SPRINGFIELD — There is a phrase Darrell C. Byers, Springfield native and CEO of Interise in Boston, repeats: “Work on your business, not in your business.”
What he means is that entrepreneurs and founders of small business — be they restaurants, health-care providers, transportation or home contracting — can get caught up in the day-to-day work and take their eyes off the strategic planning and long-term financial questions that make the difference in failure, survival and thriving.
As Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno puts it: “They might be the creator or the president and CEO of that business. But if they have to, they are mopping the floors, too.”
Byers and Interise have an answer Called the Streetwise MBA, it’s a seven-month program in which business people meet every other week for three hours, focusing on peer-to-peer mentoring, understanding financials and what projections are really saying, gaining access to capital and developing a three-year-growth strategy.
“If Massachusetts is going to continue to grow, number one we know that small business represents the majority of busines in the community,” Byers said. “When those busines grow, the economy of the entire commonwealth will grow. Something else we know through our course, 50% to 100% of people hired by our alumni are from the comunity. Those wages are paid in the community.”
His efforts are expanding in Western Massachusetts, designed for Black and Latino business owners who may not have the connections, the money to access loans nor the contacts to get hired as contractors by large companies and institutions.
Sarno points out that Byers, a graduate of Classical High School, still has family in Springfield and knows the region.
From Classical, Byers continued his education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. He went on to work in Boston and New York City, eventually starting his own company in the industrial filtration industry.
He did well, but the early 1990s recession did him in. Byers then started working in nonprofit fundraising for WGBH, then at the University of Massachusetts Boston and elsewhere. He’s been at Interise for just more than three years,
Since 2004, Interise has provided more than 9,000 small businesses with the Streetwise MBA in 80 communities from the greater Boston area in Massachusetts to Hawaii and Alaska. Interise companies have achieved great success, with average revenue growth of 36% and a job creation rate four times that of the private sector, according to Byers.
Black-owned businesses in minority neighborhoods whose owners graduated from the program also showed 70% growth in a three-year period.
“What we also see nationally is, after the pandemic, Black-owned business are closing twice the rate of white-owned businesses,” Byers said. The problems are that Black-owned business typically have less money in reserve to survive the continuing disruptions that have been witnessed over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interise has also provided since 2017 its Streetwise MBA curriculum for RiseUp Springfield, the business development program the city runs with Valley Venture Mentors with $35,000 a year in municipal funding.
Now, Byers and Interise are working with Urban League chapters in Boston and Springfield to bring its efforts to as many as 300 additional businesses, first in Springfield and Holyoke and, eventually, in other Gateway Cities across Massachusetts, including Pittsfield. The course is free to businesses.
The program is funded with $3 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding provided by the state. The recruitment of companies is already in progress.
“We know our program works,” Byers said.
Hope Ross Gibaldi, executive director of Valley Venture Mentors, said Interrise’ programs help people who went into business not for business, but to cook, or build or create.
Lena Redd, one of the owners of SouLao’d Kitchen on Page Boulevard in Springfield, is among 11 graduates of the most recent Streetwise MBA cohort at Springfield Rise Up.
The SouLao’d Kitchen in Springfield
“It might seem like its not worth it,” she said, “but you pick up so much information so fast. I learned that you really get to know yourself before you get to know your business.”
Frustration is natural, she said, but she urges others to never feel isolated as they pursue their business dreams.
“It’s just a matter of tapping into the resources,” she said. “You are never as alone as you think you are.”
Byers said a big part of the StreetWise MBA is aimed at getting small business ready to do business with large businesses. Dealing with government or institutional procurement offices can often be intimidating.
Interise also works to educate those potential customers.
“The thing you hear most is, minority-owned companies are not competitive,” Byers said. “They don’t understand what we need. We are taking away that view.”
Byers said his other goal is to increase minority representationin the cannibis dispensary industry. He’s already working with Springfield’s Payton Shubrick and her Black- and woman-owned Six Bricks.