What is the name of your organization?
Centro Community Partners
Is your organization registered as 501(c)(3) status with the IRS?
In what city, town, or region and state is your organization headquartered?Oakland, CA, USA
Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address? [Select up to 2]
What is the name of your solution?
What is your solution?
To create a comprehensive small business development system solution that combines a collaborative ecosystem of nonprofits, technology innovation, access to capital resources, small business education, and asset-building. Centro’s socioeconomic community-based solution offers equitable access to a national virtual hub of small business owner resources for low-to-moderate-income entrepreneurs of color in underserved communities.
The Centro Hub encompasses a virtual resource network that walks the owner through a customized artificial intelligence (AI) created landscape showing the entrepreneur's journey based on the business type. The entrepreneur would enter their business type, skill levels, socio-economic indicators, and knowledge about small businesses in a simple intake form. Then the AI produces a pathway or journey for the entrepreneur.
The AI small business journey would outline the knowledge/skills gaps, a list of compliance licenses/permits required, financial readiness options, and a list of local nonprofit technical assistance providers able to assist entrepreneurs in growing small businesses.
The AI-generated journey would recommend which entrepreneurship training modules the entrepreneur would need via the Centro learning management system (LMS) to help select self-paced, virtual, or in-person classes provided by the nonprofit ecosystem. Business coaching would also be available to provide real-person service to help answer questions and provide additional guidance with financial readiness preparation for a micro-loan. We have incorporated human-center design in developing our business planning apps, which use Heroku Connect and host a virtual ecosystem of 300 nonprofit and microlenders providers nationally.
Film your elevator pitch.
Describe the core technology that powers your solution.
The cornerstone of Centro's comprehensive small business development system is the Salesforce platform, which serves as the primary data storage and management tool. Salesforce allows Centro to collect, organize, and analyze information from small business owners, new entrepreneurs, nonprofits, microlenders, and other stakeholders within the ecosystem. Through Salesforce, Centro can maintain a centralized database that tracks each entrepreneur's business idea, skill levels, socioeconomic indicators, and small business knowledge obtained through the AI intake form. Additionally, Salesforce enables efficient communication and collaboration among the participants, ensuring seamless interaction between entrepreneurs and the various support providers in the ecosystem.
The Centro App is crucial in hosting Centro's virtual ecosystem of 300 nonprofit technical assistance providers and microlenders. Heroku provides a scalable and secure platform to deploy custom-built applications, allowing nonprofit partners to offer their services and resources to entrepreneurs through a user-friendly interface. Heroku Connect facilitates seamless integration between Salesforce and the Heroku App, ensuring that data from the CRM is synchronized with the app in real-time. This integration is vital for delivering a personalized AI-generated small business owner journey to each entrepreneur based on their unique business type and requirements.
Furthermore, the Learning Management System (LMS) is a critical technology component, enabling entrepreneurs to access various culturally relevant small business training modules and financial readiness resources. The LMS, integrated with Salesforce, offers a comprehensive educational platform where entrepreneurs can choose self-paced, virtual, or in-person classes provided by the nonprofit ecosystem. Through the LMS, entrepreneurs can track their progress, identify knowledge/skills gaps, and access AI-generated personalized learning recommendations. The LMS is Salesforce-enabled, allowing seamless data exchange and personalized learning experiences tailored to each entrepreneur's journey. By leveraging these foundational technologies, Centro's virtual hub ensures equitable access to resources, support, and capital for low-to-moderate-income entrepreneurs of color in underserved communities, fostering economic growth and empowerment.
Before we can incorporate any AI into our business model, we first need to set the foundation of our technologies. We must ensure that our Salesforce system has accurate, up-to-date information about our programs, entrepreneurs, lenders, and donors and that the application integrations are correctly configured to provide a seamless data flow. After setting this standard across our technologies, implementing AI will be much easier and provide business owners with the appropriate tools to grow their businesses.
Which of the following categories best describes your solution?
A new application of an existing technology
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
Who does your solution serve, including demographics, and how does the solution impact their lives?
Our solution impacts their lives by providing access to culturally relevant business resources, capital and teaches them to become small business owners. They become empowered to create financial stability and build sustainability and economic freedom for themselves and their families, leading to thriving communities.
Our innovative approach is fueled by the community's voice to create community-driven solutions. Centro primarily serves low-income women and BIPOC small business owners and new entrepreneurs. Our participants have the following socioeconomic and demographic characteristics:
· About 90% have a low-income background (earning less than $50,000 per year);
· About 80% of participants are women;
· Ethnically diverse, including Latinx (69%), African Americans (22%), Asians (2%), Caucasian (4%), Middle Eastern (1%), and Others (2%);
· 80% are immigrants with English as the second language;
· 46% are small businesses in the operating stage
The businesses we serve are:
· Enterprises with less than $100,000 annual revenue or less than five employees.
