The Benefits of Keeping the Ice House Model Running in the Background
Location: Fresno, California
Number of employees: 11
Small businesses and entrepreneurs served in 2021: 360
Number of members: 511
The Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce engages, educates, and empowers small business owners and entrepreneurs of color. They provide technical assistance to start, scale, or restart a business and help them access capital. Some of its programs are very intentional about outcomes and deliverables; others are more general around topics like developing financial literacy or building awareness of Black-owned businesses. But the Ice House model is always running in the background, feeding into the Chamber’s programming and instilling an entrepreneurial mindset in its members and participants.
The Chamber calls out structural barriers at the systemic level and helps its community tackle them for local small business owners and entrepreneurs. At the individual level, it is equally active in acknowledging and addressing personal challenges ranging from housing to access to business capital by establishing and fostering entrepreneurial mindsets.
The Chamber’s former CEO, Tara Lynn Gray—who is now the Director of the California Office of the Small Business Advocate—introduced the Ice House model to her staff and the board in 2018. One of those board members was Dr. Cassandra Little. After the governor appointed Gray to her current role, Little stepped into the CEO role and increased the use of the curriculum throughout the Chamber’s work, including in the Fresno Recently Incarcerated Entrepreneurs Network & Discovery Strategies (or FRIENDS) program.
Fast forward to 2022, and “ELI is always running in the background,” Little said. The Ice House model is an entry point for many participants. It ensures that everyone has a similar understanding of the entrepreneurial mindset. This assurance is true whether they are would-be business owners, women entrepreneurs, or young people enrolled in the Chamber’s financial literacy course with a long-term goal of building generational wealth.
The Entrepreneur’s Mindset course and supplies are always free—Little funds it by writing entrepreneurial training into grants whenever possible—and people can take it as many times as they like. So the content becomes thoroughly ingrained, and the continued interaction firmly establishes the framework for discussing entrepreneurship. “I don’t mind if people take it over and over because we all need reminders,” Little said.
The Chamber evaluates the effectiveness of its courses using pre/post-testing. However, Little and her fellow facilitators also see a difference that goes beyond the qualitative. For example, she gauges the positive responses to the success stories from the local community that she shares during class. And she currently has four alumni who are so committed to the content that they’re now certified to facilitate the course themselves. This will help the Chamber to scale its offerings.
During the pandemic, the Chamber discovered something major. The flexibility of online courses allowed it to expand the geographic diversity of participants because people could log in from anywhere. Their attendance and engagement were more consistent. As the Chamber ramps up in-person offerings again, Little said, it plans to continue offering online courses even while expanding its in-person footprint. For example, she’s working to bring the Entrepreneurial Mindset course and other in-person programs to California City.
As a longtime entrepreneur who started her first business in 1991, Little knows that she benefited from outside influences. Family and sports helped her build the mindset she needed to be successful. As a professional with a master’s degree in social work and a doctorate in counselor education and school counseling and guidance services, she recognizes the value of a tool like the Ice House curriculum in fostering an entrepreneurial mindset in individuals throughout the Central Valley. That’s why she’s diligently working to secure public grant funding to continue to expand. After all, with a true entrepreneurial spirit, she has overcome plenty of ups and downs before. She firmly believes that “challenges are opportunities. They’re not barriers.”