Mildred Franco

“When school started last August (2020), 70% of the kids in Pine Bluff opted for remote learning instead of in-person. By mid-October 68% had not even logged into the system.”

Our community does not have adequate broadband, our city is what they called underserved. In the U.S. in the 21st century, inadequate broadband is leaving behind underserved communities like ours. It is time that broadband becomes a utility. Our kids cannot afford to miss a month or two of school, let alone a year until they can go back to school again. 

Most of our community, 78% to be precise, is African American and to say that we have been adversely affected by Covid-19 – in one of the supposedly most powerful countries in the world – is an understatement.”

Mildred Franco is an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where she runs The Generator, an innovation hub powered by Go Forward Pine Bluff focused on supporting local entrepreneurs through programs and raising the level of digital skills.

I didn’t know there was a thing called “ecosystem building”. I was just doing the work.

“When I took this job, I had previously been an entrepreneur myself for 25 years in Pine Bluff; I had experienced the realities of being a small business owner firsthand and I knew that there was little support for small businesses. I knew how important it was to create an environment where entrepreneurs feel supported. At the time I didn’t know that the Kauffman Foundation had already had their first ESHIP Summit or that there was a thing called “ecosystem building”. I was just doing the work; I never knew that there was a title attached to it.

I knew that we needed to create an environment where entrepreneurs are at the center of the ecosystem.

I took this role because of my own personal experience and because I knew the community well. I had a firm grasp of what was in place and what wasn’t. Then you add to the fact that a lot of the entrepreneurs who really need help are Black entrepreneurs and you get the full picture. The majority are not necessarily wealthy; they are lacking basic resources to start companies in an environment where the educational system is failing them. I knew that we needed to create an environment where entrepreneurs are at the center of the ecosystem.

It hasn’t been an easy path and we’re still not there. I think the work that we do as ecosystem builders is not fully understood, and therefore it’s not fully supported. However, I’m optimistic that the more we talk about it, the more we spread awareness, the work will be better understood, and the support will follow.”

Pine Bluff, Arkansas: Challenges in underserved rural communities

“In the late 1800s, Pine Bluff had the fourth largest black business community in the U.S. People here were very entrepreneurial; they barely had any resources, but they made it work! Part of that spirit is still deeply ingrained in our community; we just need to find a way to unlock it and bring it back! 

For example, if you don’t come from an environment where you’ve seen your aunt, uncle, mother, father, your brother, or your sister creating a business and making it work, then how would you know how to do any of it? I think our local schools have a lot of potential to include more entrepreneurial training into their curriculum. We have a state-wide startup competition for middle school students but kids from Pine Bluff don’t participate because entrepreneurship education has not been made a priority.

The median wealth of a white family in America is more than ten times the median wealth of a Black family.

I often get the sense that the economic development approach in our area is very much focused on attracting and retaining large companies instead of supporting small businesses. You have to support the entrepreneurs who are struggling to get their idea off the ground. What about the ones who have been in business for a while but can’t get the right traction? The ones that might just need a little bit of updating to become competitive again? Maybe all they need is a bit of clarity. Sometimes it’s just a matter of looking at their business with a new lens – they might be targeting the wrong customer segment or need some help in creating different revenue streams.

Put on top of that the racial wealth gap that prevents Black business owners from accessing capital: the median wealth of a white family in America is more than ten times the median wealth of a Black family! 78% of Pine Bluff’s population is African American. So even if they received the entrepreneurship curriculum and training that is available to their counterparts in other parts of the state, African American entrepreneurs do not have the same level of access to startup capital! 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look much better when we look at business support and technical assistance. We have started developing a foundational curriculum to provide some basic insights into incorporation & legal structures, bookkeeping, marketing, customer discovery. The few support organizations that we have in Pine Bluff cater to the needs of established, large businesses, but not to the very early-stage talent. We are trying to fill that gap at the front end of the pipeline with a makerspace which we just recently opened, digital programming, and soon a 12-week program about creating a business.” 

Meeting your community where they’re at

“For me it’s about creating and or facilitating programs that support entrepreneurs at all stages of their business. I’m not swimming in cash, so I try to take advantage of all the support that is available through state and national programs and try to bring as much of it as possible to our community.  

I have to meet my community where they are so I can lead them to where I think they need to be.

For example, we were selected to be in the first cohort of the Rural Innovation Network by the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) which was a real blessing! Matt Dunne and his team put a lot of work into creating programming that would amplify existing efforts in rural communities. Unfortunately, we are not always able to take full advantage of those programs because we’re not quite ready to implement. Capacity is an issue for us. Between the lack of education and training opportunities, access to capital and technical assistance combined with the silos in which the few existing support organizations operate, our community is simply not there yet. But we will continue to work every day to move it forward.

This work can be pretty lonely.

I have to meet my community where they are so I can lead them to where I think they need to be or they want to be. I first need to build trust. And you only build trust with people when you are meeting them where they are, when you try to understand why they are where they are, and what they need to get unstuck and move ahead. I’m learning about CORI’s approach to digital economy systems knowing full well my community cannot fully participate yet because we lack broadband. However, CORI has selected us to participate in a broadband planning opportunity which we’re taking full advantage of. Hopefully, we’ll be able to have that plan ready sometime this year and see where that goes.”

How can we support you?

“Keep showcasing different ecosystem builders and telling their stories! It’s so important because I don’t think people understand the complexity of the work and how many different voices and experiences are needed to help us figure out what works!

Everybody’s work is different. But everybody’s work has that little nugget of information that I get from reading an article or listening to a podcast. It’s important, because this work can be pretty lonely, like entrepreneurship itself, especially when you’re building an ecosystem where the people who need to be in the ecosystem don’t fully understand what it is. 

None of us can achieve anything alone, we can only do great things in a community, for a community, and by the community when we all work together.

The more we give diverse voices from the field a platform to be heard, the better off we all are! The more people understand that we are trying to build entrepreneur-centric solutions, and that everyone is welcome – and, in fact, needed – to contribute, the more we will support each other in pulling in the same direction. Because none of us can achieve anything alone, we can only do great things in a community, for a community, and by the community when we all work together.”