A program launched by a West Philadelphia community development organization aims to help small businesses get off the ground and into the vacant storefronts along Lancaster Avenue and other commercial corridors.

Between storefront damage sustained during the 2020 protests and financial woes wrought by the pandemic, West Philadelphia’s Lancaster Avenue has lost some 30 businesses out of roughly 180 along the corridor in the last year, according to Kwaku Boateng, executive director of the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association, or LA21.

The Change Program, which launched as a one-year pilot in early March, is an intensive training offered by LA21 — in a partnership with Marci Smith Consulting — that prepares Philadelphians with the information, skills, and emotional intelligence they need to create and sustain a successful small business. The LA21 organization, founded in 2008, has more than 200 members and focuses on Lancaster Avenue from 34th Street to Lansdowne Avenue and Market Street from 34th to 38th Streets, according to the nonprofit. The Change Program, however, is open to any aspiring business owner across the city and the surrounding counties.

Marci Smith, a career transition coach who leads the program, said it teaches individuals to think beyond the traditional steps to starting a new venture and looks to uncover an underlying motivation. “This program is not about starting a business and getting registered; it’s more about making sure you’re clear in your vision,” Smith said. “On this journey, the hardest part is getting started. You can’t really focus if you’re not clear.”

The program offers ongoing mentorship and dovetails with a slate of the programs provided by LA21 to give support to the city’s small business owners as they seek to scale up.

“We see a gap in services offered to aspiring entrepreneurs. Many people who dream of business ownership aren’t ready to fit into existing training programs offered throughout the city,” said Boateng.

LA21 and Smith hope to run three cohorts throughout the yearlong pilot but need to secure additional funding. Because it’s currently taking place entirely over Zoom, there is no limit to how many individuals the program can accommodate. There is no application process, but participants in the program must first attend a one-time Zoom meeting called the Change Workshop.

Both the Change Workshop and Program are free to all participants. “Right now, we don’t want to use any form of criteria to create a barrier to entry,” said Boateng, adding, “No idea is silly or stupid.”

At the beginning of the program, participants attend online meetings two nights a week for three weeks, during which Smith uses a trauma-centric approach to teach participants how to get beyond their resistance to change. In the following project-based learning module, participants hone their business idea and begin to put it out in the world to test its viability.

“We’re going to hold your hand, but we’re not going to enable you,” Smith said, noting that after the program, LA21 will seek to partner participants with volunteer community coaches who have experience running successful businesses.

The program kicks off its initial set of regular meetings on March 16, so it’s not yet clear how many participants will enroll. A pre-pilot test of the program in the fall attracted some 10 individuals looking to start businesses. Those enterprises were focused on such areas as small office cleaning, a dog bakery, beauty and hair products, food and beverage, and candle making.

Nga El worked with Smith in the pre-pilot last fall to hone the concept for her practice, Nga El Holistic Beauty, which espouses natural anti-aging methods and prolonging cosmetic treatments.

“Marci helped me ground what it is that I do, see if it’s something that’s viable in the market, and find a way to differentiate myself amongst the other women in my lane,” said El, who has launched her holistic beauty method online and is still working on monetizing and scaling her business. “When the hard times do come, my house is not built of straw or paper, but is built of something very solid.”

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