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VOL. 10 | NO. 39 | Saturday, September 23, 2017

Widening The Path

LITE Memphis growing minority entrepreneurs from the ground up

By Don Wade

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He asked to only be a small part of this story. But when you come up with an idea so good, so powerful, that it’s named as one of the top 20 ideas in the Forbes Change the World Competition, you are the story’s foundation.

Roxy Rudolph, left, a mentor in the LITE (Let's Innovate through Education) program, teaches Tyra Akoto, second from left, Codie Burnett and Arianna Johnson how to format an introductory email to potential employers. LITE seeks to equip African-American and Latinx students for entrepreneurial, high-wage jobs. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

LITE Memphis stands for Let’s Innovate through Education. It’s not a bad name, not by any means. But it doesn’t quite capture the spirit of 27-year-old founder Hardy Farrow.

“People like him are what kids like me need,” said Talia Owens, who is in the LITE program, graduated White Station High School, and is now a freshman at DePaul University. “There aren’t a lot of people that put a lot of trust and faith in the hands of Memphis youth.”

First, understand who Farrow is: He graduated The McCallie School, a boys’ college preparatory school in Chattanooga. Then he went to D.C. and earned a political science degree at George Washington University. He came to Memphis via the Teach for America program, drawn here by the city’s utter lack of pretentiousness.

“When I was in D.C., it was like a perpetual LinkedIn conversation,” said Farrow, whose office is in the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Memphis. “The thing I liked about Memphis was it wasn’t perfect yet. It was trying to figure itself out. I didn’t know who even I was yet. We both wanted to get better and I felt this joint mission. I want to be part of something that can be fundamentally different in 20 or 30 years.”

This, by the way, is the soft version of his dream. His program just as easily could be called JGFI: Just Go for It.

“We’re just perpetually aiming to be better than Nashville. Why can’t we be the Atlanta of 2050, the Chicago of 2075?” Farrow said. “It’s something to dream for at least.”

LITE’s mission is to equip African-American/Latinx students with “21st-century skills to create wealth.” Through LITE, students are empowered to become entrepreneurs – or to at least experience that process – through a system that supports the students from the age of 17 until the age of 25.

The beginnings of the program were in Farrow’s 11th grade government economics class at Power Center Academy in Hickory Hill. Over time, he kept hearing his students say that the curriculum was too abstract, didn’t offer them things they could use in the real world.

Most of them had never witnessed a close family member running a small business. And if they had, “None of them had scale beyond one employee,” Farrow said. “They might have been someone doing hair or nails or lawn care. There was a lack of modeling for what it looks like to have a 50-person company, a 10-person company.”

For two years, Farrow continued to teach as he started building LITE. He needed capital. His $45,000-a-year salary as a teacher was closer to a personal stipend than seed money for changing the world.

He made a list of everyone in his life, all the way back to people he knew from youth camps and Sunday school classes. Every night after work, he called them and explained his idea, asked for their support. He raised $50,000, enough to give LITE some lift.

And so it began. In 2013, six students had the support to try and launch an entrepreneurial idea in high school through a six-month program. The next year, 20 students were in the program. In the third year, there were 50, this year there are 75 and next year the goal is 100. After high school, students are matched with paid internships in college and provided seed capital to help them launch businesses in the Memphis community. For those that stay in the program, LITE will track them for eight years or until age 25.

Farrow says a lot of his classmates at McCallie already have launched businesses. They typically had the three things needed to turn a dream into a reality at a young age: 1. They grew up in a family business or had seen first-hand how a small business operates. 2. They knew people, and knew people who knew people. 3. And either they had to cash to start their business or there was financing available to them.

LITE founder Hardy Farrow says there is a lack of modeling for what even a 10-person business looks like, handcuffing minority entrepreneurship. (Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

“I have to make sure these kids in Memphis have the same statistical shot,” Farrow said, adding that less than 1 percent of business revenue in Memphis comes from minority-owned businesses and that according to 2012 Census data, there were 250 black-owned technology/information firms in Memphis and only one had more than one full-time employee.

“That just blew my mind,” Farrow said. “You can’t grow a city economically, much less morally, socially and emotionally until growing from within. That’s my goal. They’re not gonna have the next Facebook or Google when they’re 17, but if I can get them at 25 to be launching businesses with 10 or 25 employees, that helps a community tremendously.”

STEP BY STEP

In the past few years, LITE has raised $650,000 and expanded to national funders such as State Farm. Recently, First Tennessee Bank provided a $10,000 grant.

“If there can be home-grown businesses, we can keep more of these bright young folks here,” said Keith Turbett, First Tennessee’s community development manager.

In talking to LITE students, it’s clear that no two have the same ambitions. Many, maybe even most, won’t introduce a new business of scale anytime in the near future. But there is something to be said for hatching an idea, developing it, and following all the protocols any budding entrepreneur would. The goals of attaining experience, learning how to network, and enhancing skills all can be achieved along the way.

