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  • Department of Housing and Community Development

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: An Ecosystem Approach to Supporting Black Businesses in the SV

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

The Shenandoah Community Capital Fund (SCCF), based in Staunton, Virginia, is on a mission to expand access to entrepreneurial support and training for under-represented communities throughout the Shenandoah Valley.

We firmly believe in a Shenandoah Valley in which each person has access to the resources, knowledge and support needed to start, grow and sustain a business. We are on a mission to provide equitable access to capital and support, in particular for historically marginalized communities. To enhance the effectiveness of these efforts we take an ecosystem approach: We convene relationships among people and organizations to raise awareness of what support is already available and to build trust that allows us to collaborate more effectively. We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. – Debbie Irwin, Executive Director, SCCF

When Irwin took the helm at SCCF in 2018, she prioritized the organization’s commitment to increasing its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. In close collaboration with DEI experts, SCCF overhauled its application processes for programs, reexamined its grant application protocols, and started observing internal processes with an eye toward underlying biases.

This is an ongoing effort. We’re expanding our definition of ‘underserved’ to also include people with disabilities, people of different ages, with different neurological needs, citizens returning from incarceration, recovering from addiction and people who immigrated to the U.S. We understood early on that if we truly wanted to serve entrepreneurs of ALL backgrounds, we would first need to listen and understand their lived experiences; otherwise, how can we serve them and address their unique needs? We never want to build FOR but WITH them. – Debbie Irwin, Executive Director, SCCF

That’s how SCCF secured one of 51 winning Community Navigator Pilot Program (CNPP) proposals in the U.S. Knowing that SCCF could not possibly meet the needs of all underserved entrepreneurs across the entire Shenandoah Valley, the non-profit partnered with existing grassroots organizations that were already deeply embedded in the communities that SCCF wanted to help serve. Through a Hub-and-Spoke model SCCF – as the Hub – helps build Spokes’ capacity through ongoing professional development, financial support, tailored project support, and peer learning.

Spokes: Supporting Underserved Entrepreneurs in the Shenandoah Valley

The Harry Lee & Eliza Bannister Walker Entrepreneurship Program (The Walker Program), located in the Southern Shenandoah Valley, was established in August 2020 to provide training, funding, and community support for Black-owned businesses in Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge county.

In the Central Valley, three initiatives are working to better serve historically underrepresented founders:

Black and Brown Owned Business Growth Program (B-Cubed) is a partnership between the Harrisonburg Economic Development, Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and the Harrisonburg Rockingham Chamber of Commerce. With the goal of building a welcoming and supportive culture for Black and Brown entrepreneurs, B-Cubed offers technical and financial assistance as well as mentorship and a wide network of business owners to Black and Brown Founders in the City of Harrisonburg.

Located in Waynesboro, but working across the state of Virginia and beyond, RISE Organization takes a comprehensive approach to support the Black community. Not only do they support Black entrepreneurs in starting and managing their businesses; their efforts expand to

  • Facilitate race relations,

  • Anti-racism and diversity training, and

  • Conflict resolution.

In the Shenandoah Valley, RISE is known for its annual 2-day Women’s Summit and Stakeholders Conference to build understanding and deeper relationships within their communities.

Also located in Waynesboro, Grow Waynesboro is a business support and development program sponsored by the Office of Economic Development for the City of Waynesboro. The program aims to support local entrepreneurs of all backgrounds in starting and growing their businesses through training, mentorship, and business planning.

In the Northern Valley, Shenandoah University’s Institute for Entrepreneurship offers entrepreneurial training to students and community members through their Entrepreneurship and Small Business Certificate (ESBC) program. Embedded in the university, this program draws on the expertise of faculty and guest lectures from experienced business professionals to start validating their ideas and building viable businesses.

Early Successes and The Way Forward

Six months into the two-year pilot program, the five Spokes cumulatively served 126 Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and women entrepreneurs in the Shenandoah Valley. They provided more than 260 individual counseling hours and facilitated over 160 hours of entrepreneurial group training.

The Walker Program opened its Walker Hub in Lexington and hosted a showcase event for all of its Alumni that drew crowds from all over Rockbridge county, including Virginia state senator Jennifer McClellan.

As part of Harrisonburg’s annual Juneteenth celebration, B-Cubed helped program participants set up shop as a local mini marketplace. Demand for the program exceeds its current capacity, the waitlist currently has interested founders that won’t be able to join until early 2023.

Over the next 18 months, our goal is to continue to grow our Spokes’ capacity and to further enhance their current reach. We will work closely with all five partners to include their efforts into our wider storytelling efforts for the entire Shenandoah Valley ecosystem. We hope to build a strong and trusting network of accomplices that can grow beyond this initial two-year pilot period. The objective of this pilot is to allow us – and our partners at the SBA – to learn what works and what doesn’t in supporting underserved entrepreneurs. It’s a test bed; we’re collecting a lot of data to help us make better decisions in the future about program and funding effectiveness. If we are serious about supporting underserved entrepreneurs, it’s key that our efforts are sustainable and can continue after this pilot. – Anika Horn, Director of Ecosystem Building and Marketing, SCCF

If you want to learn more about Community Navigator Pilot Program in the Shenandoah Valley, please contact Anika Horn at

SCCF regularly features Black businesses in the Shenandoah Valley! Meet some of them here:

This article was originally posted by the Department of Housing and Community Development for the Virginia Main Street. See the full article here.


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