How One Startup Turns At-Risk Entrepreneurs Into Superstars

To start a new business, you need an idea, the time to execute against it, startup capital, and a network of family, friends and contacts who can help you get it off the ground. You also need to know some basics about how business are run, how the marketplace for your idea functions, and how to get professional help as needed.

All that to say, starting a new business is a daunting task for anyone. Now imagine attempting it while living in poverty. Perhaps the would-be business owner has a criminal record or is battling drug or alcohol addiction. Maybe he or she is a high school graduate, maybe not. There's no reason to believe that successful entrepreneurs can't come from such a background, but the deck is certainly stacked against them. Not only are they unable to afford forgoing a paycheck, but they often can't get loans, leases or willing partners to help them along the way. For them, the American dream is one almost certainly unrealized.

In 2014, two twentysomethings teamed up to tackle that problem. Sarah Mullens and Richard Luck met as Teach for America fellows a few years ago. While in the program, they worked with people who showed "ambition," "intelligence" and a "crazy work ethic"— typical indicators of success—but were held back by poverty. "Talent going underutilized" became their siren call.

So, to help prevent budding entrepreneurs from falling through the cracks, the pair created the nonprofit organization UnBoundRVA. They worked with community organizations to identify five people in need who had a dream of starting something new. The UnBoundRVA team worked with them develop a business plan; connect with pro bono professionals, such as attorneys and marketers; and introduce them to advisors who would help them along the way. Then the nonprofit went one step further and found a way to bring in seed capital.

By the summer of 2014, UnBoundRVA raised $70,000 of their $100,000 goal. It's used most of the money as collateral for business loans on behalf of five would-be entrepreneurs who, due to their backgrounds, were considered bad risks for such loans. As Mullens and Luck explained in a recent TEDx talk, because of this collateral, the bank they partnered with "didn't check credit scores, didn't check backgrounds [and] didn't dwell on their past." Instead, the bank invested in these people and their dreams—with a low-interest loan to boot.

Three businesses have already launched, and a fourth is in the works. The UnBoundRVA team is also helping eight more budding entrepreneurs, with plans to launch five or six more businesses this winter. While some of the business owners are already seeing big profits, all of them are tapping into their potential and starting on a new trajectory for life.

Dan Lewis

Author of the popular daily newsletter Now I Know, which shares something interesting every day.