UnBound Human Potential: How Richard Luck and Sarah Mullens Created Richmond’s Coolest Social Venture

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5 Entrepreneurs
Sometimes It Seems Hopeless…

“I was living in an apartment with people I had known less than twenty days, sleeping on a half-inflated air mattress in a room that was flea infested, and I spent pretty much the entire time intoxicated. I had no money, no car and no desire to keep living,” shares John. John was born in Richmond and at a young age quickly discovered alcohol. He lost his job, his house, and his hope. Then, when he hit rock bottom, he realized that there was no way out but to change course entirely. He made the leap and signed up for a homeless shelter known for its work fighting addictions. That’s when Caritas, a charity supporting the homeless, took the note of his audacity to do anything to stop his own self-destruction.

Miles was born far from John, in Montgomery, Alabama. Hard work was Miles’ life from a young age – he had to support three households. Yet, his low-wage jobs didn’t provide enough. Wondering what else he could do to help his family, Miles bumped into an old friend, who invited him into a promising world. In fact, that was what most of his peers were doing in his neighborhood – selling drugs. It wasn’t long before things turned bad. When his best friend was killed right in front of him and his cousin was sentenced to life in prison, he knew it was his last warning. His options were bleak. Miles wanted out. “Seeing my daughter’s face in that courtroom was enough for me to understand this was my lowest point. I needed to find a better way.”

Carolyn is a single mother taking care of five beautiful children. Her childhood was tough, and she found herself making some bad choices. She felt trapped, wanting to find good solutions to her challenges but unable to break her cycle of negative choices. It seemed like there was no way out. “I knew that I was better than that. I got really disappointed with myself.”After she was convicted, things got much worse, and she couldn’t find a job, despite her qualifications. “It was then that I decided that I would work for myself. I knew that I was going to make it as an entrepreneur, because I am better than my criminal background.”

Ciara was forced to leave her home with her grandmother and drop out of school at the age of sixteen. “Growing up without a mother and father, having taken care of a younger sister, living on the street with no money and bad people around, it was so tough,”says Ciara. She had children at a young age and quickly found herself in an abusive relationship. After finally getting out of that relationship, she made it her mission to become the best mother she could be. “My first child helped me to see hope. I didn’t want my child to see the abuse I was experiencing. I wanted to give her a better life.” In order to enroll her children in preschool, she volunteered through the Neighborhood Resource Center to cover those costs. Through that program, she obtained her GED, and has gone on to become certified in Personal Care and as a Certified Nurse’s Assistant. Is that enough to change her life?

Raheim grew up in public housing in Harlem, New York. His father was incarcerated when he was three years old, and following in his father’s footsteps, Raheim was arrested at age 19. During his eleven months in prison, Raheim vowed to change his life. “When I got into jail, I knew that I needed to dig myself out of this hole. Poverty, outside influences, and not having enough education affected my choices.”

How can these five people find an opportunity to radically change their lives? How can they make sense of the hardships they’ve gone through? How can they take that pain and transform not only their lives, but the lives and prospects of their loved ones?

Everyone Should Have a Chance

Enter Richard Luck and Sarah Mullens.

“After graduating from the Virginia Military Institute, I decided to join Teach for America, to help make a difference in communities,” shares Richard Luck, co-founder of UnBoundRVA, a non-profit that helps talented individuals from low-income families in Richmond become entrepreneurs. “When I began teaching at a Title-One High School in North Carolina, I saw an incredible amount of talent going underutilized.”

He recalled how let down he felt when he saw future Einsteins going nowhere. They simply couldn’t go to college due to a whole mix of circumstances. Some students would say, “You know, I can’t go to college, because my dad isn’t around and my mom is on drugs. I need to support my three brothers and sisters,” or something similar.

People accepted this reality – but Richard didn’t.

Sarah Mullens, UnBoundRVA’s other co-founder, who taught with Richard in the same school, added, “They had such talent – and street sense – and we knew we could use that for good. When we started listing the characteristics of some of the highest caliber individuals in these low-income areas that had ‘slipped through the cracks’, we realized that many of them were very entrepreneurial. They operated on a budget, were great negotiators, super charismatic, and had the ability to persevere and work relentlessly.”

