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UnBound RVA Reaches Into Low-Income Neighborhoods to Help New Entrepreneurs Start Strong

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To most people, coffee represents a kick start. For John Eshler, it signifies sobriety.

For a long time, Eshler looked only toward his next drink. Now he’s growing his own business, a mobile coffee cart he launched in August with the help of Richmond nonprofit UnBound RVA. And he’s been alcohol-free for four years.

“A lot of people told me I’d never be sober,” Eshler says. And as much as he balances his business and personal life, the “recovering alcoholic” label doesn’t begin to describe his progress. His new business cards have a different label: John Eshler, chief executive.

His venture, GroundUp, became reality as one of the first participants in UnBound RVA. Its mission is to invest in “talented individuals from low-income communities, connecting them to resources, training and support needed to become successful entrepreneurs.”

With a full-time staff of five people, UnBound recruits only a handful of entrepreneurs in each annual class to make a deeper, more significant impact. The brainchild of co-founders Richard Luck and Sarah Mullens, it was inspired by the underused talent they witnessed in Charlotte, North Carolina, while working at Teach for America.

After moving to Richmond in 2013, Luck and Mullens researched the feasibility of a nonprofit startup and built a strong local network. They envisioned a program that could support potential entrepreneurs who had unique ideas while training them with the tools necessary to launch businesses.

In April 2014, the first class of 12 began its series of workshops. More than two and a half years later, UnBound has helped launch seven small businesses as varied as construction clean-up services and mobile auto detailing.

A VCU graduate, Luke Buckovich took over as UnBound RVA’s executive director this year. Melody Joy Short works as its small business director. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A VCU graduate, Luke Buckovich took over as UnBound RVA’s executive director this year. Melody Joy Short works as its small business director.

While other nonprofit programs focus solely on education, UnBound focuses equally on learning and relationship growth. The small classes allow for more time invested in each person, organizers say. The program aims to fulfill its motto, Opportunity Lives in Richmond.

“We believe wholeheartedly in the power of opportunity,” the Executive Director Luke Buckovich says. We push the door open to people who can realize their dreams.”

In the last year, Luck and Mullens have transitioned from their roles in daily operations to serving on the board of directors. Buckovich, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate with experience in sales and management, took on the executive director role leading the team.

“The opportunity to make Richmond a better place to live and work for everyone is what keeps me going,” Buckovich says.

UnBound’s leaders say that what distinguishes the program from other nonprofits that support new businesses is what they call transformational partnership. The team walks alongside the entrepreneurs through the ups and downs of startup and operation. Without unwavering investment and support, they say, the status quo of creating wealth within the low-income communities won’t change.

“We are more than a source for education, connections, or access to capital,” Buckovich says. “We are partners working towards a common goal.”

With an annual budget of $268,000, UnBound receives funding from corporate and individual donors. Such partners as Cherry Bekaert, LeClair Ryan, Village Bank and Big River Advertising provide pro bono services. Low-interest, affordable loans provided by community partner Village Bank help fund the businesses launched by each class.

The partnership with UnBoundRVA was an easy decision for Big River, says its president and chief executive Fred Moore by email: “To be involved with something that has such a direct and significant impact on our local community, and to be able to work directly with the entrepreneurs who are actively shaping a new life is tremendously rewarding.”

With seven small businesses launched, UnBound places no limits on potential entrepreneur ideas. Deneen Daniels, owner of Elite Mobile Detailing, provides a car washing and detailing service that comes to you. A busy mother of two, she devised a business model to take the least amount of time out of a customer’s day. She says she wants to be there for her own children while allowing customers to do the same.

Royal McCargo, owner of 1010 Post Construction, also founded a business tied to his children. Two daughters were born on the 10th of the month. Offering full-scope construction clean-up services, Royal provides quick and convenient material removal from full-size new homes to smaller projects.

No matter the business plan, UnBound’s brand of entrepreneurship is a strong, long-term vision supported by short-term goals rooted in family values.

Avian Mills says UnBound RVA helped turn her passion into a business.
  • Avian Mills says UnBound RVA helped turn her passion into a business.

In aspiring entrepreneurs, UnBound seeks out people hungry for change and willing to do what it takes to succeed. In June, the nonprofit recognized the accomplishments of the second graduating class at the New Market Pavilion.

A graduate of the program’s first class, Eshler attends in support of his soon-to-be fellow alumni. The echoes of chatter and glasses clinking ring while the setting sun floods the room with light from windows on either side. Family and friends of the graduates mingle.

Part of the four-member graduating class, Avian Mills, 30, speaks of the support she received. Founder of Closets and Kids, she provides organization, coaching and redesign services for homes and businesses.

