On the second day of a free business training workshop, James Randolph scanned the audience of eight mostly Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs and asked, “Do any of you have a mentor?”

No one raised their hand.

“Well, you do now,” said Randolph, a consultant with the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corp.

The workshop — which is being offered again this week — is called “The Psychology of Business Success or Failure.” It will be Tuesday and Thursday from 9:30 to 11 a.m. at the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, 35 Lake Morton Drive. It is open to anyone of any culture or ethnicity.

Despite the title, Randolph said he had no intention of talking about failure. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 25 to 30% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open and 45% during the first five years. But the training is part of a push to help local entrepreneurs avoid that fate.

The BBIC is one of two organizations tapped by Lakeland’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to help small businesses, particularly in communities of color.

The CRA is investing $600,000 over the next three fiscal years with the BBIC and another organization, Prospera, to offer free training through workshops and one-on-one business consulting sessions. The BBIC is receiving $375,000 and Prospera is receiving $225,000.

Attendees at last week’s sessions were filled with excitement and ambition. Their entrepreneurial spirit was strong — but their formal business education much less so. In Randolph’s words, “they’re energized but need direction.”

Randolph gave clear advice about some of the important decisions entrepreneurs need to make early in their journeys — like whether to register as an LLC or an S-Corporation, the importance of liability insurance, how to get funding and when to hire someone else. “All clients aren’t good clients,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better to walk away.”

James Randolph, trainer with the Tampa Bay Black Business Corp. | Cindy Glover, Jazbablog

“Startups run so hard at the very beginning that they can skip some things ... We help organizations improve productivity and proficiency.”

James Randolph, BbIC trainer

Venny Smith, 46, of Lakeland, founded Granny Mac Beverages last year selling fruity teas made with his 91-year-old grandmother Margie McGriff’s secret recipe. He currently sells them at the Lakeland Downtown Farmer’s Curb Market each weekend. Bottles are also for sale at one 7-Eleven franchise, Bodega Market and Palace Pizza, and he’s working on getting them into more stores.

Smith has big dreams for his business and brought samples to the workshop, which he called “very informative.”

Other attendees last week included:

  • Marcus Barnes, 41 of Lakeland, who founded Nurse Ed 101 with his wife Angel Barnes in 2019. “We’re looking to take our business to the next level,” he said.
  • Brian White, 51, who founded Fastest Labs of Lakeland three months ago. He said he reached out to Randolph for budgeting help.
  • Natalia Calderon, 29, of Lakeland, a former elementary school teacher who launched her website design and development agency this month: Natalia Calderon Design LLC. She moved to Florida from Puerto Rico in 2018 after enduring nine months without electricity following Hurricane Maria.

Filling a need for ‘non-traditional' financing

Most of the attendees said they will take advantage of financing through the BBIC. Randolph said 70 to 80% of the businesses he works with will need money from non-traditional lenders because banks are very strict when it comes to credit scores and payment history.

“We help businesses become bankable,” Randolph said. “We hope to grow you out of coming to the BBIC for loan opportunities.”

According to Randolph, the BBIC offers loans ranging from $2,500 to $150,000, with the assistance of its financial banking partners, such as Raymond James. He said sometimes, they can work with business owners who have a credit score that is below 700.

“Typically, $25,000 to $30,000 is the average loan we offer,” Randolph said, adding that the recent funding from the Lakeland CRA will not be used to fund loans for businesses.

Dr. Sheritta Denson has already met with Randolph. A member of Catapult, she owns Chocolate Covered, a catering business that attempts to cover and infuse chocolate into as many foods as possible.

Already selling her chocolate-covered bacon at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market, she’s been looking for funding that would allow her to expand her business into an events venue. When she tried to apply for a loan at a traditional bank, she said they didn’t even respond to her funding request. She was impressed by Randolph immediately getting in touch with her when she requested a meeting.

“I appreciated the time spent and him sitting with me. I didn’t feel rushed,” Denson said. “Their communication was excellent.”

Denson said she applied for one of the loans the BBIC offers, and was told within a week of her loan request that it was denied because the event industry was “too risky to fund.”

