Preface: Built by Philly is an entrepreneur-centered platform that emerged from a year-long inquiry into Philadelphia’s ecosystem for Black- and Brown-owned businesses. On behalf of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce, and the PIDC, Urbane worked alongside other consultant partners to assess the ecosystem. We heard from over 100 organizations that provide services, space, and capital to Philly’s businesses, as well as over 200 entrepreneurs. You can read more about the Equitable Entrepreneurship Ecosystem project here.
One important pillar of Urbane’s work is to center people and the human assets that drive communities. It was critical for us and for the clients to put the focus on business owners, whose experiences, knowledge, and perspectives were the ultimate reason for this project. It was decided that a microsite would be built to feature entrepreneurs whose voices played pivotal roles in the research and to position those voices at the foundation of forthcoming work on the Built by Philly platform. We utilized visual storytelling – interviews captured on video – so that entrepreneurs could speak about their own journeys and the things they want to see change in Philly’s small business ecosystem.
The Built by Philly filming process led the Urbane team on a mission to hear from a diverse group of Philly entrepreneurs who represent a variety of industries, demographic backgrounds, and connections to the city. The completed microsite features 32 small businesses who each volunteered 1-3 hours of their time to share their stories. Interviews focused on their motivations for starting their businesses as well as challenges and opportunities related to customer and capital access. Business owners also spoke on how the small business support ecosystem in Philadelphia could improve and advice they would give to emerging entrepreneurs. During conversations, we heard stories of love from entrepreneurs for their work and for Philadelphia. The love manifests in the services they provide and how they show up to support their surrounding communities.
Below are just a few of the businesses we heard from:
Along the 52nd street corridor in West Philadelphia, we visited Charlene Rawlinson at Lene’s Daily Childcare. Charlene’s zeal for childcare is reflected in how she grew her business from the basement of her home to multiple locations. Charlene emphasized the importance of investing in her staff, since they represent her in the way that they care for children. Not only does she seek staff who are compassionate and love children, but she has made it a mission to ensure that her staff stays on top of emerging childhood education trends by investing in new certifications. Charlene mentioned that she maintained full-time employment while starting her business. She emphasized how difficult that balance was but said that it motivated her even more to provide quality care, because many working parents are trusting her to contribute to their children’s educational development while they work. Charlene also highlighted the importance of mentorship and support among business owners as they navigate the childcare industry in Philly.
When we headed over to the Bok Building to interview Nicole Ayers, the founder of Madlab Entertainment, we learned about how she navigates the Philly independent film industry. Between location scouting, film and documentary concept development, and casting and filming, Nicole is in control of almost every aspect of her work. She expressed that a goal of hers is to create documentaries and films that show Philadelphia through underrepresented lenses. A common thread in Nicole’s projects and events is her desire to amplify aspects of Philly’s culture and history. We got a glimpse into her project chronicling the experiences of former students of Bok High School through film. She noted that she wanted to ensure that the students' experiences were not forgotten, even though the high school no longer operates. Nicole also curates events and youth educational programming meant to share the art of film to Philadelphians who may not otherwise be exposed.
Family-owned businesses play a unique role in Philadelphia. We were able to interview Ray and Esther Alvarez, founders of the A & I Security, LLC, who spoke on ways that their family members’ unique skills contribute to A & I Security’s success. They have clients all around the city, but the heart of their work is rooted near the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. As long-time residents of this neighborhood with many challenges and a changing identity, they are motivated to provide family-sustaining jobs to members of their community. They framed their security company and the work that they do as one way to improve quality of life in Kensington. They compared conditions of their neighborhood when they first moved there to its current conditions, demonstrating that they are hyperaware of the issues and opportunities – but also that they are proactive about being a part of the solution.
All the way in the Feltonville/Juniata section of Northeast Philadelphia, we spent some hours with Luis Hincapie (owner) and Josh Rivera (Director of Operations) at Fortaleza Rehabilitation & Fitness Centers. Noticing the lack of culturally competent physical therapy care, the founders of Fortaleza (Joshua’s parents, Carmen and Jose Rivera) started their practice to provide the best care for their Latinx community members. Since its founding, Fortaleza has expanded its demographic and geographic reach with the addition of new locations and physical therapists with additional language capabilities. In addition, Fortaleza has expanded its offerings to include a youth fitness and boxing programs, an adult gym, and a childcare facility. Luis and Josh emphasized the importance of embracing and giving back to the neighborhood through community days and giveaways. Their positive relationship with the communities that surround their facilities is an indicator of the work they have done to support their neighbors.
