Looking Beyond the Job, Investing in Entrepreneurship to Transform Lives and Communities | Maher & Maher
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Looking Beyond the Job, Investing in Entrepreneurship to Transform Lives and Communities

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In this 29-minute episode, host Rick Maher is joined by Alfa Demmellash, CEO and Co-founder of Rising Tide Capital, as well as Alex Forrester, Co-founder and Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Rising Tide, as they discuss the support that they offer entrepreneurs from disadvantaged communities to help them grow their businesses. Alex and Alfa reveal their holistic approach to supporting entrepreneurs, their vision for future partnerships with the workforce development system, and the efforts they are making to expand their model to other communities.

Episode Guest List:

Alfa Melesse DemmellashAlfa Melesse Demmellash is the CEO and Co-Founder of Rising Tide Capital. Born and raised in Ethiopia, she came to the United States at the age of 12 with a keen interest in poverty alleviation and conflict resolution. She graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 2003. Ms. Demmellash co-founded Rising Tide Capital in 2004 to empower underserved urban entrepreneurs in northern New Jersey to start and grow successful businesses.

Ms. Demmellash was named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2015. In 2009, she was selected and profiled as a CNN Hero, and recognized by President Barack Obama during a speech at the White House. She was recognized as one of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women Changing the World with Philanthropy in August 2012.

Connect with Ms. Demmellash on Linkedin.


Alex ForresterAlex Forrester is the Co-founder and Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Rising Tide Capital. Mr. Forrester graduated from Harvard University in 2004 with an accelerated bachelor of arts in postmodern philosophy and theology. Driven by an interest in social justice, entrepreneurship, and micro-finance, Alex co-founded Rising Tide Capital in May 2004 with his fellow Harvard classmate, Alfa Demmellash.

Rising Tide Capital has since achieved national recognition for its approach to economic empowerment of low-income individuals and communities through entrepreneurship. In 2009, the organization was selected as a CNN Hero and recognized by President Barack Obama in a White House speech on innovative non-profit organizations.

Connect with Mr. Forrester on LinkedIn.


Full Transcript of this episode:

Speaker 1:                          Welcome to Talent Talks. Each month, human resources veteran, Rick Maher, welcomes America's thought leaders to discuss ways to reinvent America's talent development and education systems. Tune in and discover how we can drive global competitiveness for future generations. Talent Talks is presented by Maher & Maher and IMPAQ International, who together are delivering research and evidence-based solutions to workforce challenges. And now your host, Rick Maher.

Rick Maher:                       Thanks for joining us today on Talent Talks, as we explore the world of workforce development with our nation's most prominent thought leaders on workforce and educational issues. Today's podcast, I think, really is something special. Again, this month, we're focused on local and regional leaders, those I call innovators in action—that are not just helping folks find work, they're helping communities move out of poverty. In this way, this is a nontraditional set of guests. They're not with government. They're not a Workforce Board, not a state or federal agency.

Rick Maher:                       Instead, this is a nonprofit that has a forward-looking view of how job creation just doesn't end in finding someone a job, or even some employer or a worker. Rather, our guests today are focused on building business opportunities through entrepreneurship, and in doing so, moving people out of generational poverty. Today, we're thrilled to have Alex Forrester and Alfa Demmellash from Rising Tide Capital in Jersey City, New Jersey, and I know you're going to love learning about their story. Alex and Alfa, welcome to Talent Talks.

Alfa Demmellash:             Thanks so much, Rick, for having us.

Alex Forrester:                  Thanks, Rick. Thrilled to be here.

Rick Maher:                       Yeah, pleasure to have you guys. I'm really excited about this session. Alex, let me start with you. By way of introductions, you're Rising Tide's chief strategy and innovation officer, as well as, I guess, a co-founder. And I've been just so impressed to learn about your vision and the work you guys are doing. Could you just start us off by telling us just a bit about Rising Tide? What is Rising Tide? What's your focus and work force? Just tell us a bit about your story and your offerings, Alex.

Alex Forrester:                  So Alfa and I co-founded Rising Tide Capital about 15 years ago. We are headquartered in Jersey City in New Jersey. We're a nonprofit organization focused on working in low-income communities, with the people that live there, who have a dream or an aspiration to start or grow a business, and our goal is to help them to do just that. We are really working with a segment of the entrepreneurial market, really focused on those who are unemployed, underemployed or otherwise really in the context of working poverty, which I think is really important way that informs the way that we design and deliver our services.

