Creating Economic Opportunities for the Black Community
Black History Month 2022
Featuring: Chamber Board member Yolunda Harrell, CEO, New Hill Development Corporation.
In a conversation with Chamber staff, Yolunda shared about New Hill Development Corporation and their business incubator project, BEACON – the Black Entrepreneurial Advancement & Community Opportunity Network.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
A development corporation focused on the Black community
For folks who aren't familiar with New Hill, let's start with a short overview of what you do and what your role is in the community.
Absolutely. So New Hill is a community development corporation. And our goal is, we are focused on the black community of Charlottesville. How do we create more economic opportunities for that black community to live out the dreams and the goals and opportunities that they see for themselves? That's what New Hill is here to help support – to help create opportunities where opportunities may not exist, and to help facilitate the journey.
Making dreams of ownership more attainable
New Hill is somewhat inspired by the history of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, and how the destruction of that neighborhood had these long reaching impacts on prosperity for the Black community in Charlottesville. What are some of the specific ways that New Hill is working to reverse those impacts?
Yes, the name pays homage to not only just Vinegar Hill, but several other neighborhoods in Charlottesville that were destroyed, during urban renewal, as a means to creating a "more perfect Charlottesville," – but not perfect for everyone. So when you look at the far reaching consequences, the stifling of financial growth, wealth growth, asset ownership, those are some of the things that have had this long term lasting effect.
And also the sense of place and belonging. So many individuals like myself, who moved to Charlottesville, that have lived in other communities, some of our first impressions – not for everyone, but for many of us – have been like, this is not a community that is for people that look like me. Why is that? How did it come to be that way?
Then you have the local, indigenous folks to this area, whose family history stretches far, far back, that have all the history and the stories and the knowledge of everything that has been done to stifle the growth of the black community in this area. And for many of them, this is not a place where they see themselves represented in a way that says we all are one community, but that there's these separate communities. And so how do we change that?
What do we do if you get one segment of your population that's feeling as though we're not welcome? It becomes very difficult for us to have the level of equity and unity within our community, that the majority of us desire to have. So we want to do things that fundamentally address those issues – things like our financial capability.
Building financial capability
Financial capability is not just about, do I understand a budget, or do I have a budget? Or do I understand what my credit score is? The capability piece is: I may understand it, but do I have enough resources to be able to do the things that I want to do with it?
Or is it a possibility, I do need to increase my knowledge around that? I may have plenty of financial resources, but I don't understand; I don't have a good strategy or good plan in place around that. So how do we begin to do that? How do we begin to utilize the assets? How do we begin to think about our place in the financial spectrum?
And then, how do we then utilize that knowledge to our advantage, the way many other people have been able to do? How do we think about creating wealth for ourselves and for the next generation of our family?
Building wealth through ownership
We know that the traditional ways to wealth building in our country have been through ownership – ownership of business and ownership of your home, right? Obviously, there's all sorts of other ways that you make money. But those have been the two traditional ways. And those are the things that in most places tend to be the most approachable; they have the least amount of barriers.
But that isn't the case in Charlottesville, because of the way things transpired over the years. Because as a city, we're landlocked, and because the cost of things is so high. And because we are a desirable place for people to come and live. It has set the entry point into business ownership and homeownership so high, that it becomes almost this unattainable dream.
And so how do we make that dream more attainable? Everyone has the right to have the dreams that they want to have. And then there should be a pathway to being able to reach it, that doesn't require those individuals to move away from the area. So how do we make sure that we retain the Black talent in our community?
Leveling the playing field
And so through things like economic development, how do we put things in place that are not just programs, but they are actual facilitation, towards that ultimate ownership of business – to get the funding that's needed, to have the business supports that are necessary, like bookkeeping, like marketing.
And so, our goal is to create these collaborations amongst the ecosystem that currently exists, some of which is in place to help, and some of which we just don't have access to. So how do we bridge in and create relationships, that then help to facilitate the pathway? Because I don't care who you are, the entrepreneur journey can be a difficult journey, whether you have resources or don't have resources.
But imagine how much harder it is when you don't have the resources, when you don't have access to get loans, to have the necessary capital – to have the right amount of people to start your business with, to have the marketing plan and all the other plans that you need to have in place in order to ensure that the business is successful.
