Aaron McNeil had just graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in vocal performance and gone to work for a bank in Northern Virginia when he had a sweet idea.
“My mom and I decided to test how our cupcakes would do outside of friends and family,” he said. “So we found a place in Federal Hill and decided to take a shot.”
They launched Midnite Confections Cupcakery in October 2010, and the business has since grown by a couple of employees, a food truck in Washington, and a whole lot of flavors.
While McNeil had the training to sing opera, he knew next to nothing about running a business and needed some direction to make his hum. He and 68 other Maryland small business owners now can say they have the tools to succeed thanks to a program called 10,000 Small Businesses that is sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Goldman Sachs Group.
The Bloomberg charity and the New York investment bank announced last year that they would invest $10 million to launch the program in Baltimore. Goldman Sachs established the program in 2010 to help entrepreneurs create jobs and economic opportunity by giving them education and support, and helping connect them with loans and investment. Since it started, the program has graduated 7,300 small business owners across the country.
The graduation ceremony in Baltimore Monday took place at R.House, a food hall in Remington where one graduating business, Cafe Millwork, did custom wood work and another, Urban Green Environmental, provided environmental consulting.
The new graduates are doctors, engineers, consultants, retailers and others from around Maryland with and without professional training, though few had business degrees. They have provided goods and services around the state, but at times have wondered how to hire a good employee or find the next contract or customer.
“We hope everyone here will be worth $40 billion someday,” said Kevin Sheekey, global head for external relations at Bloomberg LP, in reference to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who famously parked cars in Baltimore to help put himself through Johns Hopkins University. Bloomberg’s charitable giving is managed by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Baltimore has been one of his focuses.
Mayor Catherine Pugh joined Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen and John F.W. Rogers, executive vice president at Goldman Sachs, in speaking of the need for more entrepreneurs to create local jobs. Goldman Sachs is a partner in the development of Port Covington, a large proposed mixed-use development in South Baltimore where The Baltimore Sun leases its printing plant and recently moved its newsroom and business operations.
Pugh, Van Hollen and Rogers were joined by officials from Morgan State University, the Johns Hopkins University and the Community College of Baltimore County, which helped provide training for the program. The Baltimore program was open to all Maryland small businesses, but there was a focus on recruiting businesses in the city, officials said.
"This work is so important to Baltimore,” Pugh said during a round-table discussion with program participants before the graduation ceremony. “Small businesses are the foundation of our community and what we want to do is support them."
The business owners talked about what the program had done to help them with managing finances, creating growth plans and hiring. Many spoke of the program helping to boost their confidence.
The program is open to any small business in operation for at least two years and employing at least two full-time workers. The companies must also have annual revenue greater than $100,000 and an interest in growing. There is a separate loan program.
Joshua Funk runs Rehab 2 Perform, a physical therapy and athletic training operation in Frederick.
“I went to school for physical therapy, and school taught me to be a good clinician, but I didn’t know anything about running a business,” Funk said. “I hit what I call whitewater.”
He said the program has given him a business education, such as when and how to hire employees and how to expand. He plans to open a third location beyond Frederick and Germantown in early 2019.
Others spoke about what they can and will do now.
Odessa Phillip said she’s learned about networking to help drum up business for her company, Baltimore-based Assedo Consulting, which provides outreach and communications services for construction projects. She’s also learned about when and how to hire people.
An engineer, she launched her business in 2012 with two employees, her mom and dad, and grew slowly. She’s since added a senior manager and team to run day-to-day operations. Each worker has a detailed job description. She added another employee last week and plans to bring on four more people before the end of the year.
Robin Belle of Road Runner Specialty Group, which offers specialty in-home nursing services, launched the business in 2012 when she couldn’t find a nursing job. After going through the program, she’s decided to launch a wellness-focused consultancy to help people learn to take better care of their health. She also plans to open a spa in the Baltimore area.
McNeil, the cupcake maker, said he, too, plans to pursue a new business opportunity -- selling his cake mix to organic grocery stores.
“This program gave us confidence,” he said. “We’re definitely moving more into wholesale and we’re looking for more partnerships.”