In Houston's Underserved Neighborhoods, Entrepreneurs Hope to Make Change


With the help of a "mini-MBA" program, Houston entrepreneurs are making their way.

Students at UH SURE program

With the help of a "mini-MBA" program, Houston entrepreneurs are making their way.

University of Houston business school students work with entrepreneurs from the Houston area. Courtesy University of Houston.

Cowbells have been forbidden at the graduation ceremony, but cheering has not. Cries of, “That’s my baby,” can be heard as the graduates' names are read. Some students walk the row of smiling school officials with their children beside them.

"When you are successful," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told the gathered students, "the city is successful."

But the reality and the mission is a little more specific than that. Many of the graduates of the University’s of Houston’s Stimulating Urban Renewal through Entrepreneurship (SURE) program represent the city’s underserved communities, places that have often been overlooked as the rest of the city does well. Communities like Sunnyside, Third Ward and Acres Homes are all represented.

The 91 students from these and other neighborhoods have spent their Saturdays learning from business professors and working with the university’s business students to start or expand businesses. They represent, as the mayor puts it, “entrepreneurs who are coming up the rough side of the mountain” and often neighborhoods that are too.

Landi Spearman etches the audience on her business that helps people manage major life changes. Photo by Leah Binkovitz.

Business disparities

The city ranks high when it comes to minority-owned businesses, but those rankings don’t tell the whole story.

In 2012, more than half of the businesses in the Houston metro area were minority-owned. That number has shot up from 35 percent in 2002 to 53 percent in 2012, according to census data.

But minority-owned businesses only represented 31 percent of businesses with paid employees in 2014, according to census data. Roughly half of those businesses were Asian-owned. Another 10 percent were Hispanic-owned. And only 3 percent were black-owned.

Sales figures reveal similar disparities.

Though Hispanic-owned businesses represented 30 percent of all businesses in the city of Houston, whether they had paid employees or not, they only accounted for 2 percent of sales, receipts or value of shipments of all businesses. Black-owned businesses in Houston, with or without paid employees, represented less than 1 percent of overall sales.

Loans from the federal Small Business Administration still favor Asian- and white-owned businesses.

Those are the kinds of odds the SURE program is meant to help combat. Started in 2012 by Saleha Khumawala, a professor at the University of Houston with an expertise in micro-finance, the program itself was a bit of a business leap, according to Khumawala. “This was started on a shoestring,” she told the crowd gathered for the 2017 graduation ceremony. But it’s grown over the years. Through free classes and mentoring, the program seeks to reach underserved communities and veterans across Houston. More than 350 students have gone through the program, and dozens of businesses have been launched or strengthened in the process.

New opportunities

In Third Ward, SURE graduate Jeneé Pierre Raven sees herself as part of a new generation of entrepreneurs rising in the community.

Jeneé Pierre Raven says she is not only dedicated to her business but her neighborhood. Courtesy of Raven.

Raven and her husband already had their businesses up and running when she enrolled in the program last fall. Their vegan bakery and catering service, The Luvin Oven had been in business since 2014 but was looking for ways to get placement in bigger stores. And Raven’s The Woman’s Earth wellness center had grown organically since she started it in 2013 but still lacked a business plan.

Like many entrepreneurs, Raven had years of experience and education before leaving her human resources job to focus on the businesses. And since getting things off the ground, she’s actually returned to a nine to five to help keep her professional contacts and a steady stream of income. “I believe in multiple streams of income,” she said.

But her passion is here, rooted in the Third Ward community she came to know as a high school student at DeBakey High School for Health Professions. “During that time, I fell in love with this space,” she said. So she went from being a homeowner to a renter and landlord all at once, leasing out her townhome and moving into a two-story space on Arbor Street with her business on the first floor and her bedroom on the second floor, doubling as a storage space.

Through the center, Raven partnered with women offering some sort of wellness service, including massage, yoga or pre-natal and post-partum care. Outgrowing the apartment, she moved to another location before finally settling on a one-story painted gray brick home with a backyard on Isabella Street.

“We just started seeing it,” Raven remembers when she and her husband first saw the house on a street of classic brick homes built in the 30s and 40s.

They built a studio space at the end of the driveway and are building out the adjacent deck to offer outdoor classes when the weather is nice.

And thanks to SURE they added a social media team, business students from the university who help come up with new content and manage their online presence. “It’s such a load off,” she said. “That opportunity would have not have come if it weren’t for SURE.”

"Mini" MBAs

They also got the kind of legal advice many entrepreneurs go without, on how to structure their businesses to better protect themselves.

“It’s like earning a mini-MBA,” said Jew Don Boney Jr., another SURE graduate. “But I think it’s value is lifelong.” Having earned multiple degrees from Texas Southern University and served as a city council member, Boney was familiar with the city but he said the SURE program gave him new insight, not only for the home health care business he hopes to launch but his own finances as well.

“It is a transformative experience,” he said.

The program is just one component of the University of Houston’s recently unveiled Third Ward Initiative, which seeks to build connections between the historically African American community and the university, which didn’t admit its first black student until 1962 and became public shortly after “to eclipse the neighboring black institution,” as Michael Olivas, chair of the University of Houston’s Law Center, put it in a 2005 article talking about tensions with nearby Texas Southern University.

With a little under half the population living below the poverty line in Third Ward, the university’s initiative includes everything from cultivating new businesses to improving test scores at the neighborhood schools and increasing access to quality health care and the arts.

“They want to go beyond having jobs to having businesses,” said Elwyn Lee, the vice president for community relations and institutional access at the university.

A new generation of business owners

“There are a lot of businesses when people think of Third Ward, they can name,” said Raven, mentioning Project Row Houses and SHAPE Community Center, longstanding institutions in the neighborhood.

But many residents also remember stories of the community’s once booming businesses and arts and culture scene, whose numbers dwindled over the years as disinvestment and de-segregation drained the neighborhood’s resources. Slowly but surely, once-empty corridors are being made anew with businesses like Doshi House and Crumbville Texas rising alongside community organizations like the Emancipation Economic Development Council, which hopes to navigate the waters of revitalization while combatting gentrification.

“We are this growing new generation of business owners, helping revitalize this area,” said Raven. “We want to be here, we want to raise our kids here.”



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