If you don't have that to at least start with, then that journey becomes infinitely more difficult for those particular individuals. So how do we level that playing field somewhat, so that we can get to a place where I feel okay to try something without fear of failure? Because failure for the under resourced looks very different than the one that is fully capitalized. It's not utter financial ruin for the person that's fully capitalized.
And so, how do we get a chance to have those same opportunities to dream and to try – and to even fail – without being financially ruined as a result of having the audacity to dream a big dream? We may have a big dream, but then that dream gets minimalized to a certain amount of money that the community is willing to give. Maybe my dream is a million dollar dream. But if I only have access to $30,000 or $40,000, now I've got to minimize my dream to meet this bar that someone else has arbitrarily set for us.
So our goal is to say, no, that shouldn't be the way. How do we get around that? What are the things that we need to do? What are the partnerships that we need to have? Who do we need to bring to the table? What tables do we need to get at, so that we can ensure that there's some representation? So that the opportunity exists – whether a person wants to take it or doesn't want to take it, it's purely up to them, but the option should be there.
And then there's homeownership. There's a lot of emphasis on affordable housing in our community, but it's not as much placed on the affordability in terms of ownership. There's a lot of rental units coming to the market. And rental is a great way to get the affordability path started.
But at the end of the day, if I spend 10 years renting something, I get nothing out of it, right? I've just helped make someone else richer in the process. And I may have had a great place to live. My family was able to flourish in that time. There was stability, and that is wonderful. We are totally for that. But that's not all we're for.
We want that person to be able to actually have that same type of thought process and something that they can own as well. So that it's not that the only way for me to live comfortably in this community is that I have to rent. Ownership allows me to do the things with my home that everybody else can do with their home.
Part of what we have with our first time homebuyers training program is to go out and find who is willing to give grants to help with downpayment assistance, to help with closing costs that are not second mortgages, because that's a tricky thing. There's a lot of tools out there that say they can help me with that downpayment assistance. But it's really a second mortgage loan. It seems like a really great idea at the moment, because now I get to get into the house of my dreams. And that's awesome, I get my house, I'm great, I'm happy, I've got stability, I've got growth, that's wonderful.
But then a few years down the road, I think about that business that I want to start, and I want to get an equity line of credit. Then I go to the bank, and I go through the process only to discover that I can't get the equity line of credit, because I have the second mortgage. Until that second mortgage is satisfied, you don't get to tap the equity. Or if you do the equity line of credit, it's just going to go to satisfy this second mortgage.
And so now I'm back to square one again. And I thought that homeownership was going to give me this great advantage that I've heard about – and it will eventually. But it doesn't give me the same advantage as somebody else that didn't get that second mortgage on their home, that's been in their home for the same amount of time. They can now tap the equity in their home, and they can do the thing that I can't do right now.
And so part of what we are seeking to do is to think beyond just the immediate fix, but think about the long term effect, and how does that play itself out in the future? And how do we do things to give people more options? Because those may be the very options that a person needs right now. But let's have a plan that gets them into a market rate home, where they can afford that. And then now they truly have all the options that they should have as a homeowner.
So that's a long answer. But those are the things that we're focused on. That's how we feel like we can help get back to a place where there's economic justice for us, and there's equity in the way we all live in this community. Our goal is to not make poor comfortable – we don't want to create a more comfortable way to be impoverished.
A Black led development organization
One of the things that is unique about New Hill in Charlottesville is it being an African American led development organization. How do you describe why it's so important for us to have a Black led development corporation in Charlottesville?
Our group was brought together by two council members that looked around at the development that was happening and said, okay, there's just not Black people doing the development, leading the development in a lot of ways at the time.
Now you've have you have organizations like CRHA and PHAR that are, going through a redevelopment process, and they're doing an amazing job with bringing Black voices to the table. You've had PHA that has done a great job of getting the residents involved. Same thing with Habitat.
But at the end of the day, doing the majority of those processes, most of those organizations – with the exception of PHAR – were led by white men. Bringing those voices to the table [isn't the same as] having an understanding of what it's like to be that individual – whether it's a socioeconomic understanding, or just the racial understanding, or both. In many ways, as a Black individual, in America, not just in Charlottesville, there's an understanding of both.
