It was a childhood lie that sparked the entrepreneurial fire in Geraud Staton and set him on a path that would eventually transform his community.
When he was 14, Staton’s older cousin bragged about how he’d been creating comic books and selling them at school for a dollar. “I thought, ‘He’s making money. I can do the same,’” recalls Staton, who now mentors other aspiring entrepreneurs in Durham, N.C. There was just one problem, though. “He told me later that he was absolutely lying — he was just trying to impress his little cousin,” Staton says. But the idea had been planted in Staton’s mind, and by the time he finished freshman year he had his first taste of entrepreneurial success: buying candy in bulk and reselling it to his classmates for a profit.
People who succeed in launching businesses typically have unfettered access to advice and support from a parent, a grandparent or an uncle who was an entrepreneur themselves, he says. “But there are people in communities, including mine, who did not have that. I wanted to be that uncle,” says Staton, whose mission to help what he calls “entrepreneurs of necessity” led him to found the Helius Foundation, a nonprofit that provides free coaching and mentoring to under-resourced small business owners in Durham who have struggled to find living-wage jobs.
“It’s incredibly hard to be an entrepreneur,” says Staton, who attended the Kauffman Foundation’s inaugural ESHIP Summit in June, where NationSwell caught up with him. “But it’s even harder for this particular group of people to find dignified jobs.”
Paying It Forward
Staton credits the early support he got from adults like his teachers and principal with having an outsize impact on his future. “I assumed at the time that everyone had the same encouragement and opportunity,” Staton says of his younger self. As he matured, however, he realized that for many of his peers — Staton grew up in a predominantly lower-middle-class African-American neighborhood in Durham — that simply wasn’t true.
Many of the minorities and women Staton works with have marketable skills but lack business sense. “These are people who can’t afford to fail, starting businesses that are often the first to fail,” he says. To remedy that, the Helius Foundation provides them with free coaching and mentoring services, helps them develop a strategic plan, and teaches them marketing basics.
Though Helius has a short history, having launched in 2015, it’s already given several program participants a much-needed leg up. One mentee, Connell Green, had worked in restaurants until an I-beam fell on him, temporarily paralyzing him. After the accident, he lost his family and his home. “He used baking as a way to heal and focus his attention, and help get some of his mobility back,” Staton says. Now he’s the owner of a successful bakery.
Another mentee is Ayubi Easente, who at just 14 years old is running a thriving business refurbishing high-end sneakers. “He doesn’t know if this is what he wants to do for a living,” Staton says, but Easente is gaining skills that will serve him throughout his life no matter what he eventually pursues.
From Obstacles to Opportunity
The Helius Foundation is based in Durham’s Hayti district, an area that used to be home to a flourishing African-American community with many black-owned businesses; it was once known as the “Black Wall Street.”
But thanks in part to the construction of an interstate that divided Hayti in the early 1960s, the community suffered a serious decline. Today, 46 percent of African-Americans live at or below the poverty line, Staton says, and fewer than 18 percent of local businesses are black-owned. “Those numbers are just horrifying,” he says, adding that changing them “would be huge for our city.”
But building a local ecosystem that supports entrepreneurship is a challenge. When you ask residents what the community needs, Staton says, “jobs” is always the answer. But he doesn’t believe that a large corporation relocating to the area is the best solution to the region’s challenges. “If we can get 1,000 people to start a small business and hire one or two people, we get the same number of jobs, but more sustainability,” he points out. “That money gets to stay inside our community.”
A large part of what Staton does is simply encourage people to try entrepreneurship. “I’ve got people who come in and still believe that they can’t make it,” he says. “I’m having to do a lot more psychology than I thought I would.” In a sense, he’s passing on the gift his cousin gave him: “Someone told me I could do it, and I went out and did it,” he says. “We have a lot of entrepreneurs who just don’t know they can do it, so my job is to show them they can.”
This content was produced in partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which works in entrepreneurship and education to create opportunities and connect people to the tools they need to achieve success, change their futures and give back to their communities. In June 2017, the foundation hosted its inaugural ESHIP Summit, convening 435 leaders fighting to help break down barriers for entrepreneurs across the country.