Baltimore Libraries Launch Entrepreneur Academy

On March 9, Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) and Baltimore City’s Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL) joined forces to launch Entrepreneur Academy, a free series of classes offering a wide range of topics for people who have an entrepreneurial streak. According to EPFL director Heidi Daniel, the program’s creation was both the outcome of the two library systems investigating ways to collaborate and the result of community feedback.

Entrepreneur Academy partners
Entrepreneur Academy partners (l.-r.): William Freeman and Sandra Conaway, SBDC Corridor Region; Robin McKinney, CASH Campaign of Maryland; Heidi Daniel, EPFL; John A. Olszewski Jr., Baltimore County Executive; Paula Miller, Director, BCPL; Darren Peyton, SBDC Northern Region; Amy Wallace Yingling, Regional Director, SBDC Northern Region; EPFL Board member Lidia Paz-Baker; Michael Netzer, BCPL Board of Trustees
Photo by BCPL

On March 9, Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) and Baltimore City’s Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL) joined forces to launch Entrepreneur Academy, a free series of classes offering a wide range of topics for people who have an entrepreneurial streak. According to EPFL director Heidi Daniel, the program’s creation was both the outcome of the two library systems investigating ways to collaborate and the result of community feedback. “The program was mutually initiated,” she said. “The need was determined by what we see every day. We have a Mobile Job Unit. Staff and the public were telling us there was a greater and greater need for people who wanted to start a business, whether as a full-time business or a side hustle.”

BCPL’s adult and community engagement manager Julie Brophy said, “In October 2018, we held a community conversation event, and one of the big takeaways from that was that we need to offer more small business support.”

The sessions are designed to educate future business owners about the overwhelming number of nuts and bolts involved in getting a business off the ground. “There will be sessions on market research, business strategy, tools, library and external resources, how to research your target market and competition, business finances and taxes, bookkeeping, marketing and social media, branding,” said BCPL director Paula Miller. “There will also be an Ask the Expert panel made up of relevant professionals, including a banker, attorney, and insurance agent. The program ends with the participants writing a business plan.”

The seven-week program offers weekly classes which are offered twice, once in the evening at the county library and once in the morning at the city library, to allow participants flexibility in attending. Initially, most of the sessions will be run by the libraries’ main partners: the Small Business Administration, the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the Maryland Small Business Development Center, and the CASH Campaign of Maryland. For the launch, the partners are volunteering their time and expertise, meaning that not only is the academy free for participants, it’s also low-cost for the libraries. Brophy noted that very little library funding was needed. “The pilot is basically pro bono,” she said. “Our partnerships are phenomenal. Going forward, we’ll have to get funding, as these partners can’t do pro bono indefinitely. We’ll likely look for grants and at our existing budget. The SBDC wants to take it to other libraries, and so maybe we’ll look for state funding for that.”

As for additional library resources, the first round involves mostly using library space for the classes and introducing the participants to library resources. “We’ll introduce…databases and collections, how to use things like Reference USA, which is invaluable for market research,” said Brophy. “Many people don’t realize we have business-friendly services too, including scanners, printers, Wi-Fi, conference rooms, and co-working spaces.”

In the future, staff will undergo training by the initial partners to take over some of the sessions, although the plan is to continue having experts in certain areas teach some of the classes. Brophy pointed out that the staff development is giving librarians more insight into what entrepreneurs need. “We’re finding that the skills that will be developed in these sessions are good for the librarians too. It’s helping us develop an entrepreneurial mindset, think about things like project management, risk assessment, innovation and continued improvement. Some of our librarians will be trained to become specialists on these topics. They will move into leading some of the sessions that will initially be led by our partners.”

The classes will vary in format from straightforward lectures to show-and-tell, with some working events that include hands-on activities, such as beginning to write a business plan. Each class lasts 60–90 minutes, which includes 30 minutes for networking and Q&A. The libraries decided to open the sessions to anyone, but with limited enrollment. “178 people signed up for the first session, and we only had room for 80,” said Daniel. “It’s the kind of problem we like to have! We’ll look for a designated funder to continue providing these sessions.”

 

ROUND 1: FOOD TRUCKS AND ARTISTS

There was no screening process for the first round. “It was first-come, first-served,” said Daniel. “If demand grows, we may develop an application process.” She added, “Right now, the program is geared towards individuals, specifically women, minorities, and veterans.” It’s also intended for very small operations, at least at the start. “The emphasis right now is on really small businesses, like food trucks and artists,” said Miller.

Participants are asked to sign a letter stating they will agree to complete the program. “It’s not a contract, but asks them to commit to the full program and asks them some questions to help us gauge their self-confidence and knowledge levels,” said Brophy.

Those questions also will provide a baseline for post-program assessment. “In terms of assessment, the obvious criteria is how many people started and completed the program,” said Brophy. “In the commitment letter, we ask questions regarding confidence and knowledge levels. We’ll do short surveys at the midway point and at the end with those types of questions, so we’ll have pre-, mid-, and post-event surveys to compare. We’ll also follow up at the six-month and one-year points with a ‘what do you need now?’ survey. We can use that information to expand the program in the future.”

Both libraries see the strong demand as a sign they’re going in the right direction. They also think the academy is replicable. “It’s also part of a larger national emphasis with 12 libraries across the country, focusing on minority and underserved populations,” said Miller. This emphasis is the result of a joint project between the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, with a goal of strengthening the role libraries play in nurturing and developing entrepreneurship in the communities they serve. ULC received funding from Kauffman to convene the groups and provide training to them. Besides BCPL and Enoch Pratt, other library systems involved are Austin, TX; District of Columbia, Durham County, NC; East Baton Rouge, LA; Kansas City, MO; King County, WA; Mid-Continent, MO; St. Louis County, MO; Toledo Lucas County, OH; and Toronto, ON. “We’ll take a regional approach at first and hope it becomes a national model. Philosophically, a lot of people are doing side hustles now, whether it’s because they work 9 to 5 but need more income to make ends meet, or are between jobs. We’re trying to fill this job-creation niche. There’s workforce development already being offered, but this is a new focus.”


Amy Rea (@amycrea) is a freelance journalist and the author of Backroads & Byways of Minnesota (2nd ed., April 2019); Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes: an Explorer’s Guide (3rd ed., spring 2020); and Camping Minnesota

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