Alex Forrester:                  In a nutshell, the way that we work with our entrepreneurs is, many people may be familiar with microfinance or small business loan funds or otherwise, we are focused on the human capital investments that are needed to make sure that the financial capital that is out there can be truly catalytic. So Rising Tide Capital provides high-end business management education and year-round consulting services and support to entrepreneurs coming from disadvantaged communities, with the goal of helping them start and grow businesses that create jobs and economic opportunity for themselves, their families and their communities. At this point, we've grown significantly over the years, we now work with over 1,000 entrepreneurs a year, across six cities in New Jersey in multiple languages.

Alex Forrester:                  We're continuing to push forward and try to make our programs available and accessible to as many as possible. But I think, the connection with workforce is an important issue. And I think what matters here in terms of understanding this is that we're focused here on job creation and economic opportunity, which is the clear point of connection. What we really believe is that we need a holistic approach when it comes to these issues. That of course includes a focus on workforce development, connecting people to careers and to career readiness opportunities. But we also need to be looking at entrepreneurship, both as a form of self-employment and as a job creation engine for others.

Alex Forrester:                  And for a variety of reasons, we see a lot of opportunity in the future to really push forward on the connection between these issues, and we see ourselves as allies in the field.

Rick Maher:                       That's awesome, Alex. I'm so impressed with the mission of Rising Tide, and your guys' view of looking beyond the job. Beyond the job, trying to help create opportunities in communities and in fact, impact against generational poverty. I know that you're, I think, celebrating your 15 year anniversary, so congratulations and kudos to you and Alfa. Alfa, as CEO and co-founder of Rising Tide, you share the credit for this thing, so kudos to you as well. I noticed from your website where you share performance reports publicly, and I love that, that your entrepreneurs created 420 jobs in 2017 alone, that's staggering. What's your secret sauce here, do you think Alfa? How does the program work? And where do you find your candidates?

Alfa Demmellash:             Thanks, Rick. It's certainly staggering to us to see it in black and white and see businesses and entrepreneurs creating local jobs. I will say that the secret sauce is really in our understanding, from early on, from what Alex said as well, that [there is] working poverty and poverty in neighborhoods and communities across the US, many of whom are adjacent to really prosperous areas, and we-

Rick Maher:                       Yeah?

Alfa Demmellash:             Yeah, and we started out thinking, Hey, a rising tide can lift all boats. There is that saying, a rising tide lifts all boats, and that's actually how we got our name. But we do need to build boats. I think as children of entrepreneurs ourselves, something that Alex and I keenly understood from early on is that entrepreneurship and small business ownership is not a solo sport. And so what we understood was that it wasn't a matter of individuals going out there and trying to navigate the complexities of a rising tide of economic opportunity. That we needed robust resources that are available to as many people as possible, to educate them on business management. But more than that, to really build a long-term platform where they can continue to connect to resources as their businesses change and grow with the marketplace.

Alfa Demmellash:             And so the key to our success, there have been a couple of things. One is that we have a huge number of community partners. We really take an ecosystem approach, and so whether it's mapping our communities to see who has available retail space, who has co-working spaces, especially in today's world. Back when we were starting out, it was really about incubators. And so looking at the financing landscape to see that it's not one product fits all, even whether it's alone or other types of financial products, that we really have to look at the whole thing holistically. So we have an impressive array of partners, over 150 of them, who are community based, who enable us to build trust with most entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Alfa Demmellash:             Who I'm sure you can appreciate are often reticent when they hear that there is either a nonprofit or some entity trying to help them, because by and large, they're trying to start their businesses or grow their own jobs, because they have little trust in others, perhaps, stepping up to do things with them. So it's really a partnership-based approach. It's an ecosystem-based approach. And then the last thing that I will say is, what we discovered early on was that when we talk about entrepreneurship and small businesses, we have a really confused idea about who we're talking about. If you go to the Small Business Administration, small businesses in the manufacturing sector could range up to 500 employees, and in the service sector, up to 300 employees.

Alfa Demmellash:             But the vast majority of small businesses in the US or the entrepreneurs we're talking about, are at about 10 employees on average.

Rick Maher:                       Absolutely.

Alfa Demmellash:             Yeah. So they need different kinds of services than a firm that has 50 or more employees. And I think a vast many of the resources that are out there for small businesses or entrepreneurs are either looking at really much larger employers or your Mark Zuckerbergs and Facebooks of the world. And so the story of American entrepreneurship where [there are a] vast many jobs that keep our community stable, and that provide that first job, that provide that ladder out of economic poverty, has really gotten away from us. And that's the thing that I think we've been laser-focused on over the past 15 years. To make sure the story is a little bit more balanced, and that we're realistic about the kinds of support that helps stabilize and grow local businesses.

