Directors of the Jim Rouse Entrepreneurial Fund, a year-old venture which provides seed money and other assistance to start-up companies, plan to focus heavily on attracting minority applicants this year.
"We hope to make more than half our loans this year to minority-owned start-ups," said Steve Dubin of the fund's board of directors.
The directors hope to find candidates through meetings with local minority business groups and organizations, said Mr. Dubin, who is also chief financial officer of Martek, a Columbia-based science and technology company.
No one is sure how many minority-owned businesses are in the county, but 142 such businesses responded to a county survey last fall. There about 5,570 businesses in Howard County.
The fund's efforts to help minority business start-ups this year comes as welcome news to county government officials.
For more than a year the county has tried to launch a program that would target start-up minority businesses for help with loans, said Cecil Bray, deputy director for administration.
"There isn't any local loan program available for starting a minority business, so we are very pleased about the fund's target this year," said Mr. Bray, who is also the county's minority business enterprise officer.
The county had been talking to First Union Bank in Virginia about starting a loan program for minority businesses. The project was tabled when First Union decided against moving into the Baltimore market.
However, First Union recently gave the fund $100,000, as did Baltimore-based Mercantile Bank. Those contributions pushed the fund's loan reserves to $250,000.
Entrepreneurs also can get help through the state's Small Business Administration.
The SBA wants to increase the number of minority businesses it assists.
The prime goal of the Rouse fund, which is named after Columbia's founder, is to lend money to help entrepreneurs start new businesses.
It lends 20 percent of start-up costs. The rest must be obtained through bank financing.
Loans range from $5,000 to $50,000. Interest on the loans is set at the prevailing market rates, Mr. Dubin said.
"We're not interested in making money on the loan. What we're interested in is seeing a business be successful," he said.
Applicants aren't required to have any equity money or any experience in the field they plan to enter, Mr. Dubin said. Preference is given to entrepreneurs who would locate their businesses in Howard County.
Also, the fund's loan committee looks for candidates with ambition and spirit.
"Ideas come and go, so you look to bankroll a person," said Mr. Dubin. "It's essential that a person have that entrepreneurial spirit; tough, competitive and able to adapt and change. Being an entrepreneur isn't easy."
About 15 candidates applied for loans last year. The loan committee picked two, giving them about $20,000 each.
One beneficiary, Ken Wilmers, used the money to start a franchise in Columbia for Futurekids, which offers computer and computer software training to children and adults.
Pete and Marie Celano, the other candidates selected, started Consumer Information Network Inc., a consumer-oriented health, banking and travel on-line information service.
"The nice thing about the fund is that even if we can't help a business entrepreneur with a loan, we have plenty else we can offer," said Mr. Dubin.
There are fund-sponsored classes at Howard Community College for improving business skills, a panel of experts who help entrepreneurs sharpen business plans, and a mentoring program to foster young business talent. The fund's directors also hope to launch a business incubator in the future.