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Habitat for Neighborhood Business at SLU Grows the St. Louis Community by Growing Small Businesses

by Maggie Rotermund
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Maggie Rotermund
Senior Media Relations Specialist

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ST. LOUIS – Putting entrepreneurs in the room where it happens. Travious Brooks, the owner of Brooks Family Entertainment, said the Habitat for Neighborhood Business program (HNB) at Saint Louis University connected him with opportunities and mentors without whom he couldn’t have grown his business.

“Habitat for Neighborhood Business has gotten me in front of people I never would have met otherwise,” Brooks said. “Gladys (Smith, HNB program director) got me mentors from big companies that I could call on a whim, reporters from newspapers to cover my business and she got me to Enterprise Bank to get a credit line to help my business grow.”

Cook Hall

Habitat for Neighborhood Business is located within the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business. Photo by Sarah Conroy.

Gladys Smith, Ph.D., is the program director of the Habitat for Neighborhood Business program at Saint Louis University. She started at SLU in 2018 when the program, which already had strong ties to the University, became staffed by the University. It was volunteer-run before 2018.

HNB was founded in 2006 by SLU alum Douglas Brown (CSB ’66), who saw a lack of businesses in economically challenged neighborhoods when visiting cities throughout the U.S. while working at Enterprise Rent-a-Car. With assistance and collaboration from SLU, Brown spent two years meeting with people in local neighborhoods in need of renewal. Armed with this information and support from the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business, Brown launched HNB with several fellow SLU alums.

“The goal is to provide services to minority business owners in the underserved areas of the city of St. Louis and to provide them access to the resources to help them become a success,” Smith said. “Doug Brown had a passion to make a difference. He saw a need and he went about finding a solution.”

HNB helps entrepreneurs and small business owners return retail and service businesses to struggling urban neighborhoods. The businesses must be located within HNB’s service area in the City of St. Louis – the boundaries are Interstate 70 to the north, Interstate 44 to the south, west along Skinker Blvd and east to 12th Street.

Gladys Smith, Ph.D.
Gladys Smith, Ph.D.

“The thing that I think is most important is we’re not really in the job creation business, we are in the career creation business,” Brown said. 

Participants in the program have access to an advisory board of established businesspeople from the community, access to an industry-specific mentor when available, discounted or pro bono accounting and legal services, help with web design and hosting and access to reconditioned discounted equipment and software. 

“Participants have done the work to start – our main focus is to mentor and help them grow their business,” Smith said. 

Mentoring is done now through regular forums among the cohort. The group mentoring sessions grew out of necessity during the pandemic. 

“We changed the model a bit when we couldn’t get together and we’ve found that the small group format is even better than a 1:1 model,” Smith said. “The cohort gets to network with their peers while still keeping that close mentorship going.”

Undergraduate students at SLU, through one of their first courses in the Chaifetz School of Business, get the opportunity for service learning by helping program participants with business and marketing plans. 

“I’ve gotten to work with so many SLU students and they always bring a lot of ideas,” Brooks said. “Being from a younger generation, they’ve helped me with some fun ideas as well as practical items.”

Emma Gude has been involved in HNB since her sophomore year. The SLU senior served as a marketing intern for the program, sending out a monthly newsletter and sitting in on mentoring sessions.

The finance major said she appreciated getting to work with the entrepreneurs.

“It was so rewarding to see how the work I did to inform people with the newsletter was appreciated,” she said. “I’m not an expert – I’m just a student, but my input was valued. I learned as much from them as they have from me.”

Brooks said a recent group of students worked on ways for him to pitch his business to local colleges and universities for their events.

Participants in the program who want a deeper dive into the long-term feasibility of their business plans are paired with a student enrolled in Strategy and Practice, a capstone course within the school’s Professional MBA program. Students are put into teams and spend the semester working with their partners to strengthen their businesses. 

It pays off to put yourself out there and work in service of a cause you believe in.” 

Emma Gude, SLU senior

HNB participants who complete the consultant study receive $2,500 towards implementing their plan at the end of the review.

“It’s a great collaboration between the School of Business and HNB,” Smith said. “The students get to establish relationships with the business owners and see their passion and commitment to making it work. The students buy in and get a taste of what makes a business work.”

Smith said the University recently received a grant from a SLU alum who donated $100,000 to support the service leadership connection.

“This funding will keep us going for a while – it’s a real commitment to the students and their work,” she said.

HNB participants range from new entrepreneurs to those with years of experience looking to grow their ventures.

Gude said she benefited from seeing what problems business owners face, especially from seeing the HNB participants struggle with work/life balance.

“So many people start their businesses as a mission, and it starts as just them,” Gude said. “As it grows, they have to find employees who are the right fit and who respect what they are doing.”

Brooks owned a costume jewelry store before looking for something he could do with his children. He started Brooks Bounce Houses five years ago by renting bounce houses and running them at events. Brooks Family Entertainment is now a full-fledged event services company, with a game bus, 360 photo booth rental, and table and chair rental. 

He credits a meeting with Smith at an Urban League event to changing the trajectory of his business.

“I was down at the (Edward Jones) Dome for this Urban League thing when she came up and gave me her full spiel,” he said. “I followed her over to her booth and she and Linda had me hooked before I left.”

Linda M. Jones is the executive director of HNB.

Smith said that the key to HNB is mentoring and collaboration. 

“It is our intention to build relationships,” she said. “We want participants to build relationships among themselves and with the seasoned business owners who serve as mentors. We want to help them network and promote their business.”

Brooks said HNB reinforced the fundamentals of what he knew about operating his business while bolstering his confidence. 

“It’s a big deal to start a business,” he said. “It’s always hard and you never get to the end. There are always hurdles, but being a part of this group makes me want to say, ‘let me see what I can do.’”

Finding the Right Fit

Habitat for Neighborhood Business works with a variety of businesses in St. Louis. Smith said HNB cohorts have included retail, barber shops, event planners, real estate and service-oriented businesses.

“The entrepreneurs run the gamut – we have auto tire shops, construction, hair salons, hair products, an entertainment company and food that goes from fast food to gourmet,” she said.

Smith said each application is reviewed to ensure that it is a business that will enhance its surroundings. 

“We want the businesses to add value to their neighborhoods and not be detrimental to the area,” she said. 

The mission of HNB is to make sure its participants are grounded in the components of running a business.

“Our entrepreneurs can stay with us as long as they’d like,” Smith said. “They can continue to meet with their mentoring group and reach out with their needs. This is creating a community here that helps one another.”

Smith said the participants sell HNB better than any marketing campaign could.

“They refer their friends and family because of their experience in the program,” she said. “It is a privilege to be a part of this work sharing the resources and helping underserved communities.”

Gude, who will be heading to SLU Law this fall, said the Jesuit commitment to service drew her to SLU and to the work of HNB.

“It pays off to put yourself out there and work in service of a cause you believe in,” she said. “I was hesitant when I first started because I didn’t feel qualified as a student to be working with business owners, but it is good to stretch into work where you aren’t fully confident.”

Success Stories

Lavinia McCoy, HNB entrepreneur and owner of Gourmet Soul Restaurant, was featured in a soul food showdown on Good Morning America on Feb. 1. 

McCoy is an Air Force Veteran with over 30 years of experience in program management and a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu, College of Culinary Arts.

About the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business

Founded in 1910, the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business at Saint Louis University has shaped the future of industry for more than a century. As one of the oldest business schools west of the Mississippi, the Chaifetz School has built a reputation as a leader in business education committed to innovation, inclusion and impact and recognized with eight undergraduate and graduate programs nationally ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

About Saint Louis University

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers more than 15,200 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.