For more than 25 years, GiGail Petty and her sister helped friends and family plan reunions and baby showers, graduation parties and tailgates. As more and more people came to them for their ideas and expertise, they began to wonder if they could make a bit of money with their hard work and creativity. They took a leap of faith and started their own event planning business called Let’s Celebrate.

GiGail Petty, owner of Let’s Celebrate in Spartanburg, SC. Credit: Northside Development Group, Start:ME Northside

One day just over a year ago – she remembers it was her birthday – Petty saw a notice about a new program called Start:ME on a marquee in the South Carolina city of Spartanburg’s Northside where she attends church.  When she investigated, she realized that this program could be just what she needed to transform Let’s Celebrate into a growing business. She applied for the program, which included a written application and a group interview, which she said was like being on the popular TV show Shark Tank. Like other participants in Start:ME, Petty says the program has been life-changing.

Nationally, 92 percent of businesses are micro enterprises, generating an economic impact of some $4.87 trillion. As part of its commitment to community engagement, the Goizueta Business School at Atlanta’s Emory University developed the Start:ME program to help aspiring entrepreneurs to start and grow small businesses.

Since Start:ME was born at Emory six years ago, two other universities have adopted the model – the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg and Xavier University in Cincinnati. The universities have partnered with local community organizations to help 120+ promising entrepreneurs — mechanics, artists, makers, bakers, and fix-it repair people — start and grow businesses in underserved communities through training, mentorship and financing. When successful, these businesses generate income for entrepreneurs and their families and build neighborhood vitality.

According to Brian Goebel, the Atlanta Start:ME program director, Start:ME needs three primary ingredients: A college or university to help manage the curriculum; a nonprofit Community Quarterback to build local connections, reach out to entrepreneurs and support delivery logistics; and a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) to provide low-cost loans or other capital access including seed grants or individual development accounts for those businesses in need of finance.

The 14-week program matches entrepreneurs with mentors and meets once a week in the community. Goebel believes meeting in the neighborhood is important. “We wanted entrepreneurs to feel at home when they arrived,” he said. In the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta, “Drew Charter School is a familiar place and offers a friendly environment for the meetings.”

The 14 modules address business planning, identifying target markets, accounting, legal structure and accessing capital, among other topics. The mentors push the participants to have an “All In” mentality so that they can realize their value and see their assets in a new way. Start:ME is free of charge for the entrepreneur and leverages the entrepreneur’s character, not credit, to determine capital investments in participating businesses.

Michelle Campbell (on right), owner of Body by Chelle. Credit: Emory University

Not only do the businesses help create jobs and support families, they also contribute to neighborhood stability. The program is designed for aspiring entrepreneurs who either live or work in the community and want to remain there. Michelle Campbell, founder of Body by Chelle, a fitness and wellness business, lives in the Villages of East Lake and is the parent of a Drew Charter School student. She has helped several of her neighbors with their fitness and wellness goals. She feels empowered to take on the challenges of building and running a business because of her participation in Start:ME and has developed a network of peers whom she can turn to for ideas. In fact, she and several other members of her cohort have organized Start US for ongoing support and motivation.

While neither Campbell nor Petty are making enough money through their endeavors to quit their day jobs – yet – their businesses are growing. Petty now has three or four engagements a month, up from one every couple of months before she completed the program. As for Campbell, she started with no clients and now has several. Both women are excited about their futures and credit Start:ME with launching them on a path for success.

Update: Check out the January 16 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review which has a great article on the “Macro Benefits of Microbusinesses,” by Peter W. Roberts and Deonta D Wortham, both of Emory University. The piece shows how micro entrepreneurs use their local knowledge to identify needed products and services, which makes them ideal for filling gaps in underserved communities. Well worth the read!