Flint, MI — Flint SOUP is perhaps best known for quarterly dinners where Flint’s budding entrepreneurs compete for funding support, but in late 2020, founders Adrian Montague and James Shuttleworth quietly added a business refinement program to their organization’s offerings.

The free 90-day training program, made possible by CARES Act funds from the Michigan Small Business Development Center, was originally meant to help a single cohort of small business owners. 

“But one became two, and two became three, and now three becomes four,” said Montague, whose fourth cohort of 12-15 local entrepreneurs will begin meeting once a week on Monday, July 26th. 

Montague said she and Shuttleworth started Flint SOUP in 2012 after a growing effort to better know and support the Flint business community. 

“There’s this quote that goes, ‘If you care about the poor, well, what are their names?’” said Montague. “And I translated that to, ‘You say you care about the Flint ecosystem and its entrepreneurs, well, what are their names?’”

At the time she asked herself that question nearly a decade ago, she didn’t know.

“I had no clue. I didn’t know their story. I didn’t know the pains and barriers that they were going through,” Montague continued. So after attending neighborhood meetings and listening to the needs of local entrepreneurs, she and Shuttleworth started Flint SOUP.

The organization began hosting dinners at which guests would contribute $5, listen to five minute pitches from local entrepreneurs, and vote on who took home the pool of money to pursue that venture at the end of the night.

Aside from providing a funding opportunity, Montague noted the dinners were a way to facilitate relationships. Something Montague referred to as “relational capital” which, she said, “is what we’re finding is the most critical piece in developing a community.”

Now, their refinement program, housed under their other organization, Haviland Hybrid, goes one step further than pitching to the Flint community, it builds one for the entrepreneurs who take part.

While Montague and Shuttleworth teach direct skills to help small business owners “legitimize side-hustle operations,” the curriculum also provides what Janis Mueller, regional director for MISBDC’s I-69 trade corridor, called a more “holistic” approach than small business support offices like the MISBDC can normally offer local entrepreneurs.

“We don’t have time for hand holding because we’re working with hundreds of clients,” Mueller, who contracted Haviland Hybrid for the program, said. “By having a 12-week cohort, they get to build relationships, expand their network, expand their growth, and understand that everyone has challenges they are overcoming.”

Mueller said that after seeing Montague’s success with the first few cohorts, she’s trying to find money to continue the program beyond this upcoming class.

“When CARES Act funding came through for our organization,” said Mueller, “(The 90-day business refinement program) was the first program I brought on board because it’s such an underserved market.” That market includes micro businesses which are mostly minority owned and face additional hurtles to funding and growth, Mueller added.

Tackling that underserved market is a big deal when over half of Genesee County’s small businesses are minority-owned, according to a 2021 small business analysis funded by the Genesee County Economic Alliance. The analysis also notes that in Genesee County particularly “67% of BIPOC-owned businesses cease operations before their sixth year.” That led the report to conclude: “A strong foundation of resources, training, funding and support are needed for business owners in their first few years of operation” and that “immediate support for new businesses” is “especially critical.”

Montague and Shuttleworth’s 90-day business refinement program could be considered one such support.

The program’s outgoing cohort includes, among others, a high school science teacher turned soap-maker, a wilderness ministry group called Project 40, sisters who plan to open a wholesale real estate business, and a couple that hopes to host a small market at their Fenton farm.

Sarah Pagel, 37, with her two children Lily, 10, and Bubby, 5, at Pagel Farms in Fenton on July 19, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

“It started off as Lily’s Daily Egg,” laughed Robert Pagel. Lily is the Fenton couple’s 10 year old daughter. “It’s turned into Pagel Farms.”

Pagel and his wife, Sarah, had originally thought a small egg stand would be a good way to teach their daughter about responsibility and business. But in trying to decide how to meaningfully build on providing a few eggs to neighbors and drivers-by after buying a 28.5 acre farm, the pair realized they, too, could learn a few things about business.

“Adrian (Montague) has shown us we needed to start by identifying a real niche,” said Sarah Pagel, on a tour of the couple’s farm. “And listen to the feedback from your community and those who patronize you.”

Lily Pagel, 10, holds one of her roosters that she has been handling since he was young at Pagel Farms in Fenton on July 19, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)
Pagel Farms cares for over 50 chickens on their property for their egg business. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

The Pagels believed they already knew how to run a successful business. Their controls company has been in operation for nine years and weathered the pandemic well, afterall. But potentially opening a small farmer’s market presented new challenges for the entrepreneurs. They said getting to talk through their ideas and developments with other local business owners each week has made a difference in their approach at both of their ventures.

“It’s nice to have that sense of community and people from all backgrounds coming together and being able to talk about their life experiences, talk about where they’re trying to go,” said Robert Pagel. “There’s certain things that we’ve covered in class, where we’re like, ‘Yes, we need to start implementing that even at our other business!’”

There are a few spots remaining for the upcoming cohort of Flint SOUP’s 90-day business refinement program, beginning on Monday, July 26. Inquiries can be sent directly to Adrian Montague at adrian@flintsoup.org.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....