Rick Maher:                       Yeah, I mean, that's so true. And again, I think one of the things that impresses me about what you guys are doing is you understand the community that you're working with and the types of support that these folks need, and you also understand the opportunities that are present for them. I love the fact that you're sector driven. You have certain sectors where you've proven yourselves to be successful, and where these folks can provide services and make money, frankly, by serving the community they live in, and those prosperous communities, as you say, that surround them. So it's so interesting to me, and you guys are just spot on. I love it.

Rick Maher:                       It would seem that the public workforce system would be a natural partner for you guys, in at least finding and screening candidates. I don't know, I mean, have you been able to form partnerships with the workforce system that have been helpful to you? Or just take a few minutes and talk to us about your experience in engaging with the public workforce system as part of what you do.

Alfa Demmellash:             Absolutely. I'll start and let Alex chime in as well. Early on, I mean, literally day one of our start actually began in conversation with the employment training office, right here in Jersey City where we started. Definitely, our interest had been laser-focused on understanding what's happening with the jobs that are available in a community. We have such high unemployment rates, particularly in the neighborhoods and communities where there is a concentration of poverty. And so the conversation started there, but we haven't really been able to move it beyond that beginning point. It's something that we're very interested in and focused on now, especially as the economy changes. Alex, did you want to chime in?

Alex Forrester:                  Over the years, we have had an opportunity to work closely with the public workforce system primarily through the One-Stop centers, and making sure that those who are currently experiencing unemployment are aware of the opportunity to connect with organizations like Rising Tide Capital, and to pursue a self-employment option. We've been thrilled by the connections we've had, but really, what we see is that there's so much more opportunity. The work that colleagues of ours do in the field of small business and entrepreneurship, and our colleagues on the other side in traditional workforce development are, I think, unnecessarily separated by some things that I haven't entirely been able to understand.

Alex Forrester:                  But I think that there's a huge amount of opportunity to try to bring these two fields of practice closer. Nearly 70% of net new jobs in the country come from small businesses, and simultaneously, the labor market itself is being transformed as we move into the digital industrial revolution. We really need to creatively work to erase the silos between these fields, and see the ways in which the future of work is going to be more entrepreneurial. And entrepreneurship represents an increasingly important source of job creation and economic opportunity in the future. Some of the things that will bring our fields closer together are very, very small and technical details. Some of them are more at the vision level.

Alex Forrester:                  But all in all, I think this is the time to be talking about this issue, and that's why I'm so glad to be talking with you today.

Speaker 1:                          Thank you for listening to Talent Talks, presented by Maher & Maher and IMPAQ International. For more information on what is being done to position America's workers, employers, and communities for future prosperity, sign up for our newsletter at mahernet.com/talenttalks. That's M-A-H-E-R-N-E-T.com/talenttalks.

Rick Maher:                       Hopefully, this session is going to do the job to get this message out, and let some of these really forward-looking leaders in the workforce system connect these dots. Because I can tell you that there are people out there that will see this potential really as great in the communities they serve, regardless of the fact that it isn't the traditional person in their intake office. And so I'm hopeful that we can get your message out. Aligned with that, guys, I think I know from our earlier conversations that while you're embedded and started in Jersey, and you've expanded throughout New Jersey, you are now in fact, expanding the Rising Tide model outward from New Jersey into other states.

Rick Maher:                       Is that right? Can you just speak briefly about what you're trying to do to kind of move beyond New Jersey?

Alex Forrester:                  So we are really, really excited about this part of the work ahead. As we survey the landscape out across cities around the country, there are cities that have organizations, states that have organizations like Rising Tide Capital, that are strong partners and allies in this work. But there are so many communities around the country that don't have a solution in place to provide really high quality business education and support services to the entrepreneurs in those communities. And we see it as an opportunity that is really important that we address as a country for the future, in the context of the future of work and economic opportunity and fighting inequality.

Alex Forrester:                  So as we look at the places where this work is needed, but isn't currently happening, the traditional way would be for a Rising Tide to get really good at fundraising and try to find support to open up new chapters and offices and other locations, but we are intentionally pursuing a very different path. We have spent the past few years packaging our model, the curriculum, all of the infrastructure that wraps around it, the forms, the procedures, the policies, the outcome tracking databases. And we have packaged it into a white-label model that we are offering up to groups in other communities, other cities, other states around the country that see a need for this kind of work to happen in their community, and want to get started.