Farrow says 85 percent of LITE’s students are on track to graduate college and 90 percent say in surveys they have significantly grown their career skills through the program.

“I’ve met a lot of new people, learned a lot of new things,” said Julian Cross, a junior at Central High School who firsts wants to become a nurse anesthetist and then transition into the corporate world.

Cross says he has an advantage over minority students who came before him, came before LITE: “Those people didn’t have the kind of help I’m getting now – how to communicate with partners, how to get your idea out there.”

To that end, his idea of a one-stop shop for college and career readiness may or may not have much of a lifecycle. Either way, “I’m learning the process of how everything works in the business world.”

Similarly, Central High graduate and George Washington University freshman Myles Franklin’s idea – helping students build better resumes – might or might not turn into a longstanding business. But he’s learned a lot, too, including that many of his peers don’t even always understand what accomplishments they have attained and what their skills are.

“The resume is the first step,” Franklin said. “You fail the first step, you can’t get to the second step.”

For himself, he envisions many steps. The LITE program, he says, turned a light on for him about the size of the wealth gap and how for African-Americans even one thriving business can have a ripple effect.

“When you own your own business,” Franklin said, “it goes back into your community.”

Students and teachers in the LITE (Let's Innovate through Education) program. The program seeks to equip African-American and Latinx students for entrepreneurial and high-wage jobs. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

His plan is long-term. Once, it started with being an attorney. But he has changed his mind.

“Now, I think I might go into real estate development and then become a politician,” he said.

When reminded that is the very path Donald Trump took to the presidency, Franklin laughs.

“I get that,” he said. “Hopefully by my time, everyone will forget about that.”

LONG-TERM BENEFITS FOR ALL

As LITE has grown, so have the partners. Among the local nonprofits involved: Bridges, Streets Ministries, Memphis Athletic Ministries and Reach Memphis. Often it is through these programs that the finalists for LITE – the in-training entrepreneurs and their ideas – are found.

In all, LITE’s skill-building tools are made available to more than 1,000 high school students across the city.

“Anytime you’re working with young people that have not yet decided what their path is going to be, these critical thinking and problem-solving skills and networking skills they develop matter for the long-term,” said Dana Wilson, vice president of Bridge Builders at Memphis-based Bridges. “They will translate.”

Theodore Hartwell, 26, came to Memphis from South Carolina and graduated Rhodes College. Today, he’s a senior auditor at Ernst & Young and a mentor in the LITE program.

Hartwell says he found being a LITE mentor appealing precisely because he did not have access to such a program when he was in high school. He has noticed a common theme among the students, too.

“They’re all motivated and hard workers,” he said. “They’re receptive to instruction and quick learners. These kids inspire me to make sure I’m on top of my game.”

Farrow speaks of the LITE program leading students to EPIcenter Memphis, where the goal is to create 500 companies and 1,000 entrepreneurs by 2024 through idea creation, development, funding and growth.

Just going for it and trying to change the world is very much a collaborative effort.

“We’re creating a pipeline,” Farrow said, adding, “It’s easy to empathize with youth because you don’t think people are at fault yet. That gap, that 17 to 25, is where most people lose empathy. There are a lot of opportunities that are missed and cracks that people fall though.”

High school students interested in becoming part of the LITE program can apply at https://www.litememphis.com/apply/

Talia Owens and Myles Franklin, as college freshmen, are ahead of the opportunity curve. They also understand that more of their peers must come along with them. Owens says her friends are too amazed at the path she has taken, saying to her, “How are you doing this?”

Her idea for LITE was a project called Create the Stage, where students would write, direct and act in their own play, even coming up with the costumes and the set design. Owens knows that is not a business model, but the experience served her well as she pursues a career path that will merge her marketing talents with technology, the latter being a field almost devoid of African-American women.

Her hope? That more African-Americans will attempt to go higher in the business world, even while acknowledging that can be scary.

“A 9-to-5 job is fine,” Owens said. “But we’re all in this bubble, setting for staying in our comfort zone.”

Franklin says he eventually plans to return to Memphis. First, however, he believes he needs to do some things professionally elsewhere, maybe get his MBA, and build a stronger base.

“I can’t maximize the way I’m helping Memphis until I maximize myself,” he said.

That is in keeping with what Farrow says this process has taught him: Our country’s higher educational paths tend toward the narrow.

“We train people to be a lawyer or a doctor, but there’s no education to be a CEO beyond an MBA,” he said.

Owens already seems to have a grasp on a truth every entrepreneur knows: Success follows failure. And failure does not work on a clock or have any problems with administering repeated lessons.

So her best idea, Owens figures, is still way out there somewhere. It may be many years before she has done all that it takes to make her own luck, creating that moment when opportunity and preparation intersect.

“I do understand it’s a long process,” she said. “A lot of hard work, a lot of research. If it was easy to be an entrepreneur, then everyone would do it.”

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