So to make sure that all the things are being thought about, a lot of those things are going to come from a place of lived experience – myself being a black person, members of my board, or what it's like to be a black male or black female or black child – those are lived experiences. And we can have those honest conversations that don't make us feel uncomfortable, and be able to challenge one another in a way that allows for the best outcome.
And so our goal is never to do anything "for" or "to," but "with" – and I do believe that is the goal for a lot of organizations. However, I feel we also need to demonstrate that as a Black community, we don't need to be saved. We are quite capable of saving ourselves. And we're quite happy, and we're quite capable. If we could have access to the same exact resources, then we would do the exact same thing.
Now, as an organization – as a black family, black led organization – we face the same struggles of funding, of trust. Because we have to rely on resources that come from individuals that don't look like us, that still want us to jump through the same hoops of approval, or proving ourselves that we are capable, that our white counterparts just don't have to jump through.
The differences is that we're going to make those jumps and we're going to do those things. Because for us, it's about the advancement of our community. We don't feel as though we can ever just walk away from that. For some people, they can take a job to be an executive director of an organization, and they're going to do the job. They're going to do a great job, but if they decide that they want to go and do something different, then they take a job someplace else.
New Hill wasn't created so that we can have a job. New Hill wasn't created so that we could have a temporary effect on on something. New Hill was created because it was necessary. And we see that we need to be a part of leading the charge of changing how we are represented in this community – that we have ownership of space and place in this community that no one can take away from us at a whim. And that it was designed with us in mind and with us.
And so that's part of what makes it unique. I believe that this is where God would have me work right now. And until he says that I need to go do something different, then this is where I'll be regardless of how much money I make or don't make. It's not about that. It is what I must do, because I cannot be a citizen of this community as a Black person and say that I'm okay that every one of us are not okay.
A business incubator for Black entrepreneurs
You described the BEACON project as a million-piece puzzle. If it's possible – give us a short description of where things are with that project and where you're hoping to be in the next year or so.
The BEACON project itself is this idea born out of the engagement process that we did in 2019, with the Starr Hill Vision Plan. One of the things that we put forward in the plan as a solution – after spending time with Black entrepreneurs, or potential entrepreneurs – was this idea of creating incubator space.
One of the things that we knew going into the engagement process, that we heard validated during the process, was that we don't have space that's just our space – where we own it, it was designed and created for us. So that we can come together, co-create, collaborate, innovate with one another, or just have a space to just be. That doesn't get co-opted by other groups, that it is a space that was designed for us. And we have access to it when we want to have access to it.
What we also heard was [a need for] access to capital training, that doesn't require us to have to go and get a two year or four year degree in order to be successful. Those kinds of things like we we want to be able to start businesses, or we want to have other opportunities in our career. And we want to be able to do that in a pretty quick timeframe. And we want support and making that happen.
And, there are certain groups out there like CIC that has their entrepreneurial training program, which is a great program. Our goal is to build on that – to partner with CIC and say, okay, you've done a great job of this general entrepreneur education for folks. Now, let's get specific.
When we were doing our market analysis, we found that there were a lot of Black people trying to start food businesses, or that had food businesses of some sort. So as we thought about the big picture of the incubator, we said, we need a place that has a way for these businesses to operate, but also has some co working space for us to come together and be able to work and collaborate. But then program it such that it's a market space, where there's movement and vitality, and there's a way for these entrepreneurs to showcase their services, their goods.
And so we took an idea that we saw in a project that's down in DeSoto, Texas. In a training that Virginia housing and DHCD did in 2019, one developer showcased space then called DeSoto marketplace. And I just fell in love with that. There's food, there's retail, there's office – that's exactly what our community is talking about. That's what we could do here.
It gives us this wonderful market space, and then we have the ability to do events and all these sorts of things that turn it into a place that's just humming, right? And when we walk into that space, we know that, wow, this is an awesome space.
This is a way for us to really change the financial momentum in our community towards something that we all can visibly see – a way to get started, or a way to get to the next level. And then it encourages the growth of the dreams throughout the community, and in a different way.