It took Sarah and Richard a few months to come up with a new model that combines entrepreneurial programs and micro-financing models from around the world. It becameUnBoundRVA.

The mission of UnBoundRVA is to provide talented individuals from low-income communities a path to entrepreneurship. The vision behind the organization is a city where every person can utilize their potential to create opportunities for themselves and their communities.

As a strategy, Richard and Sarah decided to invest in a few high potential individuals from low-income communities, and connect them to all of the resources, training and support they needed to become successful entrepreneurs.

UnBoundRVA: Supporting High Potential Individuals

UnBoundRVA developed what they call a five-step High Potential Identification Process.

At the first stage, they developed partnerships with community organizations, schools, churches and other community stakeholders to help identify individuals ages 20-40 that have displayed the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, including work ethic, intelligence, perseverance, charisma, and leadership.

The following step is to meet in a small group setting to inform those people whom community leaders had identified as “high potentials” about the program and its benefits.

All “high potentials” that wished to be in the program were still required to apply. “And this is very important for us,” adds Sarah, “a future entrepreneur should demonstrate his or her will to do what it takes.” This gives us an opportunity to interview and select twelve high potentials for a six-week workshop.

The UnBoundRVA team developed a workshop for selected participants, held two evenings per week. It focuses on leadership and personal development, and introduces entrepreneurship. “It serves as our primary filtering tool, as well as a program in and of itself to positively impact more lives,” Richard explains.

Five of these high potentials are selected to continue into the year-long Business Development Program. The others are referred to other small business classes around Richmond and are able to apply again the following year.

UnBoundRVA’s Business Model

The business model is straightforward. Over the first three months, the five selected participants engage in business modeling classes using a nationally recognized curriculum. As they each consider new business ventures, they conduct market research to determine the feasibility and plausibility of the venture.

After completing this curriculum, each participant must pitch his or her business to a panel of entrepreneurs and bankers. This panel makes a recommendation to the banking partner regarding loan amounts, interest rates and repayment periods. UnBoundRVA holds cash as collateral with their banking partner, which helps their participants build credit. Each high potential has access to $20,000 in start-up capital.

UnBoundRVA has business partnerships that provide pro bono services in all the areas critical to launching a business: accounting, marketing, legal, and banking. They work directly with their participants to assist them in any area needed while launching their businesses. UnBoundRVA also plays an instrumental role in connecting these new businesses owners directly to clients, through their network and public platforms. They assist in any and every aspect of running the businesses for the first 9 -12 months of the businesses existence.

Naturally, this model overall has huge advantages: it creates jobs in the Richmond area, brings a modest number of families off of public assistance, and provides participants an opportunity to earn better salaries.

What Made It Possible?

Richard shared a number of his “lessons learned” in building this transformative organization, which apply to almost all of our endeavors:

1. Relationships and Networking matter a lot. “We’ve been able to pull it off so far because of the incredible support of all the partner organizations that generously helped us with their time and energy.”

2. The private sector holds tremendous power. It can help society in ways you wouldn’t realize. “I believe in the private sector: business and non-profits are natural partners. Most businesses are responsible community players, they can really help non-profits to fill in the gaps.”

3. Determination and a positive attitude are the keys to success. “As an entrepreneur, you will doubt yourself constantly. The quicker you can get your nose back to the grindstone and get your mind in a positive place the more likely you are to be successful.”

4. Measurable outcomes and smart metrics are important for proof of concept. So many non-profits boldly report that they have helped thousands of businesses. But how do you measure your impact? Did you put the right systems in place? Hence, the ability to make it small and show the results is of tremendous importance.

5. Changing people’s lives is a very delicate task. You need to fully believe in the people you’re investing in, and at the same time show the best of yourself. These people deserve your respect. They could pull through something that not many of us are capable of.

UnBound Transformation: “You Can Be Anything That You Want To Be”

The first 5 individuals selected for the yearlong support were selected out of 40 participants. By now, each has completed UnBoundRVA’s rigorous training and are receiving seed funding and support for their new businesses. In October this year these five newly minted entrepreneurs will bring new light to Richmond.

Let’s look at how the lives of our heroes have changed.

