Making a Difference – Economic Empowerment

Published Friday, December 22, 2006

First Step FastTrac program guides hundreds to run companies
By Michael Hooper
The Capital-Journal

A business development program has awakened an entrepreneurial spirit among minorities in Topeka.

About 200 people of diverse backgrounds have graduated from the First Step FastTrac entrepreneurial training program at the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce. Many graduates are now running businesses in Topeka, some of them located in the chamber’s two business incubators, The Accelerator, S.E. 6th and Quincy, and the Retail Incubator at 300 S.E. 29th Street.

About $535,520 of taxpayers’ money has been spent this year on programs for training and supporting disadvantaged and minority businesses in Shawnee County, according to a Go Topeka budget document. The $535,520 is about 10 percent of the $5 million awarded annually by Joint Economic Development Organization to Go Topeka from a half-cent countywide sales tax. About $14 million is collected annually from the half-cent sales tax in the county. About $9 million goes to infrastructure.

Deborah Dawkins, owner of Above All Books & Gifts, recently finished her master’s in marketing/management from American InterContinental University. She said she looks forward to applying knowledge to her new business in White Lakes Center in Topeka.

The programs for disadvantaged business enterprises would not exist today if it weren’t for the visionary work of the chamber and outspoken advocates like Lazone Grays, who pleaded for the services five years ago. Grays, founder of IBSA Inc., a provider of career counseling and enterprise training and development, sued the Joint Economic Development Organization in 2002 to make sure a portion of the sales tax revenue went to minority business people.

An inter-local agreement signed by the county and the city states that the Joint Economic Development Organization, composed of city and county officials, “shall utilize not less than 10 percent of the funds dedicated to economic development to support economic development for racial minorities, with a goal of 20 percent of the funds to support economic development for women and racial minorities.”

About 17 percent of the 171,716 population in Shawnee County is minority, with 9 percent black; 7.3 percent Hispanic; 1.2 percent Native Americans; 1 percent Asian; 2.7 percent of two or more races; and 3.2 percent other.

Brian Turner, manager of the chamber’s disadvantaged business enterprise programs, said Grays was “progressive, forward thinking and community minded.”

Sonny Scroggins, a Topeka activist and leader of Bias Busters of Kansas, said Grays made a difference but didn’t get recognition for it. ”

Something beats nothing,” Scroggins said of the local programs. ”

And it’s due to Lazone and others. I salute them. The poor and disadvantaged should have been included all along. A lot of good is going to come out of that. He took the lead and inspired all the rest of us to get involved. Topeka is better as a result of that.”

Turner said the largest share of the disadvantaged business enterprise budget of $535,520 will go to the chamber’s two incubators for rent, maintenance, utilities, janitorial service, security system and marketing.

“We put up new signs,” Turner said. ”
We ran TV commercials, print ads.”

He said other money is going to salaries for Turner; Thomas Officer, loan manager; and Mary Ann Anderson, administrative assistant; and wages for people running FastTrac classes and mentors. “We will do four or five classes next year,” Turner said. More mentors are needed, he said. Jerome Toson Sr. of the Entrepreneur Development Center of Kansas City, Kan., taught three mentor training programs Tuesday at the chamber.

Turner said out of the 200 graduates of the FastTrac program, about 50 have started businesses. “Whether it’s a go or no-go, that’s OK,” Turner said. “If they find out they are not cut out to be business owners right now, that’s OK. If we can prevent them from exhausting their life savings, that’s a win for everybody.” Turner said a graduate may come into the program as a good cook, but may not have the skills or resources to be a restaurant owner.

After training, the graduate will more fully appreciate the risks of owning a business. “Maybe before the class, they saw the boss as making huge profits,” Turner said. “Now they are more appreciative of what it takes. It makes them better employees.”

Deborah Dawkins, owner of Above All Books & Gifts in White Lakes Center, said the FastTrac program teaches the basics of a good business plan, finances, cash flow and marketing. “You can have the best idea in the world, but if nobody knows about it, you will be closed in 30 to 60 days,” said Dawkins, who has been involved in FastTrac classes as a teacher and a student. Her store sells Christian books, music and gifts for the family. She said the store’s sales in 2005 were similar as 2004, but expenses dropped, which improved the business financially. “We’re still trying to play catch up,” she said. “We’re looking forward to being in the black in 2007.”

Dawkins said retailers can have more overhead than a service business. For example, a consulting business can be run cheaply, from the home, using Internet, e-mail and phone, while a store-front retailer has additional costs of rent, inventory and staff.

The big disappointment for Grays is that while he lobbied for changes at the chamber and that guarantee publc funds would be equitably disbursed, he wasn’t given an opportunity by the chamber to provide any of the contractual services to be provided to disadvantaged and minority businesses.

“I think they are now contracting out the entrepreneurial training. This is what we wanted to do in the first place,” Grays said. Nevertheless, Grays has been helping develop disadvantaged business enterprise programs in Wyandotte County and Leavenworth County.

“I don’t make a dime off of this policy work, but I want the same opportunities now available in Topeka to be available in these other cities as well,” Grays said.

Michael Hooper can be reached at (785) 295-1293 or