A unique free program that pairs college students and professionals with Detroit small business owners in need of digital and other skills is getting results.
Since the start of the Community Tech Workers program, 135 micro businesses have received technical assistance.
Leading the program is Detroit-based Jefferson East Inc. — a nonprofit that supports the Jefferson Avenue commercial corridor, covering 6.7 linear miles near the city’s riverfront — in partnership with the University of Michigan’s Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project. The goal is to connect small businesses with technology.
“I was hoping that we would increase people’s digital literacy and then it could turn into an opportunity to increase their bottom line,” said Lutalo Sanifu, director of neighborhood resilience, safety and business district services at Jefferson East.
In the program, three university students and three Jefferson East employees work together to teach business owners how to do several things: managing a website and point of sale systems, using search engine optimization and social media marketing. The team spends an average of five and a half hours with each business. They work at the organization’s Neighborhood Resource Hub at 14300 E. Jefferson Ave. in Detroit.
One recipient of the free assistance is Bupé Mulenga, the founder and CEO of Detroit-based business Stephens Southern Delights, which makes ice cream for everyone but provides particularly flavorful options for people with soy and gluten allergies and sensitivities.
Mulenga started the business because of her own allergies. The ice cream, in flavors like cinnamon and sugar donuts, peach cobbler and banana pudding, is sold online and in some stores in metro Detroit.
Prior to working with the program, Mulenga had a website with a basic landing page with information about Mulenga and the company’s ice cream flavors. Now, the site offers a fully functional ordering system. The brand’s email subscription list has grown by about 1,000%.
She credits the time she spent with the technical assistance program for her company’s growth, and now can do updates on her own.
“I like that aspect where you just don’t go and they do it,” Mulenga said about the tech worker program. “They show you how to do it, so we’re not dependent on them. Because if something was to happen to them, or I need something done urgently, I have that ability now. They help to empower you with that, and I think that’s a great benefit of that program.”
Josh Allen, CEO of Jefferson East, said these technology services are really important, especially for many minority-owned businesses.
“They took it on the chin during the pandemic, and so we had to find ways to evolve,” Allen said. “You have to be able to function in a more restrictive economic environment.”
How technical assistance works
Marcellous Weaver, the program’s technical assistance coordinator, assists entrepreneurs by connecting them with necessary resources in the different stages of the business, whether it’s an idea or it’s looking for a location.
There are a few steps to take in order to get technical assistance:
Sign up by filling out a survey on the Jefferson East website.
Someone from the program’s team will reach out to you to schedule your first appointment.
You will be able to choose between meeting in person or on Google Meet.
During meetings, the tech workers will guide entrepreneurs by remotely accessing their computers.
Other offerings at Jefferson East
When Jefferson East was first launched in 1994, its aim was to revitalize the Jefferson Avenue commercial corridor. Now, it holds building facade programs, public safety work, streetscape planning and small business support for the entire corridor. It helps in neighborhoods in downtown, Rivertown, Lafayette Park, West Village, English Village and Jefferson Chalmers. The organization also supports housing repair.
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In an effort to ramp up small business support, the organization launched its own development company called East Jefferson Development Corp., which renovates buildings to prepare them to be retail spaces. Some of their projects include Norma G’s restaurant and the Neighborhood Resource Hub building, which shares a space with a new restaurant, Detroit Soul.
The organization has also created a map that keeps track of all small businesses and retail spaces in the area, which will launch soon.
To find out how to get technical assistance for your small business, go to jeffersoneast.org/economic-development.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Jefferson corridor businesses get free tech help from unusual team