· Women and minority-led small businesses in the following industries: Products (36%), Professional services (23%), Dining and Entertainment (20%), Domestic services (9%), Healthcare (5%), Technical services (5%), Agriculture (2%)
This target group is underserved because they have limited or no access to business resources due to systemic racism in our economic development systems. Most clients Centro serves do not own a computer but have a smartphone or tablet to start or run their business creation process. They also reside in low-income communities with limited Wi-Fi or Internet access. Our tech-enable solution will have multiple access points to help our target community have access and reach our target community through Centro’s partnership with the public library system and non-profits.
The Centro staff lives in the same communities, and our trainers and facilitators are entrepreneurs and business owners from our communities. We understand our community because we engage with them on multiple levels.
Explain how the problem you are addressing, the solution you have designed, and the population you are serving align with the Challenge.
Entrepreneurship or small business ownership is a proven pathway that generates income to achieve financial stability, economic mobility, and asset-building, advancing economic security and closing the racial wealth gap (Klein 2008). The socioeconomic well-being of new entrepreneurs, small business owners, and their families is based on their ability to access this economic opportunity. Unfortunately, the current small business economic development infrastructure is rife with challenges, such as antiquated-technology systems, discrimination, and systemic racism, hindering access to business education, financial readiness programs, affordable internal financial health tools, and data collection. Furthermore, the current U.S. model focuses on individual entrepreneurs rather than a collaborative ecosystem providing support services, financial readiness, and access to capital.
To create or leverage an innovative tech-based solution to support small business owners, Centro’s solution is well-aligned to address the financial readiness, internal financial health, and data/impact challenge.
Centro seeks to empower women and BIPOC entrepreneurs/small business owners from low-income, underserved undercapitalized communities to collaborate in a social justice and racial equity approach to small business development. This new approach provides equal access to a comprehensive ecosystem solution that combines a collaborative ecosystem of nonprofits, AI technology-enabled resources, financial readiness programs, personal/business budgeting, and asset-building tools for building residency and sustainability.
Since 2010, Centro has built the small business and entrepreneurship curriculum, the business planning app, the access to capital to zero-interest microloans, and the self-paced online business boot camp programs that have impacted more than 8,000 businesses and facilitated access to more than $6.3 million in capital.
What is your theory of change?
At Centro, we approach the creation of impactful solutions with humility, entrepreneurship spirit, and community collaboration. We work with hundreds of new entrepreneurs and existing businesses each year. During the most challenging times, the pandemic, we helped start or pivot 1,500 businesses to adapt to the new realities. We also learned new ways to work with technology to serve the community. We also learned from our failures. These valuable experiences and hard lessons led to the culmination and the insight of combining Centro’s solutions into an integrated virtual AI-enable hub built on a Salesforce-based platform. Now there is a new theory of change emerging at Centro. We need to test our new integrated solution once it is built.
The activities start when entrepreneurs enroll in our programs to understand entrepreneurship through the self-paced boot camp program. Alternatively, they can attend facilitator-led training depending on their skill level and business experience. Centro offers Bootcamp (6 hours), Basic (27 hours), or Advance (27 hours) programs to choose from. Each program is geared toward building resilience, critical thinking, financial readiness, and help to access capital.
However, our evidence comes from each component's short-and-long-term outputs and outcomes during field testing. For example, the Centro App guides business owners and new entrepreneurs with culturally relevant business planning and, when coupled with our unique virtual business training, produces consistent, powerful impact, such as:
1. Increased Income: 31% reported paying themselves, and 35% reported that it was a living wage.
2. Job Creation: 20% reported hiring someone to help them with their business.
3. Financial Inclusion: 34% opened a business bank account and 25% paid business taxes.
4. Annual Sales: Of the total entrepreneurs that graduated more than one year ago, 73% reported having sales generating a total annual revenue of $11M and an average annual revenue of $58,627.
5. Investment in Jobs: Of those with sales, 71% incurred labor costs, resulting in $3,859,000 in total labor costs and an average of $28,500 per business.
6. Access to Capital: 28% of the entrepreneurs reported having accessed capital within the last two years, representing a total of $1,238,000.
What is your solution’s stage of development?Prototype: A solution that is building and testing its product, service, or business model.
What is your organization’s stage of development?Scale: A sustainable organization actively working in several communities that is capable of continuous scaling and has a proven track record, earns revenue, and is focused on increased efficiency within its operations.