Alex Forrester:                  Our goal is to lift up what we've done, and to help those groups get started 10 years ahead of where we had to start. So they don't have to recreate the wheel. We're offering it as a private-label license, so that it really acts as a platform for others to build it on top of and innovate on top of and push the leading edge of the field out alongside and in partnership with us. And our goal is to essentially walk with organizations that are looking to start this journey, and help support them through the first two or three years. Training them in the model, supporting as they get up and growing. Try to help connect them to sources of funding.

Alex Forrester:                  And really see the emergence of a strong field around the country where entrepreneurship education and support is being provided, specifically customized for low-income entrepreneurs who are most suited to create jobs and economic opportunity in an inclusive way from within the communities where this is most needed. So we have gotten started already in the south side of Chicago. We're launching in Charlotte and Charleston in the coming months, and we are looking to connect with partners in other parts of the country that are looking for this kind of solution. And we'd be thrilled to connect with anybody that's looking to learn more.

Rick Maher:                       That's amazing. And Workforce Boards, I think can be a real partner in connecting those dots, too. So we're going to make sure we end this by making sure people know how to reach you guys. But before we do that. I've been impressed about a lot of things with the two of you, but one of the things I'm maybe most impressed to learn about is your focus on the future of work. I know you traveled to Davos, and believe that it was there that you kind of learned a lot about the future of work. I'd really love it if each of you could, just in a few minutes, share a bit about your Davos experience. What did you learn there? And how did it inspire you?

Alfa Demmellash:             It's really a wonderful connection of a lot of things that we've been thinking about, but when we went to Davos, it did have the impact of helping us zoom out from the focused, hyper-local place-based strategy, to seeing the larger picture and the larger trends that are converging. And many of our funders who are foundations and corporate entities, as well as governmental advocates, they are at Davos. And so having the kinds of conversations at a really high level to see what's emerging, and the fact that trends and technology, exponential technology, like artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, will have a radical impact on the workforce, not just in the US but globally.

Alfa Demmellash:             This is something that I think more of us need to be aware of, and not just because it represents threats, but also for the opportunities it poses. Seeing is believing, we've been reading a little bit about it. When we got to Davos, and were having interactions with the socially aware robotic assistant, and were able to stand in a room and be able to have an augmented reality experience of the human body or the universe or how a building is getting built by teams across the globe. It made us realize, we are in for massive, rapidly accelerating shifts. I think the good thing for us and where we see the opportunity is in that many of our largest supporters, including groups like J.P. Morgan Chase, who are in finance, but get to see all of the different dimensions of the economy.

Alfa Demmellash:             And so there are firms like Accentra, IBM, etc, who are really investing heavily in better understanding what this future of work represents, are also some of the groups that are most well poised to understand what this means for new business creation, for new skills, and how it is that we equip the workers of the future, but also those that are currently employed, who may be facing dislocation, that we need to accelerate our efforts. In fact, it's played a major role in our decision to expand nationally more quickly than perhaps we even thought we would, but I think there's an urgency here that we all can see, yeah.

Rick Maher:                       There is an urgency, absolutely. That's great. I think you guys are so fortunate to have had that experience, and I know you feel that way, because I've heard you say it. I think that our listeners are fortunate to at least be able to hear from you, what that experience has done for you and to you. As you say Alfa, to kind of like, give you a sense of urgency and respond. I love that. And I know that in part, you are taking your experience at Davos to another venture you're calling Future Tide Partners initiative. What is that? And what are you doing with that? And how did Davos trigger you?

Alfa Demmellash:             Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, we got started 15 years ago, understanding a rising tide can lift all boats, but the Davos experience really brought it home that we need to understand the future tide, and we need to better grasp what opportunities are available to us, and what the boats of the future need to look like. So Future Tide Partners, which is a new initiative. We're really excited about it and certainly talking to people like you and others with deep workforce talent management experience, as well as business creation is helping us to convene leaders, cross-sector leaders in policy and business and in the governmental sector and public policy sector.

Alfa Demmellash:             To bring people together to create a level of awareness about what's actually happening with the technologies that are currently here, and how they affect, not only kind of the future of work within the next 10 years or so, but really the current state of affairs in the job market, and who's vulnerable, in what areas and what sectors. And we believe this requires tremendous collaborative skills. And so you can learn more about it on futuretide.org. But we're equipping leaders and institutions to shift culture, policy, and capital in this rapidly changing world of work towards a more inclusive, flourishing future economy.