“They never wavered in their optimism,” Mills says. “UnBound is like a family to me.”

This ceremony stands far from the typical walk-across-stage graduation. Button-downs and khakis replace caps and gowns. Heartfelt words supersede drawn-out, traditional commencement speeches.

“We ask ourselves how can we give access to opportunity when it doesn’t exist in your neighborhood?” Buckovich says. “We need to always continue the conversation of what’s possible.”

The event’s close-knit, dinner table vibe reflects the mission that UnBound aims to instill: a sense of family. As the UnBound staff challenges the attendees to push beyond the expected, the city skyline rises in the background, a visual reminder of opportunities that await.

A Richmond native and single mother of three, Mills credits her children who drive her to not accept failure. “My kids keep me going, no break,” she says.

Mills applied to UnBound seeking an opportunity. She was selected as one of four members of her class after a six-month competitive evaluation period. Each class begins with approximately 20 candidates and is narrowed to four.

“Avian is super tenacious, nothing stands in her way,” Buckovich says. “She’s what we’re looking for.”

With her mother as her primary role model, Mills says, she leans on her for help and guidance: “My mother is my life, my rock.” She watches the children when work keeps Mills out of reach. Outside of family inspiration, Mills speaks of admiring the character Olivia Pope, a crisis manager played by Kerry Washington on the political drama “Scandal.” Despite Pope’s morally ambiguous pursuits, Mills says, she respects how powerfully she commands a room.

Mills tells those assembled about the doors that UnBound has opened for her.

“We want people who have the desire to create something,” manager Tim Hetterman says, “who can withstand the ups and downs of small business ownership, but may not have the resources.”

Before graduating UnBound and founding Closets and Kids, Mills first realized her passion of working with children while taking a sign-language class at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. “I became fascinated with how the mind can develop in different ways at early stages,” Mills says.

Later, she worked as a teaching assistant at Dominion Academy. Needing a layer of thick skin, she found working with children far from smooth sailing. “If you’ve never been called a b—ch by an 8-year-old, you haven’t lived,” Mills says, smiling. “Everyone has a breaking point, but every day strengthens my practice and understanding.”

After time in the classroom, she realized the one-on-one teaching environment best suited her skill set. Constantly cleaning up for her own kids after school, Mills had a small business idea staring her in the face: helping children organize.

Molding her passion into a business, Mills and the UnBound staff settled on Closets and Kids. Back in January, Mills launched her organizing, de-cluttering, coaching, and redesign service for children, adults and small-businesses. With children, Mills focuses on those with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. She says working with the children is fulfilling because every case is unique.

Autistic children have trouble creating structure, she says, but follow structure well once they have it. Children suffering from attention disorders can create a structure, but struggle to follow it. Aware of the trial and error in the organizational process, she performs routine follow-ups to ensure her clients stick to the structure.

Client Phoenix Fitness and Martial Arts Center in Henrico writes in an endorsement of her services: “Avian has an amazing skill — the ability to quickly and effectively turn chaotic mess into a beautifully organized functional space. She is very timely and professional, with great communication before and after the job.”

Throughout the start-up process, Mills attended classes and seminars at UnBound centered on finance, management and business strategy. She took advantage of its network to make connections. And she says she appreciated the human touch — from dating advice to siblinglike arguments.

“What they were doing wasn’t just a job to them,” Mills says. UnBound develops the level of trust necessary to launch a small business.

Richmond has a staggeringly high poverty rate, and many of the solutions revolve around education, transportation and job training. For residents of low-income neighborhoods, starting a business on their own is a high bar — risky enough for entrepreneurs with the best of resources at their disposal.

Two-thirds of small businesses survive two years, and half of them survive five years, according to the Small Business Administration. As for UnBound, the numbers are off to a good start: 85 percent of the businesses that it has launched are operational. The only business not up and running is because of extenuating life events.

“We see the depth of our partnership and the network of support we surround the entrepreneurs with as what helps weather the storm,” Buckovich says.

The rigorous selection and education process allows UnBound to continually defy the odds, organizers say. Class members learn to create unique business value, communicate effectively with customers and form proven profitable business models.

During the past year, programs advancement manager Megan Murray worked directly with Mills to develop her business model. “She’s always had energy and passion,” Murray says. “At times she had trouble believing in herself, but she’s learned to appreciate the power of what she’s accomplished.”

During the past few months, Mills has continued to gain clients and expand her knowledge at such events as Realtor Fest. Her most difficult challenge since launch was redesigning a closet with a custom continuous clothing rod, she says: “It took a lot of trial and error, but it came out great in the end.”

Not without a little rivalry, Murray and Mills’ interactions evolved alongside the growth of Closets and Kids. “We were like big sister, little sister,” Mills says. “We might disagree temporarily, but got right back on the same page.”

