Feature Article: Changing Chattanooga

–        Dave Doty

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Part 1 – Marketplace Revolution `13: A Partners Worldwide National Gathering

A couple of weeks back, I attended this Partners Worldwide event in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I spent most of Thursday with Scott Soltau (see “Adventures in Grace” in this issue), co-founder and visionary of LAUNCH Chattanooga. We spent time chatting about how Scott came to start LAUNCH with long time friend Hal Bowling and about Scott’s foray into a new business model in his own career. We also spent time visiting some of the businesses LAUNCH had helped get out of the gate (and stabilize) – a food truck business (see “I Have Fallen…But I CAN Get Up!” in this issue), a new barbecue restaurant (whose grand opening celebration took place while we were there), and a floral shop.

There was lull in the action in the afternoon, so Scott and I had ample time to get to know each other. On Thursday evening, we attended the graduation ceremony for more than thirty students who had recently completed LAUNCH’s ten-week entrepreneurs training program. Several participants already own their own small businesses and learned through the training how to stabilize and improve their businesses. Others developed business plans during the course and were preparing for their own business start ups.

On Friday we were treated to several speakers beginning with Rudy Carrasco, United States Regional Facilitator for Partners Worldwide. If you have never met Rudy, you should. His is an indomitable, infectious spirit with a big heart for serving the poor through business as ministry. He laid out Partners’ role in helping local agencies find and coordinate the resources they need to serve their own communities. Our second morning session was presented by Hal Bowling, Executive Director of LAUNCH Chattanooga. Hal outlined LAUNCH’s history and programs, highlighted several of their small business starts, and laid out their vision for the future. LAUNCH has created an effective model of small business development among the marginalized worthy of replication across the country.

The afternoon sessions included great biblical teaching by Robbie Holt, pastor of Mountain Fellowship, Dr. Brian Fikkert, Founder and Executive Director of the Chalmers Center at Covenant College and co-author of the now famous When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor or Yourself (2009). Fikkert’s challenge, holding up Chattanooga as an example in his talk “Two Chattanoogas” was that we should all become more critically aware of the divide between the have’s and the have-not’s . . . and do something about it. The afternoon ended with a respondent panel of Sheldon Grizzle of The Company Lab, Paul Green of Hope for the Inner City, and Lane Ford of North Shore Fellowship. The conference closed with a commissioning of attendees to take the charge of rebuilding lives and cities home with us.

To say the event was inspiring would be an understatement. Literally, during Hal Bowling’s presentation, the four of us in attendance from Atlanta (coincidentally sitting within arm’s reach of each other), representing four distinct agencies, were inspired to launch our discussions about forming a city-wide coalition of organizations to “to create a pipeline from economic vulnerability to vocational stability for at risk youth, adults, and neighborhoods.” Furthering that discussion is already being scheduled and will take place in the coming weeks.

LAUNCH has helped start or stabilize 29 new or young businesses in its short two year history. The excitement of those served in having a chance to start and run their own businesses is palpable. It should be no surprise that in years to come, many other cities will be able to point back to Chattanooga and LAUNCH for having laid solid footing for others to spread the Spirit and model from there.

Part 2 – I Have Fallen . . . But I CAN Get Up!

When you meet Julius (Jay) Burrows, you are instantly struck by Jay’s joyfulness and pride of being an independent business owner. Jay and his wife, Sukitha (Suki), are the owner / operators of All Dogs and More, a food truck, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I met them, and their son, recently at the food truck during a festival. The service is quick and friendly and the food is hot and good. But there is far more behind the big smile on Jay’s face.

As a young man, Jay served his community by helping with after-school programs, mentoring and tutoring school kids through the Young Life program. Along the way, however, he made some missteps and found himself facing drug charges and a prison sentence. The next thing you know, five years have passed and Jay re-enters the community. But he expresses gratitude for his prison experience. It was a wake-up call and motivated him to return to the path of faith from his early life and commit himself to making the most of opportunities.

After leaving prison, Jay soon found that his two jobs – driving a taxi and delivering newspapers – were not really letting him get ahead in life. But 2012 had some major changes in store. Jay was introduced to the LAUNCH Chattanooga entrepreneur training program. He started the ten week course in the spring of 2012. In July the same year, he married Sukitha Douglas. Suki brought fifteen years restaurant and food service experience to All Dogs and More and soon their dreams together started to materialize.

LAUNCH took Jay through the business planning process of narrowing his focus, honing the financial projections, in effect, crossing all the “t’s” and dotting all the “i’s.” Through the process, Jay also came into contact with A Better Tomorrow Executive Director Richard Bennett who helped him locate and purchase their food truck. All Dogs and More was on its way.

