Two miles from Stetson University’s campus in DeLand is the community of Spring Hill, a largely African-American area of about 2,500 people with a median household income of $13,090. Business startups are rare. In the late 1990s, two economics professors and Stetson President Douglas H. Lee began meeting with local residents and leaders, looking for a way to build a better relationship between the community and the university and to strengthen Spring Hill economically.
“Stetson was considered an outsider. People in Spring Hill didn’t trust us,” says Neal Long, one of the economics professors. In the wake of the meetings, Long and his colleague, Ranjini Thaver, founded an outreach program in 2000 called the Center for Holistic Microcredit Initiatives, or CHOMI (a South African word meaning friend of the heart). CHOMI provides microloans. Recipients must participate in workshops to learn basic financial principles and prepare a business plan.
“Oftentimes what distinguishes poorer entrepreneurs is that they lack the availability to credit, a chamber of commerce, other support structures and marketing for establishing connections,” Thaver says.
Many CHOMI participants are like Kimberly Green of Orange City, a neighborhood near Spring Hill, who signed up for Stetson’s program in 2003 after several banks turned her down for a startup loan. Green participated in five faculty-led workshops, where she received one-on-one counseling from senior-year economics students who had completed their own business proposals. She learned to identify her product and competition, determine cost and present the plan to larger lenders.
Green used her nearly $3,000 loan to start an outpatient service agency called Kimber Kare and a small foster home for people with disabilities. Her business is now self-sustaining.
Over seven years, CHOMI has loaned more than $15,000 and helped about 70 entrepreneurs. Long says the program has served both Spring Hill residents and Stetson students well. “Right here there was a community ... that was not being served by our straightforward principles of economics. We needed to have some real-world application,” Long says. “And our students are getting an experience that we could not provide real easily in a classroom.”
Florida has two programs designed to help businesses train workers. The Quick Response Training program provides grants to new or expanding businesses for customized employee training. Companies must produce an exportable product or service and create full-time, high-quality jobs requiring specialized training that is not available locally. The Incumbent Worker Training program offers grants to employers already doing business in Florida that need to retrain their workforce. Businesses with 25 or fewer employees receive priority and, as with the Quick Response Training Program, the state looks for businesses in targeted industries and in distressed urban and rural parts of Florida.