As a former small business owner herself, Simone Curls wants Kansas City entrepreneurs to avoid the struggles she experienced.
“I did it through the fire,” said Curls, executive director of the Prospect Business Association. “I walked those burning coals.”
Curls grew up around the corner from the Prospect Business Association’s offices on Linwood and Prospect. She moved away for more than 30 years, working in the non-profit sector and founding a business consulting firm, before returning to her hometown.
“I wanted to provide the resources and the support to entrepreneurs in an area that was near and dear to my heart,” she said.
The Prospect Business Association, founded in 2015, works to build a more vibrant Kansas City through business development. The non-profit achieves this by supporting businesses in the Prospect Corridor and around the city, Curls explained. All of its services are free and open to businesses of all types, from landscape to insurance, construction to retail.
Curls is proud of the one-on-one attention that the five employees give to entrepreneurs, she said.
“[Business owners] need somebody to just go to, a place to ask the question for clarity, for understanding or someone to sit down and help them through the processes themself,” Curls said.
As executive director, Curls leads the organization’s programming, including one-on-one coaching, workshops, and a partnership with the Kansas City Art Institute where business owners team up with art students to develop marketing materials.
Click here to learn more about the Prospect Business Association.
While the organization welcomes all entrepreneurs regardless of their race or location, 94 percent of the Prospect Business Association’s clients are Black. Many live in Kansas City’s East Side, an area historically underdeveloped because of racial divisions.
When Curls took the helm in 2019, the Prospect Business Association served about 170 businesses. Now it’s grown to nearly 350 members.
Dollars churning on Prospect
The Prospect Business Association builds a more vibrant Kansas City through business, economic and community development. They offer one-on-one business coaching and technical workshops, free of charge.
With increased investment in the area, Curls is optimistic that more opportunities for employment for East Side residents will inject capital into the area.
“We’re looking at the dollar being able to continue to churn within the community — taxes, so that we can actually help to build the community,” she said.
Curls didn’t express concern that the investment would bring gentrification, a worry of some residents, given the Troost Corridor’s recent transformation. In fact, Curls embraces the change, she said. With more businesses coming to the area, the Prospect Business Association is adapting to changing needs of entrepreneurs.
“It’s actually grown us,” said Curls. “It’s allowed us to go out and build additional partnerships and collaboratives to be able to meet all the needs that the businesses have.”
‘There was no training’
Many of the Prospect Business Association’s Black entrepreneurs were caught off guard by the quick switch to virtual business brought on by the pandemic. Business owners suddenly had to set up ACH, e-commerce, and credit card payment systems in order to reach their customers and access grants.
“There was no training to say, ‘Now everybody has to go through DocuSign.’ Upload this, download this, everything was now portal based,” Curls explained.
Click here to find the Prospect Business Association’s workshops on Facebook.
Prospect Business Association primarily supports businesses from historically marginalized groups (95 percent of its clients are people of color), which meant many of their clients didn’t have access to equipment or training necessary to easily pivot, she explained. Some Prospect Business Association members were running businesses off their smartphones. They had the motivation, but sometimes lacked the skills and tools.
“[Businesses were saying] ‘I’m trying to keep my doors open, now you’re telling me I gotta go buy a laptop? And I gotta get a hotspot?’” Curls recalled. “It was extremely overwhelming for people.”
The Prospect Business Association responded by offering software training and giving out laptops. The office stayed open (with safety precautions) to walk business owners through these new systems. Curls helped clients through the process, writing out steps on the office’s easy-erase walls.
“Once you take them through it, work them through it, work out the kinks – they’re great,” she said.
In her three years on the job, Curls has seen small businesses blossom with the Prospect Business Association’s support. She pointed out Davis Auto Repair and Tow on 70th and Prospect, a fourth generation auto shop that sought loan and marketing assistance from Prospect Business Association.
“We were able to help them keep their doors open during the pandemic, so that generational legacy can continue,” she said.
That’s Curls’ goal: to build legacy and uplift the Prospect Corridor through economic development — which includes uplifting the human beings running those businesses.
“You know, sometimes we just need somebody to talk to,” she said. “So if I can help in any way alleviate burdens, alleviate challenges, walk through it with you, help you see a different perspective.”
Curls recounts a client’s motivation for coming to the Prospect Business Association week after week.
“He says, ‘You’re more excited about my business than I am. Your excitement makes me excited … And so you guys help keep me motivated to keep going.’”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.