NEW BRUNSWICK-BASED INTERSECT FUND HELPS LOW-INCOME ENTREPRENEURS
By Bob Makin/myCentralJersey.com
October 25, 2011
CENTRAL JERSEY — New Brunswick increasingly is a tale of two cities: development and opportunity for some, employment challenges and other economic hurdles for others.
While reporters for Rutgers University’s Daily Targum, Rohan Mathew and Joe Shure witnessed this disparity first-hand and decided that their experience and family background in small business might help.
Three years ago, while still students, the noble pair launched the Intersect Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides business mentorship, micro-loans, tax services and vending opportunities to low-income entrepreneurs. Clients from throughout Central Jersey include the working poor and the unemployed, many of whom recently were downsized from corporate jobs.
Among 250 clients is Amatullah Jabriel-Lewis, owner of Sweet Spice & Honey, an artisan bakery that operates a wholesale and vendor operation out of South Bound Brook. A Highland Park resident, Jabriel-Lewis turned to Intersect Fund last year after being downsized in 2009 from a pharmaceutical conglomerate.
“I was having a pity party about not being in work,” she said. “I said forgive me for feeling that the only way that I can get paid is to sit in somebody’s office and have them write me a check as opposed to creating my own sustainability.
“The first time I sold my bread, I made $48. That was the best $48 of my life. I felt so rich. I never want to be in a position again where I can give that kind of power over to another person to pay my bills and then let me go at will.”
Jabriel-Lewis doesn’t have a retail space yet, but she recently expanded her wholesale accounts to include the Whole Foods organic supermarket chain and Dean’s Natural Markets.
She also paved the way for several of her fellow Intersect Fund graduates — including Jams By Kim, Go Granola and SkinArise — establish a business relationship with Whole Foods.
“She’s the deal maker,” said Kim Osterhoudt, owner of the Hillsborough-based Jams By Kim.
Osterhoudt said that because their jams and bread go so well together, she and Jabriel-Lewis often vend their wares together or for each other. They will sell side by side at the Intersect Fund’s Gourmet Food & Art Expo. Featuring 20 of Central Jersey’s top emerging gourmet food and pastry entrepreneurs and restaurants, the expo will take place on Nov. 10 at Lotus Studios in Highland Park.
Last week, the Intersect Fund conducted its second annual Entrepreneur Showcase at Lotus Studios, where Osterhoudt was named Intersect Fund’s Entrepreneur of the Year because of her inspiring story, Shure said.
“After the company for which Osterhoudt worked forced her into early retirement, she gave up a fruitless job search to make her own line of artisan jams,” he said. “She’d been making them since childhood from a recipe she received from her grandmother.
“Since starting her business in 2009, Osterhoudt has set up shop at dozens of farmers markets and church fairs. She’s even sold jam from a table at the Whole Foods Market in Princeton. Her sales figures are impressive, especially for a first-time entrepreneur. Her story shows wary would-be entrepreneurs that talent, drive and tenacity can build a successful business, even in bleak economic times.”
Seven other graduates of the Intersect Fund’s Entrepreneur University pedaled their wares at the showcase:
- Frank’s Pickled Peppers, an award-winning preserver of relish, salsa and peppers in the Dayton section of South Brunswick;
- GoGranola, a Central Jersey-based company that sells bags of healthy snacks;
- SkinArise, a Metuchen-based retailer of natural body-scrub oils;
- Karmic Stone, inspirational stones custom designed by a former architect from Hopewell;
- The Lounge Society, a New Brunswick vendor of soaps, perfume oils, jewelry and incense;
- d.Saks, a Bridgewater distributor of 100 percent cotton bags handcrafted by impoverished women in Paraguay
Founder Delicia D. Alarcon launched d.Saks in 2009 while a junior at Bridgewater-Raritan High School. Now studying psychology and Spanish in her sophomore year at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., Alarcon wants to expand the social impact of her company beyond the Paraguayan crafts she distributes. For every d.Sak that is purchased, she plans to donate one filled with school supplies to their Paraguayan crafters’ children.
For her efforts, Alarcon won Intersect Fund’s Social Impact Award.
