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The startup incubator for everyone else: EforAll’s growth in Roxbury

By Pranshu Verma Globe Staff,Updated January 6, 2022, 10:56 a.m.

I confess, when I came to Boston, I was worried about its reputation. My friends warned me: ‘Boston is white.’ ‘Boston is elite.’ ‘Boston isn’t for anyone else.’

In some ways, I’ve found reasons to doubt that. But unfortunately, the city’s startup scene isn’t one of them. Mostly white, well-heeled venture capitalists funnel millions in cash to mostly white, often Ivy-league entrepreneurs. Everyone else, good luck.

But just a few blocks from the epicenter of the city’s opioid and homelessness epidemic at Mass. and Cass, there’s an incubator seemingly trying to lift up everyone else.

To learn more, I hopped on a Zoom call with Kofi Callender and Bob Brennan to talk about their organization: the Roxbury chapter of entrepreneurship nonprofit EforAll. The organization fosters local entrepreneurs, providing them with one year of training in business skills, access to mentorship from high-level executives in the area, and $4,000 to $5,000 in seed funding to get started. (Callender is the chapter’s executive director; Brennan is the group’s adviser and former CEO of Veracode and Iron Mountain.)

“There’s two different Bostons,” Brennan told me. “[One] with venture capital flowing freely and great exits,” and the other where founders have day jobs, tinker with their startups at night, and are hoping someone will give them a few thousand dollars to scale their company, he said. These founders aren’t trying to be the next big thing, Callender added, they’re trying to solve pressing problems in their community — and stay there.

The Roxbury chapter, which is one of nine EforAll communities in the state, opened its doors in 2019. Since then, it has enrolled five cohorts of entrepreneurs, graduating 76 businesses that have created over 85 jobs in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. In total, EforAll’s 12 chapters across the country have launched over 700 businesses. In 2020, they created 1,300 local jobs and generated over $43 million in revenue, officials said.

The businesses range from tech startups to brick-and-mortars: They include the Black online radio station SparkFM, a Hyde Park tech incubator that trains and places business development representatives into Boston tech companies, and a multicultural doll company. According to Callender, 92 percent of the businesses that have graduated are BIPOC-led; 65 percent are women-owned; 32 percent are run by immigrants; and 27 percent of the founders were previously unemployed.

Now, as the organization plans to double its cohort size, which hovers around 10, it needs help, Brennan said. It can’t afford to keep up with demand for the training, having to say no to nearly 80 percent of applicants. Leadership is looking to well-heeled tech executives and corporations to donate money to the nonprofit, anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000. At the same time, community banks are being sought to provide access to capital for their entrepreneurs, so they can scale their businesses after being coached. (The organization does not take an equity stake in the companies it incubates.)

“Ultimately, we’re trying to make a more even playing field,” Callender said. “An equal city for everyone to be able to live and be here.”

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