ASSETS Montco, based in Norristown, Pa., began in the fall of 1996 as a project of Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) after a recognition that MEDA’s global work in developing small businesses could have a domestic impact. A pilot project began in Lancaster, Pa. in 1993. Currently, there are 19 ASSETS organizations in North America.
ASSETS is a “13-week business training for anyone who wants to start or expand their own business,” explains Jim Williams, founding executive director. The course meets two nights per week and covers everything from legal aspects and accounting to marketing and hiring employees.
Volunteer instructors help students ask questions about logistics—“Should I rent space or buy?” for example—and look at the core skills they need. Fees are based on a sliding scale, allowing everyone from home child care providers to doctors opening a practice to be a part. Persons with low to moderate income receive scholarships.
Ultimately, the goal is that each student will leave with a viable business plan.
Through 42 class cycles offered in English and Spanish, ASSETS Montco has helped start or expand more than 200 businesses, many of which are home-based. Most of the businesses —ranging from furniture restoration to lawn care to a resume writing service—are located in Norristown and across Montgomery County.
Williams sees a marked growth and transformation in students as they go through the course. ASSETS’ mission is economic development—giving skills and assistance to small business owners—but at the same time, ASSETS is very involved in community and personal development.
Tom Bishop, who served for several years on the board, says it was the ministry aspect that drew him to ASSETS. He saw it strengthening not only the entrepreneurs who participated but also the local community. Bishop also noticed that sometimes the program helped in a different way: some of those who’d planned to start a business would learn enough to realize they didn’t want to start a business, after all, and it stopped them before they started.
Bishop says the course was empowering, especially for those who hadn’t finished high school or accomplished major achievements in their lives.
“One thing I seemed to observe in everybody who went through that class,” he says, “was a really profound impact on their self-esteem.”
“Rather than just being another charity that gave away stuff, it was trying to build a skill in people so they could be more self-sufficient, not dependent, says Bishop. “ Jim [Williams] always referred to it as ‘a hand-up, not a hand-out.’”
Former board member Chad Lacher of the Souderton congregation says that in addition to being a big help to the students, “on a personal level it has helped crystallize the confidence that they can be successful.”
Peter Giesbrecht, a graduate of ASSETS, began his own remodeling business after the class and now has two employees. He says though he knew several business owners in his home congregation, Blooming Glen Mennonite Church, one of the most valuable parts of the program was the opportunity to network and build connections.
“You think about starting a business but you really don’t understand what all goes into it. It’s not easy. You need people who help you along the way.”
Williams says that seeing how individuals grow and transform has been one of the most rewarding parts of his work.
“You see people grow personally and you see them strengthen the local communities by the contributions that they’re able to make, providing needed goods and services in underserved communities.”
One ASSETS graduate, for example, started a mini-market within walking distance of many homes in an area of Norristown where convenience or grocery stores do not exist.
Another graduate, who had already been in business for many years, says he wished the program had been around before he ever opened his doors.
Lacher joined the board because of his own experience in the business world, and the desire to invite others on that journey. He says that many people don’t always understand what nonprofit organizations like ASSETS do and how they relate to the community. ASSETS, he says, is about sustainability, and generating long-term jobs that don’t rely on outside money.
Lacher affirmed the time and energy that Williams and his wife, Sharon, have given to ASSETS, as well as the ministry and Christian witness they’ve brought to ASSETS and the broader community.
“[Jim] was willing to step out and begin the organization on a shoestring financially but also without knowing exactly where the resources were coming from,” said Lacher. “He and Sharon, his wife, were willing to take that step of faith. And he’s had to continue to live in faith with this organization over its life.”
Lacher says that as the state funding that helped run the program has dwindled, many people have worked diligently on and off the board to keep ASSETS alive, and he hopes that the work will someday continue in one form or another.
“There’s still a sense that the mission and ministry of ASSETS are not done . . . It’s not at the moment, it doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.”
“The irony is not lost on us. While solutions to the economic downturn have focused on job creation and business loans, microenterprise/small business training is not valued as an essential part of the solution. Who will create new jobs, if not new businesses?” said Williams. “Microenterprises and small businesses provide self-employment and jobs; they are the backbone of the local economy. Why is it that when times are hard, programs that empower the poor are hit the hardest?”
Williams, who will retire after the last class graduates on June 17, says he’ll find plenty to keep him busy after he leaves ASSETS Montco, with “ten thousand things to do, and not nearly enough time to do everything.”
Financial support is needed to support ASSETS’ last class, which starts March 25. Registration is also open. For more information, contact the ASSETS office at 610-275-3520; firstname.lastname@example.org.