Location: North Omaha, Nebraska
Launch date: 2019
Graduation rate: 86%
Participants who have completed the program: 18
Formerly incarcerated: 20%
Past participants who serve as social models: 60%
Microgrants awarded: 25
Business revenue generated: $1.5 million
In North Omaha, as in many inner-city communities across the United States, residents tend to spend their disposable income elsewhere. There’s little sense of economic cooperation, and entrepreneurial skill sets often manifest in unhealthy behaviors. Pastor Myron Pierce of the Mission Church grew up in the area and faced many of the same challenges as young people today, including poverty, drug-addicted parents, and incarceration. After getting out of prison in 2008, Pierce was motivated to address the generational cycles that perpetuate economic and social disparities.
The eight-county metro area surrounding Omaha has grown more diverse in recent years. Its Black residents achieve higher levels of education, have lower unemployment rates, and have rising income levels. However, not all demographic groups benefit from these socioeconomic gains. For example, the pre-pandemic poverty rate for Black single moms in Omaha was 45%. And the gains leave some predominantly Black neighborhoods behind too. North Omaha, with a population of 43,621 that is 59% African American, is a case in point.
Certainly, the challenges go beyond low incomes, high crime rates, and a lack of economic opportunity. “There are the obvious systems and structures that are designed to keep people from success; there’s just no way around it,” Pierce said. “But on top of that is the mindset that the community has adopted because of having to navigate those systems and structures.”
To clarify, Pierce explained that sometimes the criminal activity in neighborhoods like North Omaha is an unhealthy use of a strong entrepreneurial skill set, honed by years of navigating the status quo. “We have skills, but our mindsets have to catch up—and we have to learn the language of the business world, then reconcile that language with the skills we have. That mindset piece was the game-changer for me.”
Mission Church set a goal of shifting 10% of North Omaha’s population—or around 3,000 residents—to an entrepreneurial mindset by 2030. Therefore, the church built an entrepreneurial ecosystem called Shift Omaha with three tiers:
1. Training to introduce an entrepreneurial mindset using the Ice House model.
2. Business mentors who provide wrap-around knowledge and hard skills in accounting, management, sales, operations, branding, legal services, and more.
3. Resources in the form of microgrants, computer equipment, and in-kind donations of “time, talent, and treasures” from the local creative and business communities.
Each spring and fall, the Shift Omaha team leads around a dozen participants through a 12-week training program centered on the Ice House life lessons. The candidates must meet selection criteria and demonstrate certain characteristics before Shift Omaha invites them to join a cohort. Pierce and his team look for North Omaha residents between the ages of 18 and 45 who are already entrepreneurial, gritty, and empowering. The facilitators require cohorts to commit to three critical actions: learning every day, doing something hard, and solving problems.
In addition, Shift Omaha seeks out those who are marginalized and probably would not qualify for traditional entrepreneurship programs. “We want people who have criminal records, single moms, people who have lived in poverty,” Pierce said. “These are people who, if they walk into a room, are put lower on the social ladder. As Gary [Schoeniger of ELI] puts it, they are the underdogs.”
As a result, between its launch in 2019 and the end of 2021, Shift Omaha will have fully trained and graduated 18 people using the Ice House model. The range of their entrepreneurial enterprises includes trauma-informed therapy, marketing, photography, athletic training, home health, business coaching, hauling, catering, lawn services, literacy, creative design, health and wellness, apparel, and early childhood development.
Furthermore, in exit surveys, 83% of participants say their knowledge has increased, and 83% report increased confidence. Consequently, many stay involved in Shift Omaha—40% volunteer on the team, and 60% return to serve as social models.
In addition, Pierce tracks many metrics. He knows that 33% of participants are women, 67% are men, and 20% were formerly incarcerated. Around 90% are from the community, and 10% attend Mission Church. And he knows that as of the fall of 2021, they have started 27 businesses and generated $1.5 million in revenue. For example, one of those success stories is William Snoddy. In this podcast interview, he described his experiences going from solitary confinement in prison to establishing a trucking company.
Certainly, Pierce doesn’t take anything about participants’ success for granted—not even the first step in their journey. “It always surprises me when someone fires their employer,” he admitted. They’re venturing onto a new path without much of a roadmap. Subsequently, their courage inspires Pierce to be there to support the program participants through the second two tiers of Shift Omaha. These tiers are business mentors and resources and a business networking community called Generate that helps with efforts like client referrals and sales.
“Even though resources are available to Blacks, a lot of the circles of support are for middle-class Black people,” he explained. “There’s a disconnect with those who grew up in poverty. Let’s equip people and then they can build bridges into those places of opportunity.”
Pierce and Mission Church have a long-term vision for additional supports in North Omaha. They’re currently working to build an endowment, Hope Deposits, to address the lack of credit available to those with criminal histories. Further down the road, their plans include an inner-city Chamber of Commerce, a bank, and expansion into other cities.
Most importantly, Pierce feels a natural alignment between this work and his Christian faith. “If you look at the history of America, the church was the pioneer to tackling a lot of social injustice. I’m trying to redeem that call to be responsible in our community,” he said. “Jesus cleansed, clothed, and fed people. That’s where we get our marching orders from.”