How many small businesses does your solution currently serve?
Centro currently serves about 400 people a year. We expect to serve 600 in one year. However, we expect to reach 5,000 or more businesses yearly in five years. We have consistently served between 400 and 600 businesses annually in the last three years with our current capacity.
Since we plan to build a new integrated technology-based solution, we expect to scale as we collaborate nationally with 30+ non-profit small business development coalitions. This would multiply our impact in underserved communities in 30 states.
How do you define the community you serve, and who are its stakeholders?
Our community comprises women, BIPOC, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ, and low-income. The major stakeholders are the public library, church leaders, community activists, and local government officials, including city council members.
How do you build trust within the community your organization serves and among small business owners?
Centro is a community-based organization engaging the daily life of the community where we serve. We engage with our clients at street events, fairs, farmers' markets, and festivals throughout the year. They consider us at Centro trustworthy only by being consistent, present, and humble in our approach to serving small business owners. We partner closely with the public library system, hosting our programs.
Our outreach and communication methods include various channels to effectively engage with our target audience and achieve our marketing goals. For direct marketing, we utilize newsletters, individual emails, and text outreach to provide personalized support and information to current and potential entrepreneurs. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn are utilized to promote upcoming programs and share success stories.
We send newsletters to keep our audience informed and engaged. We also update our website with static content, success stories, and program information.
What are your impact goals for the current year and the next five years and how will you achieve them?
The impact goal for the current year is to impact 400 small businesses. Our vision encompasses the development of an inclusive virtual economic development system that leads to asset building for small business owners. We aspire to see women and BIPOC owners generate wealth that uplifts their lives and strengthens their communities.
We must build and invest in our internal technological capabilities and innovation lab. We are incorporating AI and self-guided learning systems to scale Centro’s programs and services. Over the next five years, we aim to build our capacity to serve 5,000 entrepreneurs annually. The following are our strategic growth priorities:
1. Invest in scalable entrepreneurship education and financial literacy solutions using AI.
2. Build the next-generation small business program delivery that uses a client relationship management model.
3. Create robust impact and evaluation systems to collect program outcomes to inform curriculum development and policymakers.
4. Build a virtual ecosystem of over 1,000 non-profit organizations nationwide serving low-income women and entrepreneurs of color.
5. Provide culturally and linguistically relevant asset-building opportunities to help owners achieve financial stability and economic mobility.
In alignment with our growth priorities, our impact priorities are to:
1. Increase business ownership amongst women and BIPOC and help them build generational assets.
2. Increase economic mobility for low-income women and owners of color.
3. Facilitate access to capital and help entrepreneurs secure capital without falling prey to predatory lenders.
4. Create scalable and replicable solutions to standardize the delivery of technical assistance support nationwide.
Why are you applying to Truist Foundation Inspire Awards?
There are three main reasons for applying to the Truist Foundation Inspire Award. First is the funding opportunity directed solely for innovation and technology capacity building. This funding is rare and difficult to obtain in our industry for the small business development ecosystems in the US.
Second, winners are offered learning and development modules to improve their business model and plans for scaling, which we need to understand better and refine. Our model requires an assessment to fill in the gaps we need to improve and change to strengthen our business model.
Lastly, award winners are part of a small, unique, talented cohort. The networking opportunities could lead Centro to further opportunities such as new collaborations, technical experts, and innovation ideas.
We are looking for new ways to overcome the barriers that keep our industry from innovating and create real value for new entrepreneurs and small business owners to start and grow their businesses. Overcoming the technical and financial barriers will allow Centro and our industry to benefit and sharing that benefit will have a positive multiplying effect on the industry.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
Please explain in more detail here.
There are three specific areas we need support and would welcome a partnership. These are technology, public relations, and business modeling.
Technology: We have learned over the years that building technology-based solutions for the community requires engineers and developers who understand the technology. At Centro, we are not a technology company. We are a social justice and racial equity economic development team and need the technologists’ expertise to work with us to innovate and develop community solutions.
Public Relations: We have an excellent marketing team but don’t have public relationship experience or advisors to help us create a greater communications strategy. Our goal is to reach communities in 30 states as our plan prescribes; we will need a robust public relations and communications strategic plan to reach millions of possible clients in our target market.
Business Modeling: We have adopted different models for our specific market niche and differentiated our products and services within our industry. Still, we want to raise the innovation and effectiveness of our entire industry. This will require changes to our business model and examining the steps needed to build a more sustainable revenue stream.
Arturo Noriega Founder and CEO, Centro Community Partners