Among all business owners, a common connection that emerged was their dedication to the people and places that their businesses serve. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods with distinct communities and characteristics, a reputation we affirmed in our travels to different neighborhoods during the filming process (though we also interviewed business owners who were not tied to specific neighborhoods and whose industry contributions and cultural impact on the city were also notable). We heard about entrepreneurs’ experiences both running their businesses and navigating their role in different communities. Many entrepreneurs experience similar challenges that accompany small business ownership in Philadelphia, but their relationships to the communities and neighborhoods they serve are unique.
As a Philadelphia native, I found that this project emphasized a few things I know and love about Philadelphia - especially the special role that small businesses play in the city's neighborhoods. The project affirmed to me the impact and stability that small businesses bring to their communities. Having lived in West Philadelphia for most of my life, I have witnessed small businesses act as anchors that develop meaningful connections with my neighborhood. Even when larger chain businesses left the neighborhood due to market shifts, most small businesses in my neighborhood continued to exhibit a deep commitment to serve.
The filming process took me outside my West Philadelphia bubble to learn that, similarly, many of the business owners we interviewed have a goal of providing stability and impact through their products and services. Their offerings address critical gaps within their geographic, professional, and/or cultural communities. Philadelphia’s small businesses go above and beyond. The entrepreneurs we interviewed showed how committed they are to investing in their employees and the greater community, even when facing personal or financial challenges. Small businesses’ economic contributions are often a point of focus – and they are significant – but the entrepreneurs engaged throughout the Built by Philly process demonstrate that small businesses are essential for the city’s community and neighborhood development as well.
Acknowledgements: The Built by Philly platform would not have been complete without each of the entrepreneurs we interviewed. It was a pleasure meeting each of them and hearing their stories. Our team is so thankful that they shared their time, anecdotes about doing business in Philly, and some company swag with us! We would like to thank the following entrepreneurs:
Dana Maddox and Dominyque Davis (12th Glow), Raymond and Esther Alvarez (A&I Security, LLC), Anthony Tyrone Howard (ATH ARTS), Blane F. Stoddart (BFW Construction Project Managers), Andre Andrews (Dre’s Water Ice and Ice Cream), Joshua Rivera and Luis Hincapie (Fortaleza Rehab and Fitness), George Lawrence (GL Agency), Rasheed “Rafik” Abdellah (Indie-Life Events & Media), Jezabel Careaga (Jezabel’s Café), Patricia Claybrook (Jidan Cleaning), Sennay and Anh Habtemicael (Kensington Mini Mart), Chris Paul (Lakay PHL), Jamil Scurry (La’vanter Boutique), Charlene Rawlinson (Lene’s Daily Child Care, Inc.), Florangel Delacruz (Lisflor’s Creations Unisex), Tia Lyles-Williams (LucasPye BIO), Nicole Ayers (Madlab Entertainment), Danae Burns (Marq B Hair), Matthew Law (Matthew Law), Heseung Song (Mighty Engine), Sherrill Mosey (MinkeeBlue), Leslie Smallwood-Lewis & Gregory Reaves (Mosaic Development Partners), Dr. Sagar N., Nalini, & Rumya Venkateswaran (Peacock Laboratories, Inc.), Danielle Johnson (Purpose Wellness Consulting Group), Sergio Giraldo (Rehobot Real Estate & Cash Flow Property Management), Carlo Batts (Rittenhouse Appraisals), Melody Wright (SAY/DO Strategies), Emely Roman (The Foundry Collective), Joseph Kitonga (Vitable Health), Oluwafemi (Worldtown), Jason Ray (Zenith Wealth Partners), and George “Geo D” Dixon (XS Hair Cutz).
To learn more about the entrepreneurs and their businesses, visit builtbyphilly.org/business-owners.