How does an aspiring chef decide if her best start is a food truck or a catering company? How does a house painter learn what kind of insurance to buy? Who introduces a new artisan cheese vendor to local restaurateurs? Wendy Brown cofounded the Community Investment Collaborative (CIC) to help would-be founders from Charlottesville and the surrounding area answer questions like these. The CIC connects entrepreneurs with training, loans, advice, and networks, so that they can realize their dreams and start new businesses that thrive. A long-time resident of Charlottesville, Brown sees a bright future for the region, one in which citizens from all walks of life interact, enhancing individual and community success.
What is CIC?
Few people ever accomplish their dreams alone, and for some in our community the challenges are especially great. The Community Investment Collaborative (CIC) leverages local resources to provide education and capital to entrepreneurs who have difficulty accessing funding from traditional sources. CIC is more than a business incubator or jobs generator – it fundamentally changes the nature of relationships across our community. Through the expansive network of involved agencies, businesses, and individuals, people are coming together in new ways to provide education, mentoring, networking, and lending.
More than 70 budding entrepreneurs have taken CIC’s training program. Fourteen new businesses have opened their doors and another 20 are in development. More than 20 new jobs have been created. No one is giving anyone anything, per se. It’s an exchange of expertise. I would liken it to the Habitat model of giving a hand up rather than a hand out.
How did it start? What was the inspiration?
Like many entrepreneurs during the recession, Toan Nguyen and Gordon Bennett discussed the difficulty that small business owners had in securing loans. They saw the need for a new nontraditional financial model to help small businesses get the funding they need. Given my experience with nonprofit business strategy, fundraising and program development they asked me to join in creating what has become CIC. We pulled together 48 individuals in Charlottesville who each identified a need for microenterprise development in their respective fields of business, government, nonprofits and education. We studied domestic and international models and examined the “holes” in our local system. CIC launched with its first training session in May, 2012.
What was the biggest setback?
CIC had a well thought out business plan and broad grassroots support before we launched. Our largest challenge was raising the capital needed to ensure success.
When did you begin to suspect this could be a success?
In mid-2012, Virginia National Bank and the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation made substantial pledges of support to CIC. These grants, coupled with the generosity of many other corporations, individuals, foundations and City/County government put CIC in a stable financial position, enabling us to hire Hebah Fisher, our first staff member. She was instrumental in building out the program.
What has been the biggest positive impact you have observed?
The most wonderful aspect of CIC is the breadth of people across our communities and region who are involved. For all of us, it is extremely rewarding to watch individuals create their own futures. Microenterprise development enables people to reach for their dreams and to create asset value for themselves. We are building a network of people who otherwise would not have known each other. Through that network, they have expanded their understanding of different backgrounds, challenges, and hopes. CIC expands economic development in the Charlottesville region. A few examples: Will Conte founded the food truck Spiked. Flora Cheese, located at Milli Joe’s, is now selling to restaurants. Charles Childs runs Zoom Zoom Taxi, a general transportation service that specially serves the handicapped.
Have you founded other businesses or initiatives? If so, please tell us what they are.
I founded the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in 2006. CNE addresses a compelling need in our community to strengthen the capacity of the nonprofit sector, and therefore the community, through training and technical assistance, information sharing, education, and collaboration. It was the first capacity building resource center in Central Virginia to focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of the nonprofit and small business sectors.
How do you define Founding?
Founders identify an unmet need in the community, or a business opportunity, and then develop the business concept and strategy, create the operational and financial wherewithal, and implement the pieces into a successful whole. Needless to say, no one can do it alone, but Founders have the relentless drive to engage others in their dream and to work on a project tirelessly until it is up and running successfully and sustainably, with the necessary professional and stable staff.
What brought you to Charlottesville, and what keeps you here?
I came to Charlottesville in 1986 with my husband, Jack Brown, and we have called it home ever since. I am passionate about making a difference in my community and love Charlottesville because there are so many who share my belief that the Charlottesville area can be the best place for every single person living here.
CIC has successfully transitioned to professional staff and has a dedicated Board of Directors. It will continue to serve the needs of Central Virginia for microenterprise development and to expand our entrepreneurial ecosystem. I am taking time to learn about the numerous initiatives in the region and to try and discern where my energies could be valuable in the future and what I will be passionate about.