“We get these great, colorful bags,” Shure said, “and the women who make them get a good source of income, can educate their kids and live better lives, all because Delicia had a great idea for a business.”
Several other Entrepreneur University graduates were at the showcase as caterers with the Promise Culinary School, a division of Elijah’s Promise Inc., a nonprofit community kitchen and resource center in New Brunswick. Pearl Thompson, the culinary school’s director, said about 50 of her students have worked with the Intersect Fund.
After receiving training to launch her side business as a personal chef, Thompson said, she has recommended the Intersect Fund to about 200 culinary students over two years.
“The Intersect Fund is giving people the ability to chart their own future, to become a brand and a product line,” Thompson said. “I’ve been with them since the beginning. They’re passionate and dedicated. They help people navigate the whole entrepreneurial collage. They do incredible stuff. I am totally impressed by them.
“It’s hard to go out on a limb on your own and not really understand what it takes to get a business going. They give you that cushion, that support to make it happen.”
Thompson said she applauds people like Jabriel-Lewis and Osterhoudt, who parlayed economic adversity into opportunity.
In these trying economic times, the unemployed either can feel for themselves or attempt to make their dreams come true, she said.
“We’re at a new phase in life,” Thompson said. “In the times that we live in, people are getting a second wind and doing what their dreams have been. The Intersect Fund has given those people the impetus to do that.”
During the Intersect Fund’s first year, it processed just one micro-loan — a small, short-term loan provided to small businesses and nonprofits. Since then, it has disbursed about 80 loans, totaling $90,000, to business owners seeking to purchase things, such as a hot dog cart, a new set of tires or a truck, Shure said.
The trouble with low-income entrepreneurs is that while they possess great vision and talent, they lack money for equipment, Shure said. Bank loans are out of reach, he said, as is a sufficient understanding of bookkeeping. A lack of cash flow hinders profitability, he said.
To launch its loan-fund and business-training class as a remedy, Shure and Mathew raised money from local banks and churches, which also provided space to get the program off the ground.
“We hosted business-training classes in church basements and developed a loan-underwriting process with the help of Rutgers Business School students,” Shure said.
The city of New Brunswick also invested in the Intersect Fund, spokesman Bill Bray said. This year, the City Council approved a $60,000 grant that financed a full-time position for a Spanish program coordinator.
Formerly a volunteer with the Intersect Fund, Luis De La Hoz’s vast experience as a banker has boosted the micro-loan program, Shure said. In appreciation, De La Hoz was honored with the Intersect Fund’s Change-maker Award.
“Luis is a huge community fixture,” Shure said. “We’re really happy that he’s working with us.”
Among the 30 guests at the showcase was Harry D. Menta, a spokesman with the U.S. Small Business Association, a federal provider of micro-loans and other business loans.
Menta said he was confident that the SBA eventually was going to help the Intersect Fund expand its micro-loan program to lend to more low-income entrepreneurs.
“I think it’s phenomenal that they’re out there in the community,” Menta said. “I love their energy.”
Helping with the loan applications is student volunteer Ena Kumar, a graduate student with Rutgers’ Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. The Intersect Fund’s small full-time staff also includes Vanessa Carter, who runs the Campus Microfinance Alliance, a group that helps college students form groups similar to the Intersect Fund.
Return on investment
Shure said that most of what he and Mathews know about business came from many family members who own one.
He said he also studied as much as he could and interviewed several successful entrepreneurs.
“A big part of my job is taking all the business information that’s out there and synthesizing it into something our clients can use,” Shure said.
Mathew often relays his business experience as the owner of a Web-design business he founded in high school. He also worked as a summer intern at a Wall Street investment bank while in college.
Bray said he was glad to see that the city’s investment in the Intersect Fund is paying off.
“The Intersect Fund thinks about things like unit cost in marketing … the less glamorous side of business but equally as important,” Bray said. “It’s a keystone to bridging success from someone in their home dreaming of opening a business and actually starting and sustaining it. A growing list of people they’ve worked with continue to succeed. A lot of those people are from New Brunswick or operating a business in New Brunswick, so there is economic activity here. The investment we made in working with them has been compounded and helps the overall city economically.”