By some measure, Baltimore’s entrepreneurship economy is heading in the right direction. Startup activity in the city has increased by 7.4 percent since 2010, more than double the national average over that period, according to a report by the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. Meanwhile, 51 companies in the greater Baltimore area made Inc. magazine’s 2015 Top 5,000 list, which ranks the fastest-growing private companies in the country.
However, those promising economic figures mask some serious economic and racial challenges that linger in America’s Charm city. More than a quarter of the city’s African-American population, for instance, still lives below the poverty line, almost double the rate for Caucasians. In addition, Baltimore’s African American population faces a markedly higher unemployment rate, according to Al Jazeera.
Previously under the radar, the well document riots last year (fueled by the death of local resident Freddie Grey) cast the national spotlight on some of these economic and social challenges plaguing the city’s black community.
But there’s another story – a much more uplifting one – playing out behind the scenes in Baltimore. In order to combat poverty and create new employment opportunities for underserved residents, some of the city’s leaders have been working to sow the seeds of entrepreneurship in Baltimore’s oft-overlooked neighborhoods.
“Entrepreneurship, regardless of where you’re from, is important, especially in African-American communities,” explained Omar Muhammad, director of Morgan State University’s Entrepreneurial Development Assistance Center. “Where there are black entrepreneurs in black communities, there is less crime and more jobs.”
Through his position at the university, Muhammad oversees programs that help students, staff and local residents launch successful businesses. He and his team also run an annual conference for youth that teaches individuals from marginalized communities about the importance of entrepreneurship and the skills they need to start a small business. Over the years, he has seen firsthand how entrepreneurship can improve underserved minority neighborhoods.
“Giving people the tools and skills to create their own jobs has a domino effect on the community,” he said. “People who start businesses are more likely to hire locally, but many may not consider starting a business because they’re not sure how to do it.”
Research supports the idea that small businesses play a key role in transforming struggling minority neighborhoods. Entrepreneurs are a catalyst for economic growth and also play a role in lowering youth violence and crime rates, according to an academic study published in Urban Affairs Review. Black-owned businesses also serve as role models and mentors for would-be entrepreneurs, the report’s authors found.
Spurring entrepreneurship in Baltimore’s African-American communities is no easy task, and thankfully, Muhammad isn’t alone.. A non-profit group called the Our D.R.E.A.M. (Developing Resources to Empower All Minds) Foundation has started offering a summer entrepreneurship program called Y.E.S. (Youth Entrepreneurship Startup Program) to students in underserved communities, and the city recently launched a program called the Mayor’s Mentor Protégé Program designed to help new, minority-owned businesses strike partnerships and work with well-established companies throughout the region.
Entrepreneur Rasheed Aziz is well aware of the benefits of entrepreneurship. His organization, City Wide Youth Entrepreneurship Program, launched in 2005 and teaches young people – many from inner city neighborhoods – fundamental business skills, including the ins and outs of running a small company.
Aziz finds that his students are eager to learn and looking for business guidance, and hopes the initiative will inspire them to become business owners in the future. With support from community partners, some 200 students have graduated from the program since its inception, most of them black or Hispanic.
“Our goal is to help reduce violence in the inner cities by utilizing entrepreneurship as a strength,” Aziz explained.
While not every student who participates in these types of programs will immediately find success in the business world, Aziz believes that initiatives like these teach fundamental business skills that will help Baltimore’s residents in all facets of their lives. In particular, they help participants develop community relationships that mitigate violence and strengthen neighborhoods.
“Violence primarily exists because of destitution and hopelessness, and that’s why we created and focused on entrepreneurialism to revitalize the inner city,” he explained. “It helps people find ways to create a future of their own.”
Muhammad agreed, adding: “People are looking for opportunities where they can take care of their families and themselves. Helping people start their own business and create that self-reliance is how we help do that.”