With 20 years of experience in the insurance business, Arlene Brodie knew everything there was to know about processing claims. What she didn’t know was how to develop her claims-processing company into a thriving enterprise. Six months after she started her company, Claims Management Systems, the operation was at risk: She still had only one client, and only $2,400 in monthly revenue. Now, three years later, Claims Management Systems is on pace to generate $250,000 in annual revenue. And rather than work from home, where her husband and daughter pitched in, Brodie, 40, has an office, two employees, and confidence in herself as an entrepreneur.
What accounts for this turnaround? The Enterprise Center, an award-winning business incubator in Philadelphia that has given Brodie access to resources that she couldn’t previously afford. “If people want me to leave, they’re going to have to drag me out of here,” she declares. “This center has transformed my life.”
The Enterprise Center is not to be confused with the slew of Internet incubators that are racing to transform dotcom business plans into the next eBay. Its mission is to help create successful businesses of any variety — including, most recently, a systems-integration company, a magazine, and a janitorial service — that will help transform the economically depressed community of West Philadelphia. “Without a thriving business community, restaurants and retail stores won’t come to this neighborhood,” says Matt Bergheiser, 30, the center’s vice president. “We’re trying to lead the way.”
Located at the corner of Market and 45th Streets, the Enterprise Center already stands as a powerful symbol of urban renewal. The building in which the center is housed — a once-vacant, formerly graffiti-scrawled landmark — hasn’t been “tagged” by graffiti artists during the three years that the incubator has occupied it. In the 1940s, the building housed the first television studio ever constructed in the United States, and, starting in the 1950s, the structure was home to a local television show that became a national phenomenon: “American Bandstand.” That might explain why so many callers ask Della Clark, the center’s president, if she’s related to Dick Clark, that show’s longtime host. She isn’t. Indeed, she wasn’t even a fan of the show. But Clark, 46, who calls herself “the minister of entrepreneurship,” is a fan now.
By opening the Enterprise Center on the 40th anniversary of Bandstand’s national debut, the minister of entrepreneurship persuaded Dick Clark and Chubby Checker to participate in the opening — and garnered more publicity for the incubator than she would have dreamed possible. Tourists, including some of the show’s former dancers, still come by to see Studio B, which has been converted into a conference center.
A scoreboard in the center’s lobby illustrates how well the center did last year: Its 28 tenants and off-site business affiliates employed 291 people and generated $4.7 million in revenue. The day-to-day emphasis, however, is on helping disadvantaged-business owners to become role models for the predominantly African-American community of which the center is a part.
Clark makes clear to visitors that the center’s small-business owners face vastly more challenging obstacles than a typical MIT grad or a newly minted MBA — which is why her incubator, founded in 1989 with the support of the Wharton Small Business Development Center, is so hands-on. When a company joins the incubator, Bergheiser and the center’s coaching staff conduct an audit to identify the needs of the operation and of its entrepreneur. The coaches convinced Brodie that she should expand her services by training other examiners. As a result, she has placed more than 100 trainees in jobs that pay an average of $14 an hour.
Instead of signing a lease to join the center, business owners sign a social contract that requires them to participate in ongoing training and coaching. Tenants attend quarterly “Big Picture” meetings that help them establish short-term, concrete business goals, and every month they go to “Knowledge and Acknowledge” sessions that consist of lectures and the sharing of recent success stories among the incubator’s members.
Before moving into the center last year, Joe Boyd, 44, founder of Black Star Supply, was struggling to win new business. But in the past nine months, he’s doubled Black Star’s revenue. “There’s a big element of fear when it comes to starting a business,” says Boyd. “But you see other entrepreneurs doing it, and you realize, ‘I can do it too.’ “
For Clark, helping startups to prosper isn’t enough. If West Philly is going to change, she believes, then the center must nurture business owners of the future. Hence YES (Youth&Entrepreneurship=Success) , a program for children ages 12 to 19.
Lee Huang, 27, and Jeff Wicklund, 25, offer intro-to-business classes at seven Philadelphia public high schools, as well as at weeklong summer camps, weekend workshops, and after-school programs. The duo plans to open a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream franchise that will give the kids experience in running a real business.
Meanwhile, West Philly remains a work in progress. Persuading the incubator’s graduates to stick around isn’t easy. So far, all six of them have left the neighborhood because they were unable to find suitable office space. To keep them nearby, Clark plans to create an entrepreneurial campus, with new buildings that she hopes will attract midsize companies.
If Black Star continues to grow, Brodie will open a processing center and fill it with Clark’s trainees. Boyd plans to establish his company’s headquarters down the block from the Enterprise Center. “I have this vision of a nice facility with manicured grounds,” he says. “And people would say, ‘I know the man who owns that company. Mr. Boyd. He lives in the neighborhood.’ “
Contact Matt Bergheiser by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) , or visit the Enterprise Center on the Web (www.theenterprisecenter.com) .