Childhood friends Susan Claes and Julie Janssens shared a dream of starting their own business and a passion for healthy food. They set their sights on starting a soup-and-salad bar in the heart of Brussels— a new concept in the local food scene.
But as youth entrepreneurs with little formal training and no personal savings, Susan and Julie had a hard time accessing credit through traditional banks. They also knew that marketing, financial management and business planning skills would be critical to growing their business.
That’s why they applied to dreamStart, a training and microcredit “boot camp” that connects them to volunteers who strengthen their business acumen, financial skills and entrepreneurial confidence.
dreamStart is a program of nonprofit organization MicroStart,a Levi Strauss Foundation partner that supports low-income, aspiring entrepreneurs with small loans and business development services.
With further support from the European Union, the commercial bank BNP Paribas, and French microcredit pioneer ADIE, MicroStart leads advocacy efforts to ease barriers that discourage low-income Belgian residents from joining the formal economy, such as high self-employment taxes and limited public capital to help small businesses.
In the current economic crisis, youth unemployment throughout the euro zone is alarmingly high, and Brussels is no exception. MicroStart gives youth from disadvantaged backgrounds a “leg up” to rise above their circumstances and pursue their potential.
Upon completing the dreamStart program, all “graduating” entrepreneurs have a chance to present their ideas to a panel of volunteers—including bankers, business executives and social entrepreneurs—who offer feedback and advice.
I was honored to sit on a recent panel where I met Susan and Julie and their nine boot camp peers. They impressed me with their business ideas, ranging from a hybrid bookstore-tearoom to a store for collectors of rare (and sometimes quirky) artistic and scientific objects. They also shared their aspirations and their struggles.
Today, Susan and Julie are on their way to opening WonderSoup, their soup-and-salad restaurant. They are also eligible to apply for a small loan from MicroStart to help them finance its launch.
It’s one thing to help low-income communities weather this economic storm; it’s another to enable them to invest in their long-term future. With support from the Levi Strauss Foundation, MicroStart is doing both.