Flint’s entrepreneurial ecosystem brings together dozens of partners to support and strengthen small businesses

A smiling woman holds a frying pan over a stove in a demonstration kitchen. A man stands next to her holding his young daughter and assembling ingredients in a bowl.
Jaszmane Sisco, founder and owner of Little Suga’s, hosted a Father’s Day cooking class at the Flint Farmers’ Market to teach dads and their children how to make breakfast from scratch. Photo: Cristina Wright

When small business owner Jaszmane Sisco won a 100K Ideas’ Pitch For $K competition in 2021, she received $5,000 in seed funding for Little Suga’s, her specialty baking business. But that was only a small part of the value that participating in the competition provided.

“It opened the door even more for Little Suga’s,” Sisco said. “It gave me a foot in the door for people to start to get to know me on a business level and a personal level. It was the first in-person situation where I could tell a group of people what Little Suga’s was and what I planned on doing with it.”

The competition also connected her to a robust support system that Flint offers for entrepreneurs and small business owners. In Sisco’s case, that started with 100K Ideas, a nonprofit aimed at helping people bring entrepreneurial ideas to life by providing a wide range of support services.

“Our goal is to help people find a clear direction,” said Brandee Cooke-Brown, executive director of 100K Ideas. “Some people have the entrepreneurial gene and can navigate how to get going and have a network of people that support them, but that’s not the case for everyone.”

A high school student, Kailey Hill, stands on a raised stage holding after having been handed by officials from University of Michigan-Flint’s Zillion Solutions program a large carboard check made out to her for $2000.
Kailey Hill was a member of Bendle High School’s Youth Entrepreneurship Club. She won first place at the University of Michigan-Flint’s Zillion Solutions idea pitch competition on April 6 with her presentation about Panc-Pals, an app that would help kids with diabetes understand what it is and how it affects their bodies. Photo: Audrey Banks

“Our goal is to create a space for people to feel supported and really understand what makes sense and where they should head first,” Cooke-Brown added. “That’s what our process is designed to do, to help them narrow in on a direction and then we’ll build from there.”

Sisco’s specialty is baking elaborately designed cupcakes and cakes. The $5,000 helped her teach monthly baking and cooking classes for kids at the Flint Farmers’ Market from January to April of 2022, which helped spread awareness of her business.

Pitch For $K competitions feature a panel of judges who represent potential funders, executives and other leaders who provide networking opportunities for participants. 100K Ideas works closely with participants to connect them to mentors in similar industries, help them refine their pitches and provide access to other resources in Flint. 100K Ideas also provides assistance with marketing and promotion, business plan development, and other vital areas for launching or growing a business.

“Overall, it’s just a great network around our participants to help them be successful whether they win a pitch competition or not,” Cooke-Brown said. “That’s the real beauty in the competition.”

A young man stand in front of an audience of Flint pitch attendees and speaks into the microphone about his idea for harvests water using sunlight and fresh air.
Jonathan Quarles was one of seven entrepreneurs to pitch his business or product idea to the community at Berston Field House on Nov. 14, 2019. Quarles presented about his business, SolAir, which harvests water using sunlight and fresh air. He won the $10,000 first-place prize. Photo: Sarah Schuch

A benefit to entrepreneurs and small business owners in the Flint area is that there are several organizations that regularly collaborate to provide support. Those include: 100K Ideas; UM-Flint’s Innovation Incubator and its Hagerman Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; the Michigan Small Business Development Center on Kettering University’s campus; Metro Community Development; Factory Two; Flint SOUP; and others.

The collaboration among organizations is both organic and intentional. While some provide services that are naturally complementary, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation also has funded multiple organizations over several years to foster connections and strengthen the ecosystem. In total, there are nearly 30 organizations involved.

These connections have helped Sisco grow Little Suga’s. For instance, Keysa Smith, a Flint native who owns the Spectacular Spudz restaurant at the Flint Farmers’ Market, works with Sisco as a mentor. 100K Ideas also featured Sisco in its client storytelling series, which brought more attention to the business.

Two Flint teen aged girls make candles at Factory Two, Flint's community makerspace.
Flint teens make candles at Factory Two during the SIPI Summer Hustle, which teaches local high school students how to make, market and sell products they produce throughout an eight-week program. Photo: Sarah Schuch

The ecosystem’s strength

SIPI (Social Impact Philanthropy & Investment) Inc. is the lead in Flint’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, serving as a convener of organizations with services that overlap or supplement each other.

“The first strategy in creating the ecosystem in Flint was really to create an entrepreneurial mindset,” said Steve Wolbert, CEO of SIPI. “Whether or not a student grows up here and starts a business, understanding the foundations of entrepreneurship and how they can be applied to other elements of life are really valuable intangibles, no matter what career you pursue. When that mindset spreads, it opens doors for the community to diversify its economy. Small business adds value to communities and makes people want to be a part of them.”

Cooke-Brown and Wolbert both noted the critical role that former Mott Foundation Program Officer Chris Stallworth, who passed away in 2021, played in developing programs to support youth entrepreneurship and build the entrepreneurial mindset among local students. Those programs laid the foundation for expanded entrepreneurial programs and resources in the Flint area.

Chris Stallworth poses with winners of a Pitch For $K competition in 2019 that took place at Berston Filed House in Flint, Michigan.
Chris Stallworth (third from the right) poses with winners of a Pitch For $K competition in 2019. Stallworth, who passed away in 2021, joined the Mott Foundation in 2013 and was integral in crafting the foundation’s entrepreneurship programs for young people in Flint and across the country. Photo: Sarah Schuch

A testament to the strength of the Flint area’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is the fact that the city was awarded a $1 million, two-year grant as part of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Community Navigator Pilot Program in 2021. The grant aims to help entrepreneurs overcome barriers by allowing organizations in the city to provide more services, such as access to capital, training resources, and support for contracting, marketing, operations and business development.

“Entrepreneurship and education are two of the keys to rebuilding communities,” Wolbert said. “The Community Navigator Pilot Program would not have happened without funding from the Mott Foundation over the past 10 years in support of many organizations that are the foundation of the ecosystem. When we look at the ecosystem as a whole and the service providers out there today, the aggregate impact is really significant. It is a really developing into a healthy ecosystem, and you start to see these really cool individual stories emerging.”

A woman shows two men with their toddlers how to slice vegetables for the meal that they are making.
Jaszmane Sisco (left) founded Little Suga’s in October of 2020 and plans to have the Father’s Day cooking class become an annual event. Winning a Pitch For $K competition in 2021 helped Sisco take her business to next level by providing the financial supported she needed to begin hosting baking classes. Photo: Cristina Wright

Stories like Sisco’s are unique, but not uncommon. More than 700 ideas have been brought to the 100K Ideas team for assistance and development over the past five years. Several success stories are highlighted in the organization’s storytelling series.

Not every idea results in a fully developed business, but the process is often what matters most. And among those who have approached 100K Ideas for support, the resulting business ventures have spanned a wide range of industries, including food, apparel, health and wellness, mobility, youth programming, financial services and more.