Jay is adamant about All Dogs and More being a family business and earlier this year Suki was able to leave her prior position and join him full time . . . and their dreams just keep growing. This fall they will open what they intend to be the first of many, many mall kiosk locations, and they dream even more of the possibilities if they can grow their kiosk model into a franchisable business.

One of the most rewarding things for Jay is that now he gets to facilitate other folk attending the LAUNCH entrepreneur training. He is giving back to the very program that put him in charge of his own destiny in such a short time since his prison release. Jay will be the first to tell you, the transition has been all God’s grace but if not for the folk who envisioned and started LAUNCH and Jay partnering with A Better Tomorrow, that grace might likely have been left unrealized.

At times when you are talking to Jay, he hesitates. You can almost see the wheels in his head turning. His eyes get a little distance in them. And you realize Jay is grateful because he knows that his is a story of the goodness of God manifest in the redemption of his own life.

Part 3 – Adventures in Grace

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. – Romans 8:28

Every once in a while you meet someone you are glad to call friend. Meet Scott Soltau. Born and raised by Christian missionaries in Japan, Scott has a long faith walk through the years of his life. Although his parents are Americans, “coming home” to the United States at age thirteen, Scott found himself on the “outside and invisible.” He had been raised in dual cultures. One was the closely knit culture of ex-pat missionaries. The other was the gracious surrounding Japanese culture of his youth. But in the States, he was an unseen foreigner. He looked like many of his school mates but their culture, as on-the-ground Americans, was new and foreign to him. He learned to adapt. He had to because he was the one who was different even if that difference was masked by his Anglo genetics.

Scott had been sensitized to the plight of the poor and to the importance of ministering to them as he was raised by missionaries . . . or so he thought. It would take nearly forty years for Scott to realize that in some ways he was not so different after all. As he practiced his career in finance, daily he drove past what Brian Fikkert, director of the Chalmers Center at Covenant College and co-author of When Helping Hurts, recently labeled the “other Chattanooga.” This mid-sized Tennessee city has a beautiful downtown and sits amidst the plush, rolling landscape adjacent to the northern border of Georgia.

Chattanooga has received prize after prize for its innovativeness in revitalizing its city center. And it gained acclaim for its benevolence through the publication of Dean Arnold’s book Old Money New South: The Spirit of Chattanooga (2006). Arnold delves into the city’s history as well as its philanthropic bent. He makes the case that Chattanooga may well have been the most generous city in the South in the 20th century. A city steeped in its Presbyterian and Coca-Cola histories, Chattanooga had all the appearances of being a model city worthy of replication across the country.

Scott relates that God’s grace was moving simultaneously on his heart and that of Hal Bowling, a long time friend. Scott had been deeply moved by Kiva founder Jessica Jackley’s talk about the poor at the 2009 Redeemer Ei Forum, and by a six minute YouTube video, “How Not to Help the Poor,” from the Acton Institute. At the same time, Hal was, to his surprise, asked to host an Ethiopian child for a year. He was reluctant but acquiesced. Grace was moving with intention!

Noticing Chattanooga’s growing national prominence, Scott commissioned a study by Dean Arnold to see how the extraordinary multi-generational philanthropic heritage of Chattanooga might be scaled for even greater impact and export to other cities in need. Charitable giving in the city eclipses the rest of the State of Tennessee combined, and that heritage can all be traced back to a single Presbyterian minister.  Today, there are more than 1200 non-profits in Chattanooga.

But the discovery process revealed a rather shocking fact: Chattanooga hosts twice the national average of families dependent upon government and charitable assistance. While Chattanooga features three highly acclaimed college prep high schools, it is also home to highly dysfunctional public schools, and the dysfunction of separation between cultural and social elites and the local poor.

Scott and Hal were suddenly dumbfounded and disheartened by that “other Chattanooga.” They were shocked that their opinion of Chattanooga had been veiled by the city’s charitable history while they were living in a community so highly incongruous with the iconic success model they had hoped to emulate in other places.

So Scott and Hal shifted direction 180 degrees. They pondered what might be done to help Chattanooga narrow that gap and put the whole city on a more level playing field. Having no template, they started digging and concluded that entrepreneurship training to the under-resourced communities would be the best way they could make a contribution. Redeemer pointed the Chattanooga pair to Rising Tide Capital (as Scott puts it, their “big brothers and sisters”), a New Jersey community development not-for-profit, which provides business development, financial services, and entrepreneurial training among the poor.

