Long before Dr. Cassandra Little ever heard of Uncle Cleve Mormon and the Ice House approach to entrepreneurship, she already knew its power. That’s because her grandfather was an entrepreneur who had only a third-grade education but built a career working on cars and houses. Watching him, she absorbed the same lessons the Ice House model now instills in course participants via the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce.
Little herself is a lifelong entrepreneur who has always believed in the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others. She said people often presume her confidence in running her own businesses comes from her doctorate in counselor education and school counseling and guidance services, but it goes deeper than that. “I never worried about my ability to take care of myself thanks to my entrepreneurial spirit,” she said.
A sports mindset that she developed as an athlete further strengthens that spirit; she attended college on a basketball scholarship and has always believed that “challenges are opportunities, not barriers.”
Between her personal and professional backgrounds, Little is an inspiring leader for the Chamber. Its mission is to engage, educate, and empower small business owners and entrepreneurs of color in California’s Central Valley. It has 511 members and served more than 360 people last year. It’s looking to double that number in 2022 as the effects of the pandemic recede.
The reality of personal and structural barriers
One of the main challenges for would-be small business owners in the Central Valley is access to capital. “You can’t scale or grow your business if you don’t have money,” Little pointed out. Many of the individuals the Chamber serves also have personal challenges like housing.
“We have to acknowledge that those things are real,” Little said. “At the same time, the Chamber looks at everything from a racial equity lens. We know that there are systemic barriers in place. As a Chamber, we call those out and help the community address those for small business owners and entrepreneurs.”
The Ice House model is the curriculum for the Entrepreneur’s Mindset course curriculum. It is an entry point for anyone whose path intersects with the Chamber. During the pandemic, Little said, offering the course online helped the Chamber keep local engagement high while simultaneously expanding its audience throughout California.
“It’s a wonderful tool to discuss not just the how and why of entrepreneurship, but mindset too,” she said. Some of the Chamber’s programs are very intentional about outcomes and deliverables. Additionally, the Entrepreneur’s Mindset course is always running in the background, feeding into them. Because individuals can take the free course more than once, it also reinforces lessons and reignites the spirits of experienced entrepreneurs.
Little anticipates continuing the online version of the Ice House course because of its flexibility and availability for anyone, regardless of where they’re located. However, the Chamber is also eager to get back to in-person offerings—and it’s looking to expand those too. For example, Little has her sights set on bringing the course, Dream Fund grants, and the Betting Big accelerator program to California City. The potential audience includes everyone from longtime business owners to employees at the correctional facilities to hustlers who are looking to legitimize their skill sets.
In Fresno, the Chamber will continue its bread-and-butter work. This work includes providing technical assistance to start, scale, or restart small businesses while helping entrepreneurs access capital; and building generational wealth by discussing financial literacy with young people. The Chamber also hosts many events to spotlight ideas, strategies, and individuals.
For Little, the work will always have a vital personal component. “My grandfather always said, ‘If you spent a lot of time looking for a job, you can create one,’” she recalled. “We all live in a world where there are gaps, and we all have a skill set we can share.”