At the end of 2019, Cutting Edge was contacted by St Louis non-profit, WEPOWER to help support their accelerator program for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in St. Louis. Cutting Edge attorney, Sarah Kaplan, took on the project specifically to create a securities law strategy for their funding activities–raising funds into the accelerator that will then be invested into the start-ups that participate in the accelerator. Below is our interview with the WEPOWER team.

In 2-3 sentences could you explain what WEPOWER does and what are the guiding principles?

We’re a start-up nonprofit that partners with Black and Latinx communities to activate their power to advance equity & justice for all — particularly by transforming health, education, economic, and justice systems. That breaks down into three main areas of work — (1) engaging community by knocking on people’s doors, calling them, asking about their needs and dreams, (2) activating changemakers to work on policy and systems change (through programs like Power Building Academies, and our Tomorrow Builder’s Program), and (3) elevating entrepreneurs through our business accelerator, Elevate/Elevar, which is focused on building wealth and creating living wage and family sustaining wage jobs in disinvested areas of St. Louis. One of the most important principles in this work is activating the inherent potential that exists in Black and Latinx communities. We also focus across all of our work on dreaming boldly and unapologetically, challenging convention, listening and learning with humility, and focusing on results that matter to the Black and Latinx communities we work with.

Tell us a little about Elevate/Elevar. What is it, and how did its mission originate? 

WEPOWER activates community power. Recognizing that our local communities are closely tied to our local economies, the Elevate/Elevar Accelerator is the part of our work focused on economic power building and job creation. 

Elevate/Elevar is a one-of-a-kind, six-month accelerator that elevates early-stage, for-profit companies founded by Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. WEPOWER is partnering with Village Capital on the Elevate/Elevar Accelerator, as part of an international network that supports ready-to-scale companies.

Elevate/Elevar engages entrepreneurs who:

  • Identify as Black and/or Latinx
  • Run an early-stage company with demonstrated traction
  • Work in industries that can create living wage jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree, and so can create living wage jobs for community-members living in poverty
  • Commit to their company full time or agree to make the leap once the Accelerator begins
  • Agree to our Founder’s Commitment to Community

From the beginning, WEPOWER has known that policy change and building economic power are both crucial to close the gaps faced by Black and Latinx entrepreneurs, and are excited to be launching a program that directly addresses economic power. 

What are the main goals for participants in Elevate/ Elevar? 

The intention of the accelerator is to provide cohort members with the resources they need to take businesses to the next level, acquiring capital, tools, and skills. Our quantifiable five-year goals for success are:

  • 70% rate of survival among the cohort, a significant improvement compared to other fledgling businesses.
  • 50% of companies supported through Elevate/Elevar Accelerator hire residents in North St. Louis City and pay living wage salaries along with holistic benefits, increasing the number of accessible family-sustaining wage jobs in North St. Louis.
  • 85% of workforce development programs have formal pipelines partners and strategies from which they recruit North St. Louis City residents. 
  • 85% of workforce development and startup support organizations leverage a shared technology and support team to foster connecting North St. Louis residents to employers.
  • Improved relationships between businesses & disinvested communities, built around the idea of shared power; a movement of changemakers and entrepreneurs co-creating prosperous communities.

A less quantifiable, but integral goal: to change the narrative around Black and Latinx entrepreneurs, communities, and dreams. We want to illustrate that disparate outcomes are due to unequal access to support, that Black and Latinx individuals have incredible potential, that our strength lies in our communities, that we truly can create a system where everyone supports and everyone succeeds.

Are entrepreneurs the only people who can get involved with the Accelerator? 

No, there are a number of other ways to get involved! We’re looking for people and organizations interested in sponsoring Elevate/Elevar or providing donated capital for an evergreen investment fund (the Elevate/Elevar Fund). We’re also actively recruiting mentors and guest experts — especially investors and lenders, founders who have hired/built teams, corporate executives, and other subject matter experts — to provide feedback, ideas, and connections to entrepreneurs as part of a mentoring team or on a one-time basis. Anyone interested in getting more involved as a sponsor or donating to the Elevate/Elevar Fund should reach out to yoni@wepowerstl.org. If you’d like to learn more about being a mentor, find more info and share your interest at http://bit.ly/wepowerelevatementor or email edgar@wepowerstl.org.
If you’re an entrepreneur who’d like to get involved, there’s room for you too! Entrepreneurs have already been selected for the first cohort, which will begin in March. Anyone interested in applying for the next cohort is welcome to email edgar@wepowerstl.org in order to be notified when the next round of applications open.

We know that Black and Latinx business founders have not had, and continue to lack, the same access to resources that white founders have. How does WEPOWER connect founders in your network to resources? 

Elevate/Elevar offers founders:

  • Access to seed capital
  • Training, using Village Capital’s research-based investment-readiness curriculum
  • Advising from guest experts, a team of five mentors for each entrepreneur, and two paid business coaches
  • Office hours with attorneys, accountants, HR, and marketing professionals
  • Co-working space and community

Tell us about how Elevate/Elevar connects with communities (or tell us about what community self-determination has to do with Elevate/Elevar?)

We believe that businesses are strongest with community support, just as communities are strongest with businesses that truly support the community. We’ve put a lot of thought into including community input at every stage to reinforce that cycle of support. Community members applied and nominated entrepreneurs for the cohort; community leaders partnered with us to interview applicants and select finalists; and over 800 St. Louisans voted on the finalists to select the actual cohort! During the accelerator, the cohort members will be mentored by a mixture of experts in their particular industries and community leaders, recognizing local knowledge as an important form of expertise. The accelerator will wrap up with a community pitch day, deliberately cultivating community engagement to the last; and even after exiting the accelerator, each of the businesses will partner with a community advisory board to continually foster community involvement. We’re also working with Cutting Edge Counsel and Janice Shade of Local Capital to explore what a community capital strategy could look like to fund our investments in the future.

If all goes well, what will Elevate/Elevar look like in 5 years?

In five years, we will have scaled to two cohorts a year, having supported 90 founders who will be on track to create 200 jobs in our community. With the entrepreneurs committing to hiring at or on a clear path to a living wage, this will be a meaningful addition not just of jobs but of family-supporting jobs to the local landscape. In the broader investment landscape, we hope to have shifted the narrative of what investable businesses look like, what potential looks like, and what our communities can achieve.

How can our readers get involved and support you?

We’re looking for people and organizations to join us by sponsoring Elevate/Elevar or providing donated capital for our evergreen investment fund (the Elevate/Elevar Fund). If you or your organization might be interested, please reach out to Yoni at yoni@wepowerstl.org. Readers can also choose to directly support Elevate/Elevar here: http://bit.ly/elevate-donate. We are driven by community involvement and passion — and money helps too!

We’re also actively recruiting mentors and guest experts (local and remote) to help advise our entrepreneurs — especially investors and lenders, entrepreneurs who have hired/built teams, corporate executives, and other subject matter experts — to provide feedback, ideas, and connections to entrepreneurs as part of a mentoring team or on a one-time basis. Anyone interested in getting more involved supporting entrepreneurs should email edgar@wepowerstl.org! We recognize that many different types of expertise will be valuable to our entrepreneurs, and are eager to present them with a broad range of voices to learn from. 

The guest experts will join our workshops to work with the entrepreneurs on market mapping, customer acquisition, team building, and overall investment readiness (a ~2 hour, one-time commitment). Each entrepreneur will also have a support team made up of five mentors who will meet as a team for 1.5hr/month (for 6 months) to collaborate and support them in achieving their goals.