And grace kept rolling. In the same time frame that Scott and Hal were building a relationship with Rising Tide, Rudy Carrasco of Partners Worldwide (PW) approached Rising Tide. Partners had a robust international development program but sought Rising Tide’s help in developing a domestic program. Rising Tide pointed Carrasco to Scott and Hal. Soon after Carrasco and Partners Worldwide founder Doug Seebeck came and spent a few days with Scott and Hal in Chattanooga.

Those collaborations led Scott and Hal to co-found LAUNCH Chattanooga and later become Partners Worldwide affiliates. They developed entrepreneurial training curricula and started meeting with other local organizations interested in achieving the same kinds of goals. Perhaps that was the final key to the value of LAUNCH, as someone said during a recent Partners Worldwide / LAUNCH event: it takes a community to build a business. Since its founding, LAUNCH now partners with an array of local organizations and businesses such that the coalition is gaining steam in creating jobs by creating businesses. To date, LAUNCH has fostered 29 new businesses in Chattanooga in just its first two years.

In his journey of discovering the needs around him, Scott was energized to discover ways to share resources with what was a new community to him. He had been blessed serving the institutional fixed income community and was looking forward to investing in Chattanooga, especially in a way that would release the pent up energy and economic potential of the many who saw no way to positively impact their financial future and the trajectory of their lives. He had no idea his own story was about to take a big turn.

Grace was not done just yet. A year after starting LAUNCH, another friend of Scott’s, Walt Robinson, suddenly found himself no longer interested in his current situation with a startup company. They surveyed options of what they could do together as a next professional step. Banking and other financial institutions were going through series of rehabilitative tremors and, as Walt and Scott had worked together twice before, they decided to explore serving the investment community together.  As those discussions started, Scott had resigned his own position and fully anticipated he would simply pick up where he left off with another firm.  But having been a party to the beginnings of LAUNCH, he had an “AHA!” moment. He realized he did not want to be part of a big institution and set about writing a “perfect job” description for himself.  But that job did not exist and Scott doubted it ever could. He looked into various partnership opportunities and in a matter of days had finalized the agreements necessary to starting a new business that he and Walt could grow together. Thus was born Bridgepointe Capital, a community bank advocacy business geared toward advising bank portfolios.

Having started BridgePointe Capital, Scott and Walt soon realized there was a second channel that could benefit their clients.  Walt had been introduced to the JOBS Act while serving as a mentor during a Gig Tank competition.  Walt’s background, heading up a commercial lending department of a large regional bank, had shown him first-hand how many businesses in need of commercial loans fall just outside the qualifying criteria of the currently tightened credit policies of most banks.  If a particular bank has a checklist of twelve criteria (many dictated by restrictive state and national legislation), small businesses often meet ten or eleven but not all items, and their requests for credit are denied a majority of the time. The sad part was that very often the bank personnel really wanted to make the loan and maintain the relationship. That is how banks make their money and they realize they are missing out on strong opportunities. At the same time, if those businesses flounder or fail, the lack of credit access undermines the bank’s own local economies.  If I were to write a book about Scott and Walt pursuing this new channel, I would simply call it Lowering the Bar.

In many cases, the businesses rejected for loans need just a bit more of its own equity to be able to solidify the deal with the bank. That’s where Scott and Walt step in. They have created a new category of financial investment instruments using a community-based lending approach. BridgePointe Markets will publicize the capital campaign of the business. Accredited investors can buy in to shore up the gap in the capital raise and banks can do the rest. The beauty of these instruments is that everyone wins – the banks, the companies, the investors, and the communities. BridgePointe’s aim is to lower the threshold (bar) to those businesses just on the bubble of current credit practices. No one yet can reasonably predict what potential lowering that bar might unleash. And an exciting prospect is, as investors see these businesses continue to grow and serve their industries and their communities, they may be enticed to lower the bar even more, creating a cascade effect of business development and growth in their own communities.  As with LAUNCH, BridgePointe became another vehicle for serving the community, using “Business as Mission”.  Apparently, grace takes no rest (Psalm 1121:4).

At Scott spoke to me about his life, his involvement with LAUNCH, and BridgePointe, he consistently pointed to God’s grace as the catalyst. He recounted numerous events the world would call coincidence or happenstance. But Scott will have nothing of that. As he spoke of loss and redemption, several Scriptures came to mind but one stands out. The Prophet foretold that the Christ would come to “provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3, NIV).


 

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Filed under Exchange: The Journal of Mission and Markets, Faith in the Marketplace

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