Alfa Demmellash:             And most importantly, and I'm sure, Rick, you'll appreciate this, we need vision. And I think a lot of leaders, both at Davos, some of the leaders of the biggest, most impressive companies, what we've sensed is that they are hyper-focused on the short term, because that's really what is being called for in their roles, in their jobs, even though they understand the implications of looking at the long term implications of their quarterly decision. They are really not necessarily able to be as nimble as perhaps social entrepreneurs like us and entrepreneurs in smaller businesses on the ground can be, to really innovate. And in order to do that, we need awareness. We need data. We need vision, and the courage to act.

Alfa Demmellash:             Because as we said, it is urgent and we want jobs, not only for those who are currently marginalized and underemployed, but we need jobs for communities across this country, well into the future.

Rick Maher:                       Yeah. I think you guys are a breath of fresh air, Alfa and Alex. I think that your work today with Rising Tide, your proven model that's impacting 1,000 entrepreneurs a year and hundreds of jobs created in New Jersey. Your ability to package that now and offer it out and begin to have an impact bringing that impact to scale around the US, and now this new initiative of yours, Future Tide Partners, to bring really high-profile folks together in a room and say, "What exactly is the future of work?" And while, yes, we have to meet our numbers this quarter, we got to keep one eye out there. And what's it mean to us, as you say Alfa, what does the future boat need to look like to avoid having entire parts of our population left behind.

Rick Maher:                       I'm loving it. I hope and believe that having you today will begin to get your message out there. I wouldn't be at all surprised if you find other partners that want to learn more, connect with you guys and kind of build off of your energy. And so as I thank you for being with us and partnering with IMPAQ/Maher on Talent Talks, let me just give you the opportunity to tell us, if folks want to follow you, if they want to connect with you personally or on a business level, what's the best way for people to connect with Rising Tide and with each of you?

Alfa Demmellash:             Absolutely. And our deepest gratitude to you for what you're doing and getting the message out and getting others to engage. Anyone who's interested in learning more about Rising Tide Capital could go to our website, risingtidecapital.org. We're also on social media, on twitter @risingtideorg. So people could really learn about our efforts and our national program partnerships there as well. And then for those who are interested in connecting in person, we'll be having our largest event, a beautiful gathering for restorative investors and entrepreneurs at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey on November 13. That's our live event. It's an annual event that brings our entire community together as well.

Alfa Demmellash:             People could connect with us personally on LinkedIn, both Alex and I have LinkedIn accounts. And then the other thing is for those who are interested on the issue of the future of work, futuretide.org has launched a couple of weeks ago. And so we have a website, and the main purpose of it is to let people chime in, share with us their thoughts and resources and ideas that they have. We feel like this is the best way for us to activate, to listen together and to learn together and reimagine the future.

Alex Forrester:                  And Rick, if I can just mention, if anyone is listening and interested in figuring out how to bring the Rising Tide model to their community, they can go and find out more information and contact us at partnerships.risingtidecapital.org.

Rick Maher:                       That's awesome, guys. I mean, the two of you are really high energy, really smart, and I'm just really grateful that you've chosen to invest your time today with us. I appreciate it, and all of us here wish you the best of luck. You're doing important work. We're going to keep our eye on you, because I have a feeling big things are coming from both of you here in Jersey. Thanks again for joining us guys.

Alfa Demmellash:             Thanks so much, Rick.

Alex Forrester:                  Thanks so much, Rick, means a lot. I appreciate it.

Alfa Demmellash:             Appreciate it. Take care.

Rick Maher:                       Absolutely. So folks, until next time at Talent Talks. This is Rick Maher thanking you for listening, and reminding you that at Talent Talks we hope to explore, inform and inspire you, because we're all actors in a global war for talent. One where talent is seen as the new global currency, and you are America's talent investment bankers. So we hope we've inspired you to take a risk, make a difference. We hope you'll dare to be great. Break something and make it better. Try, fail, but fail fast and try again. Thanks again for listening and have a great day. We'll see you next month on Talent Talks.

Speaker 1:           You're listening to Talent Talks, presented by Maher & Maher and IMPAQ International, who together provide research and evidence based solutions integral to planning, developing and managing America's workforce development system. For more information on what is being done to position America's workers, employers and communities for future prosperity, sign up for our newsletter at mahernet.com/talenttalks. That's M-A-H-E-R-N-E-T.com/talenttalks.


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