experts, supplemented by networking and one-on-one coaching.

The cost for entrepreneurs to attend? Nothing.

The value they gain? Immeasurable.

Anthony was referred to ICCC by Eric Madkins, community development manager for Regions Bank. Madkins saw ICCC make a powerful difference the first time Regions sponsored it locally with the St. Louis Regional Chamber. With ICCC returning in 2019, Madkins knew it would be valuable to Anthony since the St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature organization he runs is on the cusp of significant growth.

“Eric knows my passion for literacy as a lifelong educator,” said Anthony. “Our concept takes reading to an entirely different level by empowering children to select books they will read, enjoy and read again about characters who look like they do. I appreciated Eric’s confidence in nominating me for ICCC given we’re a newer project.”

Anthony is focused on creating vibrant spaces where children can read about characters that look like they do and simply be themselves.

The St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature project is opening eight literacy labs this academic year. Called “The Believe Project,” the labs will create literacy spaces within schools and community centers that serve pre-kindergarten through third grade students. The spaces will focus primarily on literature written by African-American authors with African-American readers in mind. The goal is to help more students increase their reading proficiency while also learning valuable lessons illustrated through characters with whom they can more closely identify.

The program’s age range is important. Research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation has identified third grade reading success as the critical marker determining a child’s progress in school and life. Anthony is focused on advancing literacy one reader at a time by providing students with access to more than 1,000 books, 80% or more of which are black children’s literature titles.

“Reading is an experience,” said Anthony. “It’s a feeling that has to be created. We want to create a place where children can just be themselves.”

Anthony and team have secured some notable partners. They include IKEA, Scholastic Book Fairs and PBS Kids through the broadcasting organization’s local affiliate, Nine Network St. Louis. Community site partners are also invested in The Believe Project’s success, making a three-year funding commitment to support the program at their facilities.

The first literacy lab opened at the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center the same afternoon of the ICCC event. Just a few hours before the opening, Anthony was getting inspired for further growth by listening to ICCC presenter Professor Susan Perkins, previously on the faculty of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University for over a decade and currently at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Professor Perkins is an expert at helping businesses craft and refine strategies for growth.

The Believe Project has opened three literacy labs to date. Sites include Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School (left – photo courtesy of Kevin Banks Jr./Kreative Jenius) and the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center (right – photo courtesy of Wiley Price, St. Louis American.)

“Your strategy is the sum of your activities,” said Perkins. “What distinguishes your company among your competitors is the valuable proposition of your unique differences in the marketplace.”

She led the group through a strategic positioning exercise, an activity that resonated with Anthony. “It really made me think about our [business] model,” said Anthony. “I stopped to reflect about being more intentional around our business concept and plan.”

Anthony’s learning continued over a working lunch where peer coaches from a variety of industries connected with ICCC students. In less than an hour, he went from feeling hesitant to finding new confidence.

“I was the last person at our table to speak,” Anthony said. “I was listening to others share their goals for the upcoming year and the barriers they’re facing to achieve them. I was nervous when it was my turn. But when I spoke, others at the table said, ‘You’re doing something no one else is doing. Your business plan is unique.’”

Meaning, for Anthony, ICCC didn’t just provide information. There was also a healthy measure of affirmation.

“Their reaction reminded me that I have this innovative idea and educational concept,” he said. And with education from ICCC, he knows more about tactics and strategies that can help him turn the concept into sustainable results.

“I now have people I can call and connect with for coaching and consulting,” said Anthony. “I’m inspired by them.”

Steve Grossman, CEO of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, which organizes ICCC events across the country, noted how the combination of Anthony’s classroom training, combined with the personalized coaching he received, differentiates ICCC’s own model.

“We’ve created a unique program that teaches strategy, marketing, finance and leadership effectiveness,” said Grossman. “It sets the stage for accelerated growth, the creation of good-paying jobs and access to much-needed capital.”

Regions has supported ICCC events in several cities since 2014. Financial support from the bank, along with partners like the Chamber in St. Louis, are why ICCC students can attend tuition-free. For Regions, it’s an investment that pays dividends by helping build a stronger community defined by more inclusive growth.

“ICCC is about providing access and opportunity for concepts like The St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature’s Believe Project,” said Mike Hart, Greater St. Louis Market Executive for Regions Bank.

“Access and opportunity are the key elements of this partnership,” said Mike Hart, Greater St. Louis Market Executive for Regions. “When we provide entrepreneurs with access to industry leaders and connect them with peer coaches who share their experience, we’re delivering opportunities for them to not only advance their businesses, but also help drive our local economy.”

Even the ICCC workshop location held special meaning for Julius B. Anthony. The Sheet Metal Workers Grand Hall, where the program took place, was on the grounds where Anthony’s high school, Metro Classical and Academic High School, once stood. Anthony was part of the last freshman class to attend the unique ‘school without walls’ for gifted and talented students before graduating from its current location.

“It was definitely a full-circle moment,” said Anthony. “Metro Classical and Academic brought something innovative and out-of-the-box that had never been seen before in our community. And that’s what The Believe Project is also committed to creating.”

The Believe Project’s third literacy lab opened Oct. 1 at Glasgow Elementary, part of the Riverview Gardens School District.

“This program will be a benefit not only to Glasgow and our students, but also to each community it serves,” Glasgow Principal LaKena Curtis said. “I am a true ‘Believer.’”

“Reading is more than just words,” added Anthony. “If we can provide books to children that they enjoy, that help them become confident and competent readers, we can change our community.”

Recall how Anthony attended ICCC just a couple hours before the Ferguson lab opened? ICCC wasn’t the only aha-moment Anthony had that day. When he saw 150 people gathered around the opening of the reading lab that afternoon, he recognized – all over again – how powerful his business initiative can be.

“What a wonderful day that was,” he reflected. “My gratitude and joy for that entire day is overwhelming.”

It’s enough to remind Anthony that anything is possible.