Pierce County Business Accelerator blazes new path
When the pandemic hit, no one took a bigger blow than underserved communities. Pierce County acted quickly to provide needed support, launching the Pierce County Business Accelerator (PCBA) program in October 2021.
The PCBA serves entrepreneurs and business owners throughout Pierce County to help foster innovation and create wealth-building opportunities. In less than a year, the program graduated 9 cohorts and provided 200 business owners and entrepreneurs with business training, coaching, technical and networking support.
The PCBA is a program of Pierce County Economic Development, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and administered by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce. The City of Lakewood is a municipal partner. The PCBA is managed in partnership with the Asia Pacific Cultural Center, The Black Collective, Mi Centro, Tacoma Urban League and Korean Women’s Association.
“The pandemic heightened awareness of the lack of access to resources for our underserved communities of color and the fragility of our smallest businesses,” said Pierce County Economic Development Director Betty Capestany. “This necessitated a focus on building generational wealth in our BIPOC communities through business ownership.”
“It’s been an incredible year, and I credit the success of the program to business owners who took a chance on us,” said Grant Twyman, PCBA Training Director and Managing Partner of Strategy and Operations for NEXT Consulting Firm. “They didn’t know what to expect, but they made a commitment and put in the work. They were already skilled, talented and resilient. We just came alongside to take them to the next level.”
Innovative twist on a popular model
While the concept of a business accelerator is not unique, the PCBA has components that set it apart, including:
- Targeted population. The PCBA program focuses on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), veteran and women-owned businesses from throughout Pierce County and across industries. Cohort leaders, instructors and professional-services providers reflect the diverse participants.
- Additional resources. Upon completion of the six-week cohort, graduates have access to:
- Grant funding to match capital raised for their business (up to $10,000).
- A one-year commercial rent or lease stipend (up to $6,000).
- Up to $5,000 in professional services across six categories of business operations.
- Access to other potential funding sources.
- Continued coaching and mentorship.
Meeting people where they are
Implementation of the PCBA was not without its challenges. Pierce County is a huge and diverse county and meeting the varying needs of business owners isn’t easy. Partnerships with community and business organizations were key to making the program effective and meaningful.
“We learned that a traditional business model does not necessarily fit or work with cultural needs,” Capestany said. “We listened to the feedback and did quick entrepreneurial pivots. Building strong working relationships, clearly communicating and, most vital, listening to what was important or needed for program success allowed us to deliver better outcomes for cohort participants.”
PCBA classes were held in the cities of Tacoma, Lakewood and Puyallup, and were offered in four languages, including English, Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish.
Pierce County’s Economic Development Department recently received the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) 2022 Excellence in Economic Development Gold Award for Innovation Programs and Initiatives for the Pierce County Business Accelerator program.
“We are humbled to accept this award on behalf of our many community partners who contributed to the program’s success,” said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier. “The PCBA blazes a new path in how economic development programs serve communities of color and reduce barriers to business growth. This program is a tangible example of how economic developers can work in concert with their community.”
Results in action
To date, PCBA graduates have raised more than $2.4 million in capital, have been reimbursed for more than $185,000 in monthly commercial lease expenses, and received 1,800-plus hours of professional services and coaching.
Here are just a few of the many success stories:
- Strategies pay off. Using strategies gleaned from her cohort, the owner of Undeniable Bajinya, a Lakewood store that makes clothes melding African colors with French and American styles, saw sales increase 5 times the store’s typical revenue within 30 days of her PCBA graduation. When the business owner had an issue with her lease, her PCBA coach helped negotiate her way to another lease at significant savings.
- A tall order filled. After completing their cohort, mother-and-daughter business owners of Fully Charged Allergy Friendly Snacks were able to move their baking operations from a church into a commercial kitchen space. When they received an order from Microsoft for 10,000 units of their allergy friendly snacks, PCBA resources enabled them to hire a food scientist to help them scale to the order.
- Partners in success. An unexpected perk of the PCBA was the organic development of mentorships and networking within cohorts. For example, the owner of a kombucha storefront worked with an entrepreneur who was starting a coffee business to get his product in her shop.
“There were intangibles that we didn’t see coming,” Twyman said. “The entrepreneurial journey can be lonely. The PCBA created a new community of small business owners that are growing, solving problems and excelling together.”
Working to continue the momentum
Now that the initial training phase of the PCBA has come to an end, the County is seeking additional funding to increase capacity to accommodate more business owners. For those who have graduated, the program will continue to offer follow-up support as business owners scale their operations, grow capacity and cope with issues like staffing shortages.
See grads in action at the PCBA Showcase Nov. 8. Mix, mingle and learn more about some of the most exciting and diverse businesses on the rise at the Pierce County Business Accelerator Showcase. More than 100 PCBA grads will gather at McGavick Conference Center on the Clover Park College campus as exhibitors, caterers and guests. Register for the free event here.