John: “Alcohol no longer has power over me,” says John. “I am going to make it happen.”John has decided to become a drive-through coffee shop owner. He has yet to announce his first coffee shop in Richmond, but he is very optimistic about it. John learns all he can about the coffee business and visits every coffee shop in town to note the specifics and best strategies to drive growth.

“Why do I believe in John?” asks Sarah. “Because he is so determined and passionate about this project. He will do anything to succeed, and that’s the quality of a real entrepreneur.”

Miles: Since Miles moved to Richmond, his life changed completely. He got a job working at Applebee’s and has gotten married. He also decided to enroll in a Culinary Arts program at J. Sargent Reynolds Community College. This will come in handy in October when Miles launches his own catering business. Miles believes that UnBoundRVA granted him with a rare chance to prove that he is a great young man, who, as he puts in, “was brought up to be a great father and great entrepreneur, who will put it all together.”

Miles’ suggestion to others going through rough times: “No matter what your situation is, if you try to make things right, the opportunity will come. Doing what you value will set you on the path you need to follow.”

Carolyn: She is active in her church, and recently graduated with an Associate’s Degree in Business Administration from a local community college. Carolyn wishes to use her love for creativity and art to propel her gift basket business. She plans to contract with hospitals around Richmond so a gift basket can be waiting in each room when patients arrive. “UnBoundRVA first became a symbol of hope for me, but after these past eight weeks I can tell you that it helped me to understand who I am. I got to know myself better than I ever have. UnBoundRVA has shown me the way, showed me what type of person I am,” shares Carolyn. “I’ve never met anyone who would believe in me so much. And my best lesson from this experience is telling my kids – you can be anything that you want to be.”

Ciara: She hopes to use her motivation and expertise to start her own business providing personal medical care in the Richmond area. “UnBoundRVA helped me with my personal development, the way I think, the way I open my arms to embrace my children with pride of being a self-sufficient woman,” says Ciara. “Thanks to Richard and Sarah, who have this special talent of listening to people, I became the person I always wanted to be.”

Raheim is a new home owner, thanks to his perseverance, hard work and Habitat for Humanity. He worked for nearly two years alongside volunteers on his house, which was completed in January of 2014. He is the first person in his family to own a home. He is now well on his way to launching a window washing & power washing business focused on small commercial and residential properties. “UnBoundRVA pulled me out of that deep hole. The world should take a look at what these guys at UnBoundRVA are doing. We should all reach out and help people in need to pull them back together. It takes a village to raise a society.”

Advice for Young Entrepreneurs: “It’s All About Human Potential”

“My hope was to provide an opportunity to those people who would not have it otherwise. My Teach for America experience has taught me that opportunity plays a huge role,” shares Richard. “And hard work does not always pay, especially if you don’t have opportunity.”

It’s all about human potential.

Sarah shared this advice for young entrepreneurs:

1) Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Admit that you don’t know all the answers, and ask for help. It will help you in leaps and bounds.

2) If you want to succeed, you need to make it your life. Work harder than anyone else. Richard and I work from 8 am to 10 pm, and still love it. The rest will come later.

3) There is no Plan B. Failure is not an option. Believe in yourself. Believe in what you do. Then and only then will success come.

What’s Next for UnBoundRVA?

“We need to get it right first,” says Richard. “These five people should lead the way for others. We want to demonstrate that this model is sustainable and these people succeed in their business ventures.”

“In the long term, we’d like to replicate the program in all major cities throughout the country. Let’s unbound potential together.”

If you are interested in joining this project as investor, mentor or business partner, please contact UnBoundRVA at info@unboundrva.org or here.

These companies support the project today:

Identification Partners: Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, Blue Sky Fund, Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond, Neighborhood Resource Center, Peter Paul Development Center, CHAT, Richmond Promise Neighborhood, Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity, STEP Strategies to Elevate People, YMCA.

Business Partners: Cherry Bekaert LLP and LeClair Ryan.

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Andrey Gidaspov is a published author, international business expert, and a passionate “dot connector.” He is passionate about connecting people and ideas, creating new social ventures and helping non-profits find new funding streams. Follow him on Twitter (@AndreyGidaspov) and check out his blog (www.gidaspov.com) for more useful tips on creativity, fundraising and marketing.

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