Since 2013, Goizueta Business School’s Start:ME Accelerator program has helped microentrepreneurs in underserved communities in Metro Atlanta start and grow resilient microbusinesses. The program, an initiative of Goizueta’s Business & Society Institute, provides these microentrepreneurs with the business knowledge, mentorship, and access to capital they need to be successful. While these individual businesses may be small, collectively they have a huge impact on their communities. When successful, they generate income, create jobs, and boost real estate.

A Start:ME mentor with entrepreneurs at the 2024 kickoff.

To date, Start:ME has served nearly 400 microbusinesses throughout these Atlanta communities. Of the businesses, 74 percent are female-led, and 83 percent are led by people of color. In total, businesses that have gone through the Start:ME program have created or retained more than 700 jobs and account for more than $20 million in annual revenue.

“What sets our organization apart from other accelerator programs is that we are community-based,” says Alina Mencias, program manager, Start:ME. “Entrepreneurship is often lonely and competitive. What we try to do is create an environment where instead of viewing it as a competition, it’s an opportunity to collaborate and say, ‘Hey, I tried what you’re talking about. It didn’t work for these reasons. Maybe you can try it differently and be successful.’ People find community in this program—and it lasts.”

Bolstering Businesses and the Communities they Serve

The Start:ME accelerator program works with microentrepreneurs in three metro Atlanta communities: Clarkston, East Lake, and the Historic Southside of Atlanta. The accelerator will add a fourth community, as yet to be determined, starting in 2025. Each year, out of roughly 250 applicants, the program selects several dozen promising microbusinesses to participate in the free 14-week program. This year’s cohorts, which kicked off in January, include a total of 56 businesses that offer everything from in-home health services to custom embroidery.

Goizueta’s Business & Society Institute delivers the Start:ME accelerator program in partnership with several community-based nonprofit organizations. These include Friends of Refugees in Clarkston, the East Lake Foundation in East Lake to Edgewood, and both Focused Community Strategies and Purpose Built Schools Atlanta in the Historic Southside of Atlanta. Supporters of the program include Bank of America, Delta Community Credit Union, Emory University, PNC Bank, Regions Foundation, Target Corporation, and Truist Foundation. Annually, each community has a grant pool of $15,000 to invest in local ventures. Since its inception, Start:ME has provided nearly $370,000 in peer-selected capital to 125 businesses.

You cannot have a thriving neighborhood without business owners from that community.

Marta Self

“You need to see business activity,” says Marta Self, senior vice president of community affairs, and executive director of the Regions Foundation, a Start:ME program supporter. “It’s what creates wealth, it’s what creates vitality.” Start:ME’s community-centered mission also aligns with the company’s values. “At both Regions Bank and the Regions Foundation, we really are about making our communities better. That’s because when our communities succeed, we succeed,” adds Self.

When Self attended her first Start:ME kickoff event in January 2020, she recognized the full impact of the program. “It’s just textbook best practice, implemented in the best way,” she explains. According to Self, Start:ME has the best success rate of all the small business programs that the Regions Foundation supports. Self credits the program for not only providing the small business owners with knowledge and access to capital, but for helping them create a network of other small business owners and mentors. “That network is sometimes the biggest missing part,” Self adds.

Building a Broader Network

Kevin Rodgers, owner of SHWAXX BRAND, participated in the accelerator in 2018. At the time, he was a barber who had created his first product—a hydro-butter for all textures of hair—and who wanted to move into product manufacturing. This March, SHWAXX added several other products to its lineup, including whole body washes, balms, and creams.

Start:ME was lifechanging. It was a safe place to talk about what I was thinking and that I hadn’t heard anywhere.

Kevin Rodgers, Start:ME entrepreneur

“They kind of broke down all of the hustle mentality I had as a barber,” explains Rodgers. “They gave me a construct for what an entrepreneur looks like.” Rodgers appreciated more than just the business sessions and the experience and knowledge of his mentors. He also enjoyed the “genuine camaraderie” he experienced with the other entrepreneurs. “They were people who were just like me and trying to figure it out too,” he says.

Gaining business knowledge from Goizueta team members is critical for these entrepreneurs. Many Start:ME participants may not have had access to a formal business education. The entrepreneurs leave the program with a detailed business plan and a better understanding of their business and their goals. “Being able to go through this program through Goizueta Business School is really validating,” says Mencias. “It’s an important signal to others.”

A Start:ME mentor and entrepreneur at the 2024 kickoff.

While in the program, Rodgers also tapped into the broader Emory University ecosystem. He had student consultants help him improve his social media campaign. When he needed funds to develop additional products, he turned to the Emory Impact Investing Group (EIIG), a student-run organization founded in 2014 to provide promising microentrepreneurs with early-stage financing in the form of micro loans ($5,000 to $15,000). “Start:ME prepared me in so many ways that I can’t really quantify,” says Rodgers.

The Meaning of Mentorship

Nicole Soltau, marketing lead for the Master of Science in Business Analytics Program at Goizueta, is a mentor for this year’s Start:ME cohort. She is working with Jeremiah Long, founder of Immutable Access, who is developing a range of apps including “AI for Kids.” It is an innovative, AI-powered software designed for creative use, with a strong focus on accessibility.

I feel very motivated and excited, and that’s partly because of how passionate Start:ME entrepreneurs are. Their passion fuels my passion.

Nicole Soltau, Start:ME mentor

Soltau has been able to guide entrepreneurs struggling with imposter syndrome. She’s also helping them develop their digital marketing strategy, a subject she’s been teaching for the last five years.

Mentor Nicole Soltau with mentee Jeremiah Long

She says she is grateful for the experience. “It offers me the opportunity to make a meaningful impact. I’m guiding entrepreneurs through challenges and aiding in their business growth,” she says. “By volunteering as a mentor, you will play a critical part in creating a positive impact on the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

The business owners build connections with more than just the immediate network of the other business owners in their cohort. They also gain access to the broader Start:ME alumni network. “The Start:ME team is very deliberate in maintaining this network, in creating reasons for people to be together,” explains Self. “It’s not natural for a lot of people to have that network and cultivate it. Start:ME gives them that spark. We’re going to cultivate a network of successful business owners, and you’re a part of it.”

The entrepreneurs’ engagement with the Start:ME program doesn’t end when they graduate from the program. Numerous business owners have acted as Start:ME volunteers or mentors. Others have provided their goods or services to the university. Start:ME also compiles an annual shopping guide showcasing the goods and services of alumni ventures.

Learn More

The Start:ME program is delivered for free to all participating entrepreneurs and is made possible through the generous support of Bank of America, Delta Community Credit Union, Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, PNC Bank, Regions Foundation, Target Corporation, and Truist Foundation. Start:ME is delivered by Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in partnership with trusted community lead nonprofit organizations: East Lake Foundation in East Lake, Friends of Refugees in Clarkston, and both Focused Community Strategies (FCS) and Purpose Built Schools Atlanta in Atlanta’s Southside.

View the Start:Me Impact Report here. Then, find out how you can support Start:ME and build stronger communities by supporting local entrepreneurs.