Photography by Laura Petrilla.
Across the country, there is a vast entrepreneurial ecosystem that aims to support small businesses and their communities. Members of this network have their own strengths and assets (whether they are chambers of commerce, nonprofit and for-profit entrepreneurial organizations, funders, community members, small business owners, and many others). When they link and leverage their resources, they can create new opportunities for small business owners to adapt to challenges and thrive. In this spirit, Entrepreneurs Forever (eforever) values partnerships with other organizations in the communities they serve that share the same mission: to support small business owners in growing and improving their businesses.
In the fall of 2020, eforever worked closely with Herman Johnson, the Program Manager at Community Forge in Pittsburgh, PA to bring the peer-to-peer experience to Community Forge’s Bloom program. Like eforever, Community Forge seeks to build the capacity of small business owners who have not traditionally received the kind of business and technical assistance that larger scale businesses receive. Community Forge is also deeply committed to the Wilkinsburg community, where eforever has three small business owner peer groups who have been meeting for years.
Community Forge created the Bloom program specifically to support small business owners impacted by the pandemic who were seeking to be successful after the crisis. Thirty business owners joined the program: twenty-one were given funds to use in their businesses and one-on-one business coaching, and nine joined a peer-to-peer group. In this partnership, Entrepreneurs Forever wanted to provide additional support to business owners who had enough business experience (one year or more) and find value in the peer experience.
Throughout the program, Herman participated in the peer group meetings, which were facilitated by LaToya Johnson-Rainey (the owner of A Hair Boutique Shadyside and an eforever small business specialist and board member). Herman saw that by connecting entrepreneurs with one another, Community Forge and Entrepreneurs Forever helps them be successful.
“The biggest thing I notice in the small business community is that the business owners who have coaches and that type of support system are successful…There’s no such thing as an expert at entrepreneuring—you just learn as you go. And one thing I notice is that the entrepreneurs who know each other are very supportive of each other. I like that. They’re very supportive,” says Herman.
In an eforever peer group, small business owners work together and hold each other accountable to resolving issues in their business and working toward their goals. Over time, they get to know each other and their businesses intimately. For Herman, he observed that the greatest advantage to being in a small business owner peer group was learning that they aren’t alone.
“One member of the group said that she feels like she’s on an island and looks forward to the meetings. She can come and talk to other people who experience the same things that she’s going through and know that she’s not alone…People who have jobs have water-cooler-talk, but entrepreneurs don’t get that opportunity. So coming to the peer-to-peer, it’s like water-cooler-talk for entrepreneurs,” says Herman.
As the group facilitator, LaToya helped to create a cohesive environment founded on honesty and empathy. Herman saw how LaToya’s leadership empowered the group members to communicate their challenges and ultimately help one another resolve them.
“She’s very energetic and lively, bubbly and makes it easy for people to talk about their struggles. Some people don’t like to explain, ‘I’m struggling with this,’ but she made it such a comfortable environment that everyone was just able to be honest,” says Herman.
LaToya also saw the group develop a strong bond throughout the program. In a peer group setting, small business owners kept each other accountable to working on their businesses and supported each other through personal hardships.
“The active members of Bloom have developed a kinship that supports one another not only in business but in personal trials as well. During this sensitive time period with the pandemic, racial injustices, and business uncertainty the group has seen their share of vulnerable times. Specifically, two members lost their moms and really appreciated the support from other members who experienced that same hard loss. It helped them plan for their business while grieving,” says LaToya.
As a business owner himself, Herman personally got value from the peer group and was able to make progress in his business. His clothing business, Root 28, creates organic cotton garments that aren’t taxing to the earth. After one session with his group, Root 28 experienced its highest revenue in one month yet.
“LaToya challenged me to reach out to my network. She said, ‘Hey, you can reach out to your friends and family first. That’s your special network. Reach out and just see what sticks. And it was surprising, that was my best month,” says Herman.
After the first iteration of the Bloom program from 2020-2021, Herman was inspired to join an eforever peer group himself. With a business group that will keep him accountable to moving toward his business goals, Herman aims to purchase his own printing machine to increase his profit margins.
“I look forward to the challenge of being accountable, and having other business owners check in to make sure that I’m doing what I need to do. Everyone needs a little kick in the butt sometimes because we just get so overwhelmed with life or things are not going at the pace that we think they should go. It’s always good to have other people reassure you. Like, ‘Hey, I walk beside you. Are we running today? Okay, well let’s run. Oh, we’re just walking? Oh, we’re crawling today? Okay. Well, I’m going to get on my knees, and I’m going to crawl with you.’ It’s just good to know that you’re not alone,” says Herman.
Throughout the peer group experience, business owners in the Bloom program learned how to get to the root of their business issues instead of the symptoms. Each member now has a concise understanding of their break even point, the financial documents that they utilize most frequently, and a clear vision and mission. They also know how to utilize their systems like point of sale and accounting.