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From business idea to business plan: Baltimore library ‘Entrepreneur Academy’ can help get you there | COMMENTARY

Dorie Newton of Baltimore works on a computer at the Central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Dorie Newton of Baltimore works on a computer at the Central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

The pandemic has disrupted business as usual, especially for the small business community. Entrepreneurs have faced immense challenges, as public health guidelines shuttered all nonessential business in the early months of COVID-19, and ultimately placed restrictions, such as social distancing, on operations.

While the pandemic-challenged environment has devastated many businesses and life as we know it, it also has presented new opportunities. Responding to the emerging needs of their communities, local entrepreneurs are innovating to identify new opportunities, and Baltimore County Public Library is helping them pivot amid shifting realities.

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Like small businesses and local entrepreneurs, libraries are always tuned in to the current needs of their communities and ready to respond with timely and relevant services. Baltimore County Public Library and Enoch Pratt Free Library created Entrepreneur Academy, a training ground for budding entrepreneurs to move from business idea to business plan. The weekly classes cover small business startup and operations, ranging from market research to business structure; insurance and legal issues to marketing; and business finances, taxes and record keeping.

Prior to the pandemic, Entrepreneur Academy focused on building small businesses in communities that are often underrepresented and underserved, offering the series in branches that serve predominantly persons of color or those with above-average unemployment rates. Some participants arrive in the “business idea to startup” phase, such as the commercial cleaning service or the mobile therapeutic massage. Others come to the classes already running a business — a hair stylist and a bakery specializing in custom goods to accommodate dietary special needs are two examples — but are ready to expand and learn to operate efficiently and in compliance with sound business practices.

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Faced with the same restrictions as the small businesses we serve, Baltimore County Public Library and Enoch Pratt Free Library created and offered an online version of Entrepreneur Academy. Offering Entrepreneur Academy virtually allowed for larger class sizes since they are not constrained by meeting room capacity. Despite allowing more participants, the waiting list numbers over 200.

As with pre-pandemic, in-person cohorts, most participants are pursuing home-based or single-operator and family-based businesses, such as tax preparer, scientific consultant, event planner, food truck owner and neighborhood food market; many mention a desire to eventually expand their business. Feedback from participants remains enthusiastic with comments like, “This academy has prompted me to start a business! I’ve been stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’ for a few years, teetering on what business I should start … this class has been vital in giving me that confidence.” Another participant reported, “As I was filling out the application [to obtain a business license in Baltimore County] and doing my business plan,” she wrote, “I saw just how much I had learned from the academy! The application was basically the business model canvas we spoke about in class. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without you.”

Our library is unique, but not alone in our efforts to support small businesses. Baltimore County Public Library is one of 13 libraries nationwide selected to participate in Libraries Build Business, an initiative of the American Library Association and sponsored by Google.org, to expand small business and entrepreneur programs and services in public libraries. Our goal is to identify promising practices and models for library-led entrepreneurship initiatives to scale nationally. Libraries are poised to support and prepare small businesses and entrepreneurs to launch, pivot, sustain and innovate across the country, even in times of crisis.

The Libraries Build Business pilot program comes at a crucial time for small business communities around the country and demonstrates the importance of libraries in the workforce and business development sector. At a time when business owners and entrepreneurs must adapt to the limitations resulting from the pandemic, libraries can facilitate these critical moves and be a key partner in business recovery and resilience.

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As the new congressional session begins and with a new administration at the helm, lawmakers are looking for direction on how to boost economic growth. They need to consult with Baltimore County Public Library as well as Wall Street.

Natalie Edington (ADEdington@bcpl.net) is assistant director for the Baltimore County Public Library system. Alan Inouye (ainouye@alawash.org) is senior director of public policy and government relations for the American Library Association.

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