Program provides one-on-one coaching to local entrepreneurs
A program funded by The Rapides Foundation has the goal of stimulating the Central Louisiana economy by helping local entrepreneurs transform their ideas into successful businesses that bring more money and jobs to the region.
Business Acceleration System is a comprehensive and coordinated entrepreneurial system that provides training, technical assistance, coaching and mentoring support services for local entrepreneurs and small businesses. In 2020, those services included helping local businesses navigate the unexpected challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic and in many cases, businesses were able to increase their profits by broadening their customer base by selling products and services online.
Through its Economic Development Initiative, the Foundation provides a grant to Louisiana Central, formerly the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, to administer the program. The goal of the Foundation’s Economic Development Initiative is to raise the household income of people living in Central Louisiana by improving the region’s capacity to produce higher-wage jobs for all income levels and generate more wealth in its communities. This supports its mission of improving the health status of Central Louisiana.
“Research shows that healthy economies with low unemployment rates and higher-wage jobs provide people with the means to purchase medical insurance, make better healthcare choices and live healthier lifestyles,” said Joe Rosier, President and CEO of The Rapides Foundation. The Economic Development Initiative was created in 2007.
BAS uses a multi-faceted approach that includes coaching, expert technical assistance, classroom learning and web-based instruction. BAS clients are evaluated to determine development priorities and BAS coaches help to design customized learning plans for each entrepreneur.
Today, BAS provides one-on-one coaching to approximately 65 entrepreneurs in Central Louisiana. They are selected through an application process headed by BAS Executive Director Gary Perkins.
In addition to its coached clients, BAS reaches hundreds more small business owners by offering free business- related trainings and resources to the general public. Last year alone, 748 participants attended the 42 trainings that BAS offered.
In the application process for potential coached clients, BAS looks for entrepreneurs who have the potential of selling products outside of the region and state, employing Central Louisiana residents, increasing their revenue and who are trying to grow a business they can sell or pass on to the next generation. “These are the drivers for the economy,” Perkins said. “We are growing the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
The underlying principle of its work is that building from within, building on the power of people in Central Louisiana, can create more jobs and more wealth than any other approach. Since the program’s inception, there have been almost 1,400 jobs created in the region by BAS entrepreneurs.
Once accepted into the BAS coaching program, entrepreneurs are assigned one of four coaches who help identify and develop the client’s strengths, mitigate weaknesses and capitalize on growth opportunities. Plans are customized for each coached client based on their current needs and level of business expertise. Topics covered range from financial management to marketing to human resources, depending on where the entrepreneur is in their business venture. “We give you what you need when you need it,” said Perkins, who serves as one of the four BAS coaches.
Clients meet with their coaches monthly, communicate almost daily and collaborate with other entrepreneurs to achieve the best results. Entrepreneurs are encouraged to bring in money from outside the region to stimulate the economy. That means thinking of creative ways to attract customers and clients from all over the world and staying ahead of the competition.
Neelaj Shah was invited to become a coached client after he wandered into the BAS offices to inquire about loading docks in the Alexandria area. In that chance meeting, Shah realized BAS could help him prosper as an e-commerce marketer and seller. In turn, BAS recognized Shah’s potential to attract customers from all over the world.
He became a coached client in early 2020, just as the pandemic hit. He worked virtually with his coach and interacted with his peers through Zoom meetings. Clients learned about Paycheck Protection Program opportunities and shared their experiences as they navigated the uncertain times.
“That’s my favorite thing about BAS. There is somebody in the group who knows someone you want to know or you need to know for your own business’s continued growth and success,” Shah said. “From contacts as basic to finding who owns a particular local business within your niche to contacts that can help entrepreneurs understand complex sales tax collection requirements or international export laws, tariffs and regulations, someone in BAS is in the know. These valuable contacts and connections truly expedite some of the more difficult parts of starting a business that can turn into major expensive time sinks, allowing entrepreneurs more time and energy to spend on building the core parts of their own businesses.”
Shah enjoys that BAS follows an abundance mentality. “The more you give, the more you receive. The more a participant contributes to the group ... the more peer participants can help by sharing their own experiences. Although at first sight, sharing such confidential and business-critical insights sounds detrimental, BAS is built with passionate entrepreneurs who are more interested in helping each other and sharing information about their businesses rather than taking from their peers.”
BAS emphasizes the importance of thinking ahead, and it’s one reason why many local businesses were able to survive and exceed expectations during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We constantly talk to our entrepreneurs about change – about how the way you are doing things today is not how you are going to be doing things in two or three years from now. You have to look two or three years down the road,” Perkins said. “All of a sudden, in 2020, that became a huge reality. You didn’t have two or three years; you had next week. The entrepreneurs who prepared for change, prospered.”
When the pandemic temporarily shuttered most businesses in March of 2020, BAS helped current and former clients discover ways to stay afloat.
“They had business owners calling for help, asking for guidance,” said Ashley Stewart, Director of Programs for The Rapides Foundation. “2020 was a very busy year trying to assist all of their clients with the unexpected challenges due to social mitigation and business closures. This speaks very highly of the quality of the program, to know that when clients are in a bind, they know BAS is a resource and that BAS has the expertise to provide them some assistance.”
Excel Driving Academy Owner Geneva Burrell got ahead of the competition by figuring out how to offer required classroom instruction online for her students. As a BAS coached client, she was already gaining knowledge about marketing, finances and tracking data to move her business forward. When the pandemic hit, she worked with Perkins and stepped outside her comfort zone.
“We sat dormant for a while and when things began to open up to a very small degree, Gary and I talked about what we could do differently that could help move the business forward so that we don’t stay stagnant,” she said. “If anybody had told me that I would have been doing virtual classes, I would have told them there was no way. But now I tell people if I could do it, anybody could. Gary encouraged me. He was the one who pushed me.”
Not only was Burrell able to continue providing driving instruction to her students, she gained customers from other parts of the state who were eager to gain their 30 hours of required classroom instruction remotely. That ability to get a jump on the competition allowed Burrell to thrive during a time when many businesses were struggling.
“I think where I stood out is that I was the only one in this area offering classes virtually. At the time, a lot of parents may have been a little apprehensive about allowing their students to come into a classroom setting,” she said.
When driving students complete their classroom instruction, they are required to take eight hours of instruction behind the wheel of a vehicle. Excel Driving Academy began offering its behind-the-wheel training when some COVID-19 guidelines were lifted. Students and instructors wore masks and gloves, and they drove in cars that were thoroughly sanitized after each use.
“I would recommend the BAS program to anyone that wishes to launch a business because they are going to coach you along the way,” Burrell said. “They are going to give you the tools and the resources that you need in order to be successful as long as you are willing to follow the program and follow through.”