Closets and Kids currently offers consultations, personalized proposals and hands-on organization. Down the road, Mills plans to not only organize, but also educate in a heavily untapped area by publishing books on organization.

To any haters who don’t believe in her, Mills has one message: “God told me different. If they say it’s not going to work, they must not know me. My dream is to make Closets and Kids a household name. Sit back, watch and see.”

Customers gather for caffeine outside John Eshler’s mobile coffee-cart business, GroundUp, during last weekend’s Brunswick Stew and Stout festival at the 17th Street Farmers’ Market.
  • Customers gather for caffeine outside John Eshler’s mobile coffee-cart business, GroundUp, during last weekend’s Brunswick Stew and Stout festival at the 17th Street Farmers’ Market.

With his coffee cart venture, Eshler worked with UnBound to form a business linked to his past.

Eshler had what he calls a normal childhood. He played sports, hung out with friends and avoided trouble at school. He began drinking in high school, never feeling the consequences until his friend was killed in a drunken driving accident.

“That was the first time I tried to quit drinking,” Eshler says. After a year and a half at Virginia Tech, he dropped out and started drinking more heavily. Distraught from leaving school, his habits got worse. He moved back to his hometown of Richmond, took jobs in restaurants to pay rent and hit a wall. Two DUIs, lost jobs and countless drinks later, Eshler moved back in with his parents. Still drinking toward rock bottom, he says, his parents had no choice but to kick him out.

Homeless, Eshler entered the Healing Place, a shelter and long-term recovery program for addicted men in Richmond. After 18 months of sobriety, he spent six months at the Works Program, designed to prepare men to rejoin the work force. The Works Program and the Healing Place are sponsored by Caritas, the largest provider of homeless services in Richmond.

After completing the program, Eshler worked locally for AmeriCorps, earning stipends toward his college education. He never forgot about his family, he says, drawing inspiration from them. He looked to his two older brothers as models of success in the business world as motivation. His oldest brother works for a small technology company and his other brother works in the corporate office of a national bank.

Mullens and Luck saw potential in Eshler while he was in the Works Program. As a part of UnBound RVA’s first incoming class, Eshler experienced the birth and initial growth of the Richmond nonprofit.

Working with Luck directly, Eshler took night classes at UnBound focused on financial management and business development while working for AmeriCorps during the day. He felt comfortable at UnBound, especially during public speaking classes — he’d spoken many times before at the Healing Place in discussion groups. Completing the first six weeks of introduction work, Eshler and the UnBound staff brainstormed business ideas for 30 days.

Eshler knew he had a passion he could monetize: coffee. Instead of drinking cheap alcohol, Eshler now sips on dark roast.

After sorting out the economic feasibility of the start-up, he envisioned his mobile-coffee cart, GroundUp. He signed loan papers with his fiancee by his side and launched the business in September.

Things started slowly. He sat at the first few events selling little coffee. Then he received a call from a property management company in need of coffee while its cafe underwent renovations. For the next month, Eshler set up shop outside company headquarters serving coffee to more than 2,000 people.

“One of the most important lessons I learned at Unbound is that things fall into place when you are relentless,” Eshler says. He made phone calls, asked questions and remained constant in optimism even though business wasn’t.

His toughest challenge to date, GroundUp served as the single supplier of coffee to 300 people at a sober dance rave event. After setting up the brewer, the water connection to the coffee trailer broke only a couple of hours before people were scheduled to arrive.

He drove home, grabbed his tool bag, and rushed back to fix the connection. Eshler stopped the leaking water in its tracks. The event was a success, becoming a building block of confidence amidst the day-to-day hard reality of running a business.

His story has not only laid the foundation for GroundUp, but also has inspired the UnBound staff. “John’s patience stands out the most,” Buckovich says. “How cool, calm and focused he’s been is inspiring.”

Down the road, Eshler aspires to open up his own brick-and-mortar coffee shop. For now, he can take a step back to appreciate his accomplishments.

“I needed to change myself instead of worrying about changing the world,” he says. “Drinking, I always played the victim, but a lot of things were my fault.”

To take a break from business, Eshler never turns down a soccer game. He picked up a soccer ball as a kid way before his first drink.

He says it grounds him in his sobriety as a familiar childhood outlet. The passion led him to volunteer with Richmond Street Soccer, a team aimed at helping homeless people, to support others who fell down his path.

“It’s cool to play soccer with guys who were in a similar position as me and talk to guys in the program,” he says. Just as Eshler looked to his brothers for guidance, he hopes to be an example to those he plays with.

“If I don’t give up,” he says, “I won’t fail.” S

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