So we broke it down. We spent 2020 working on just learning, and interviewing a variety of incubators across the country to understand, what is the best way to do this? We did a lot of research, and we decided what we wanted to do is break it down into phases. There's things that we want to focus on. We want to focus on food. We want to focus on technology, we want to focus on sustainable energy, we want to focus on retail, but we can't focus on all those things at one time, right?
Focusing on food businesses
So we said, okay, food was the biggest sector that we had a presence in. So let's start there. And then let's introduce the other ones once we get some traction, and we've gotten this one up and running – because at the end of the day, we still want to ensure that those other ones come to light, not only from a business perspective, but also from an opportunity, just from a workforce perspective.
And so we are working to secure space. We are partnering with Culinary Concepts AB to develop out a training program, a culinary boot camp. We received some funding from DHCD last year to start this program, and we are in the process of working with Sarad Davenport to develop out the training curriculum for it. And we're partnering with CIC, with Black entrepreneurs that have gone through their program – that want to start food businesses or have started food businesses – that may want to take this program.
It's a six week program that we'll do. Some of it will be online, some of it will be in person. Our goal is to focus on that which makes a food business successful, and to ensure that that knowledge has been transmitted, but then to also create this network amongst a group of cohorts that go through it, that they can now start to build and rely on each other.
Reducing financial risk with a shared use kitchen
And then we want that to culminate into this shared use kitchen that we are developing, that will then give them a way to get started without the capital outlay that they normally would have to figure their way through. With the shared use kitchen model, think of it like WeWork, or even a gym membership. Essentially, all the equipment is there; all you've got to do is pay for your time to come in and use it. And then you use it, you do what you need to do, and then you're gone, right?
And so this is instead of someone saying, I'm going to start a little small catering business, and I've got to find a space, I've got to commit to a lease, now I need to do some build out. And I've gotta buy all the equipment. And next thing you know, you're about 60, 70, $80,000 in, and you haven't hired anybody. You haven't gotten all the other things in place yet. So now you start your business, and you're making money. But you get all these bills that you've got to pay, associated with equipment, associated with rent, associated with the build out.
Now, the person that uses the shared use kitchen – first of all, they're going to have access to way more equipment. And they're going to pay their little monthly fee to be a part of it. They're going to go in there, they're going to be able to cook the things that they need to cook, they don't have this huge overhead cost of equipment, they don't have the build out.
And they don't have this huge lease agreement that they have to pay each month. They'll have a subscription that they'll pay. But they'll also have access to having a bookkeeper and someone to do their marketing for them, as part of being a member. And at the end of the day, the financial impact to them is very different. If they go out and do the exact same amount of revenue, as that person that has their storefront, they're going to be able to bring a lot more money home, that the other the other individual is not going to be able to. But the biggest thing that they won't be doing is risking their financial future.
So let's say I do this and I go, "I hate this. I don't like this. I really don't want to do this. I thought this was gonna be something completely different. I don't like it." Guess what they didn't do. They didn't put 60, 70, $80,000 into something that they discover later on that they really don't like. That person may stay because they've made this financial commitment. But that business doesn't ever get to where they needed to get to because they're not in love with it, they don't really want to do it anymore.
Whereas the one that just participated and discovered that, "hey, you know, I don't really like this," well, guess what, they get to walk away from it. And they've invested time, but they didn't have a whole lot of money that they put out of their pocket.
Putting the puzzle pieces together
So the big puzzle pieces that we work on is space. That's always a challenge, because we need this to be a sizable space, 10,000 square feet.
And there's the funding for it – because we are wanting to, again, make this something that's very approachable in terms of costs. How do we ensure that it is something that we can develop, that we can afford? So it becomes a sustainability model for us as an organization, that allows for us to continue to reinvest in the entrepreneur, but then also to be able to fulfill other pillars for our organization, as well.
So it's a way for everyone to win in the scenario by doing it this way. And also by providing that on-ramp and those protections, as well as those additional support services, to ensure more success in a faster time frame. It could be an individual that got their start in the shared use kitchen, or it could be an existing restaurant, let's say, that wants space to do more catering. They don't have to build any of that, they've just got to come in and pay to be a part of it. And then they can grow their business, the way they want to grow their business. There's going to be cooler space, freezer space, dry storage, all those things that the folks need on site. They can have this wonderful space to be able to operate the business out of.
