The force behind a UH entrepreneurship program tells how it works.
From her offices at the University of Houston’s Bauer School of Business, microfinance expert Dr. Saleha Khumawala runs a program called Stimulating Urban Renewal through Entrepreneurship, or SURE, which matches MBA students with local entrepreneurs who need coaching businesses to off get the their ground.small The Houston Chronicle caught up with Khumawala to talk about how it works. Q: How did SURE get started? A:
The program started purely out of interest from the students. You cannot teach someone microfinance out of a textbook. We are an educational institution. We have never given loans. We are not a bank. But what we do is a lot more than money. The microfinance literature says that you give people money, and 98 percent of people pay back. But they all don’t go up to the next economic band. And the reason for that is, they don’t have that education, to take their business to the next level.
Our program, as it is now, started in fall of 2012. The entire academic year, it was a pilot program in the Greater East End. We learned from that about the community. And based on that experience, we launched a full-scale program. Our goals are to provide students with experiential learning, empathy and all the soft skills that are needed for the market. Q: What kind of entrepreneurs do you find out there to join the program? A:
The entrepreneurs that we find are those that are committed to their business idea or those that have an existing business and want to scale it but don’t know how. A highly educated woman came to us. She was a fitness guru but got laid off because of the oil crash and decided, “I’m going to start my own fitness studio, but I don’t know how.” Q: Are they mostly people of color? A:
Mostly people of color, or ‘under-resourced,’ that lack access to capital, access to education, to a network, to the marketplace. We have bakers, caterers, event planners, lawn mowers, repair guys, pest control, app developers. We have a very successful seamstress who tailors and designs clergy robes. We had an Episcopalian priest, and her business was going to be training clergy on giving sermons. We have a yoga studio, late-night cafes, hospices. And this is now the bread and butter for them. Q: Do you find that the folks you work with are overlooked? A:
Absolutely. We address the need that hasn’t been addressed to date, in terms of the communities that we serve. This semester, 80 percent are AfricanAmericans. Five hundred twenty-four have gone through our program, and we admitted 71 this semester. You have the Mayor’s Complete Communities project, and you have the Innovation District, and we are the bridge between the two. Q: When businesses become successful, do they tend to stay in the community? A: Yes, ours are all local. Just to give you an example, our chancellor, Renu Khator, wants to make the Third Ward a Tier One neighborhood, just like UH is a Tier One university. We have quite a few entrepreneurs who come from the Third Ward. And they come to us not just because of the education, but because they want to stay and start businesses and lift up the very neighborhood that they grew up in. Q: So it sounds like there’s a lot of work being done to integrate with the community. Do you feel that the University of Houston has been slow to do that? A: No. The College of Education has been working in the neighborhood for years. It’s not been slow; as a matter of fact it’s the other way around. We don’t get the coverage that we should be getting. Our College of Hotel and Restaurant Management does a lot. The students are very active, and the administration is behind it. You hear about Station Houston all the time, but we don’t get the coverage.
Project Rowhouses is part of the College of Arts. The College of Pharmacy does so much. Our College of Nursing. Architecture has the Community Design Resource Center, and they did all the planning for Emancipation Boulevard. The Law Center has a free legal clinic. Optometry does free eye screening. One of the things we are trying to do is have a hub where all of these resources that UH has for the community are in one place, so you just have to click. Q: I know you don’t give out money, but entrepreneurs do need money. So how do your participants get it? A:
We have relationships with all the lenders in town because our program is now known. It’s a full 14 weeks, and then their business plan is due. Every week is a topic, and at the end of that week, they’ve got to complete that part of their business plan. On the 14th week, they pitch. And then we have bankers — SBA lenders in town, Wells Fargo, the LiftFund, Peoplefund, Kiva, Capital One, Frost Bank has a very nice program for entrepreneurs that makes access to capital very easy. And they’re judging, like Shark Tank. But because they’re family, I call it an aquarium.
And the students develop empathy. In today’s marketplace, employers say, “Technical skills — we can teach them on the job. But we can’t teach empathy.” And empathy is the driver for innovation. So that gives them an advantage. They’re very employable.