Denson said she appreciated the feedback and plans to attend the upcoming seminars. She’s grateful the city funded the business development training.

“I appreciate the city doing that. Lakeland is a wonderful hub for entrepreneurship. I love that they are putting their efforts behind minority entrepreneurs,” Denson said.

For some entrepreneurs ‘it's in our blood'

The training sessions are open to anyone who wants to attend but the target audience is Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs in Lakeland’s Midtown and Downtown CRA districts. As part of their contract with the CRA, the organizations are required to meet with a certain number of businesses located in those districts each year.

The BBIC originated in Tampa in 1987, and also assists businesses across Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Randolph has a background in business consulting and is a former IBM marketing specialist. He presented at the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce Business 101 workshop on Sept. 21. He said the BBIC is offering one-on-one consultations, and how to start and run an efficient business workshops at the Lakeland Chamber and The Well.

“Startups run so hard at the very beginning that they can skip some things,” said Randolph. “We help organizations improve productivity and proficiency.”

Randolph said he will inform clients he meets with about his organization’s 16-week course called C.A.T.C.H., which assists startups with setting up the infrastructure for their business, registering with the state and setting up the business’ finances.

Randolph is coordinating with the Chamber to offer more workshops and hopes to have them twice a week, every other week. To set up one-on-one consultations or find out about upcoming seminars, you can email Randolph at [email protected].

Prospera, whose tagline is “helping Hispanic entrepreneurs grow,” originated in Tampa in 1991. It works with Hispanic-owned businesses across Florida, and in Georgia and North Carolina, offering bilingual business workshops, one-on-one consultations, grants for professional services such as accounting, legal, marketing, and guidance and support to help access funding, according to its website. It does not provide businesses with loans.

“We help Hispanic entrepreneurs start, grow and sustain their businesses … We help Hispanics that have recently arrived or been here a few years and just don't know how to start a business … We teach (them) how to do business in the U.S.A,” said Fabian Yepez, the organization’s regional vice president for West Coast of Florida. He added they teach entrepreneurs about the laws related to owning a business in the United States.

Yepez said they already held a few seminars at The Well and the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce and hope to offer three seminars a month in Lakeland. An Oct. 11 workshop at The Well covered marketing and how selecting the right business model can increase sales.

“It’s very exciting to see how, because of the growth of the Hispanic population, there's a lot of need for what we do. It's nice to see that we get the support from the Lakeland CRA that they understand there's a need for services,” Yepez said.

Yepez said many of the newcomers have experience as doctors and lawyers in their home countries, but due to the lack of certifications in the United States, it’s sometimes easier for them to open a business instead of pursuing their former career.

“Hispanics, it's in our blood. We're very entrepreneurial. It's more likely for them to do better if they have their own business,” Yepez said.

To set up a consultation with Prospera or find out about other upcoming seminars, call (813) NEGOCIO (634-6246) or email [email protected].

Mayor Bill Mutz

“There’s greater trust among our Black community and our Hispanic community in dealing with people who are like them in dealing with this type of advice and counsel …This is a way to ensure that cultural groups feel heard.”

Mayor Bill Mutz

When the funding for these services was undergoing the approval process during the Lakeland City Commission meeting on April 17, Commissioner Bill Read questioned whether there was an overlap in services and pondered why there was a need to fund both organizations. Mayor Bill Mutz called it a cultural issue.

“There’s greater trust among our Black community and our Hispanic community in dealing with people who are like them in dealing with this type of advice and counsel …This is a way to ensure that cultural groups feel heard,” said Mayor Bill Mutz.

The funding measure was subsequently approved unanimously.

SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: [email protected]

Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for Jazbablog. She is an author of travel and children's books.

Cindy Glover moved to Lakeland in 2021 after spending two decades in South Florida. She was a crime reporter, City Hall reporter and chief political writer for newspapers including the Albuquerque Journal and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. She spent a year as a community engagement coordinator for the City of Lakeland before joining Jazbablog. Reach her at [email protected] or 561-212-3429.

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