And so because we are working with them to have the books in place, the marketing in place – now, let's say, after a year, they build up a great following, and they want to take it to brick and mortar, they can do that. Now they can go into a traditional financial institution with financials, with a marketing plan, with history, with customers in hand already. It becomes easier to get the capital they need, to move into this new space. But they're not moving into it with the hopes that what they're doing is going to work. They already know that it works; they're just going to be able to expand on it now. And so that's what we're trying to create with the BEACON.
And so, you know, the million puzzle pieces is getting the space to line up, the funding to line up, and to do all the right partnerships. We've been in conversations with the Community Foundation. They are just an absolutely amazing, amazing partner, because of their vision for this community. And so we're working with them to help bring this vision to life.
And we're talking with other folks in the community as well. The Small Business Development Center is certainly a partner, Rebecca and the team there, to be able to provide this ongoing support for advisors, in the various realms that a business might need to be supported in.
So part of our job is to create all of those pathways, so that as the entrepreneur is working, we're working with them to support them on the journey that they want to go on. We're minimizing and tearing down those barriers that prevent them from being able to go on that journey in the way that they want to. We're out there blocking and building pathways and building bridges and doing those necessary things, and so those are a million puzzle pieces! But it's good.
When we're able to see businesses flourish and grow and see more public facing brick and mortars, food trucks, catering companies – when they can be as as good as they want to be, and do the things that they want to do – we're going to be super excited about that.
How the community can support BEACON
Are there specific kinds of partners that you are looking for, for BEACON right now? That it would save you a lot of time, if somebody would step up out of the community and say, "oh, I want to do that; we can be a partner for you."
Absolutely. Again, space is the one, but funding – we've grown and gotten some partners along the way, and now we're at a place where we need the funding to execute. We're looking at about $2.5 million, is what the project is going to cost us.
We've talked to three different contractors, we've gotten pricing from them. Mike Stoneking has been an amazing partner. He's volunteered his time to do the design work on this for us, and offered his architectural services to us.
And then also, individuals that want to be a partner for the other pieces, like the marketing. Merkel does some volunteer work with us as an organization to help us with optimization of our website and doing Google ads and those kinds of thing. That knowledge that they have is just amazing. I don't have time to learn that, right? And neither does any other entrepreneur. We don't have time to learn all the things.
So for those folks that this is what they do, and they want to volunteer some of their time to help get these things done, then absolutely, we want to help facilitate that. Because we want our entrepreneurs to be successful. And simply because they don't know how to do it, or don't have the relationships, or don't have the money to pay for it to be done – we don't want that to be the reason why they don't have the level of success that they that they desire, and that they should have.
Reflecting on Black history
As we're celebrating Black History Month, is there anything else that you want to share about that?
I love the fact that we have this time that we can reflect and think about what the Black community has contributed to our country, contributed to history. However, it shouldn't be that this is the only time that we really think about that. We are at a place in history where there is a lot more challenge to think about the accuracy of history – as it should be, not the history that we want to remember, but the history that actually was. Let's embrace accuracy of history. The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, right? Let's embrace it, and let's learn from it so that we don't have to repeat it.
And that's the beauty of knowing the truth about all of the folks that contributed positively and negatively to where we are today. When we understand that, we get to learn from it. We get to repeat the things and enhance the things that did wonders and were great and wonderful.
And the things that weren't so great and so wonderful, how do we not do that again in the future? And how do we ensure that winning is everybody winning, not just my group winning? That for me is the the place that I'm at now; I want to see the accurate portrayal of things. I want to see that there's recognition that pain is pain, and we don't get to gloss over that. Just because it wasn't my pain, doesn't mean that the pain isn't real.
And how do we embrace that and just say, hey, let's learn from that. How do we move forward? How do we create a different world, so that in 20, 30 years from now, we're not still dealing with the same things that we're dealing with today, simply because we don't want to own the true history of who we are, where we came from, as a country. So that would be the thing that I would want to reflect on.