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The future is bold and bright in Memphis

Written by Leslie Lynn Smith, President and CEO, Epicenter

Epicenter is the Memphis region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem hub and part of Launch Tennessee’s statewide network of Entrepreneur Centers. Our team drives strategy and measures impact among collaborative partners to increase support to new and scaling tech startups, creative and community-based businesses, student entrepreneurs, and others across industries and stages of growth. The Epicenter team and our partners connect these entrepreneurs to programming, capital, customers, and talent in order to create a thriving economy for all Memphians.

As we work to build a dynamic, connected, and sustaining community in which entrepreneurs and their ideas can be courageously nurtured, launched, and grown, we regularly find ourselves at the center of change and conflict management. We take on this role because in order for just, inclusive, and innovative economies to grow, our communities must openly embrace innovation, risk, failure, and iteration — and that almost always means doing things differently than they’ve always been done.

To create conditions for success, we have to honestly assess the system and its impact, speak the truth about the barriers to access and growth, and intentionally build solutions that attenuate the negative effect of system failures or gaps.

For instance, one known barrier to expansive and representative entrepreneurial economies is access to capital. We approach these gaps systemically with a “capital stack” concept and prioritize access to a variety of capital types — from angel investment to bank debt and equity — in ways that reduce or eliminate barriers for entrepreneurs and change investment behaviors through modeling and innovative program design. So, in 2018, we piloted a Friends and Family Fund, designed for small entrepreneurial businesses in the Memphis area to meet a one-time capital milestone. This fund, which will be scaled in 2019, fills a known gap where investments from “friends and family” are often unavailable to entrepreneurs, such as is currently the case for communities of color and women.

Additionally, we activated a monthly angel investor and advisor club, bringing a diverse portfolio of entrepreneurs spanning a wide range of industries together with a growing group of community members with access to networks and wealth. The goals of these events are to raise awareness about the dynamic and investible nature of Memphis firms and to activate a change in local capital and connection behaviors. In five sessions, we’re already seeing critical connections to customers, partners, and board members, along with more than $1.1 million in new investments.

In addition to capital, access to customers and contracts are often a challenge for entrepreneurs. This barrier to markets is exponentially more difficult for communities of color, even in regions where they represent the majority population, like in Memphis. So, in June, Christian Brothers University, the City of Memphis, Epicenter, and Start Co. launched The 800 Initiative, a five-year, collaborative, $9.1 million plan aimed at growing black-owned firms in the Memphis region by building intentional connections to customers and capital, together with ongoing training, education, and mentorship.

This year, we’re on track to really grow and scale some of our pilot programs and capital solutions across our region and more deeply into our neighborhoods, we’re utilizing a robust data and metrics platform, and we’re always striving to amplify the untold stories of local entrepreneurs. We can’t wait to show you more of Memphis in 2019.

To listen and subscribe to the Grindset podcast, which highlights Memphis-area entrepreneurs of color, click here: http://www.epimemphis.com/grindset-podcast/

For a 2018 video recap of progress in the Memphis entrepreneurial ecosystem, click here: https://youtu.be/lbUaWvokp_k

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