When Hal Bowling's family hosted an Ethiopian exchange student a few years ago, he wasn't expecting the experience to help him start a new non-profit.
With less than two weeks notice before the student came to live with his family for an entire year, he planned to share American culture and his family with the student, never anticipating how the experience would impact him.
"It brought me to a point where I was thinking more and more about Chattanooga and the people in our own backyard," he said. "It was a great experience for us and for me personally. I began to look more closely and had my eyes opened to things I hadn't seen before."
With that experience fresh in his mind, Bowling and his associate Scott Soltau started LAUNCH Chattanooga, a small business initiative that supports underserved entrepreneurs through training, access to resources, mentoring and coaching.
So far LAUNCH Chattanooga has had a hand in starting 11 local businesses that employ 39 Chattanooga residents. The main way the program serves people is through education. Bowling and Soltau have combined the Company Lab's Springboard class with other relevant information to create a 10-week class especially designed to help low income people start their own business as a means for finding work. Four sections of those classes will resume at three downtown locations beginning Sept. 10.
"The economic downturn has been hard on everybody," he said. "There are a lot of people out there who are unemployed or underemployed, but in these communities like Alton Park, it hits a new level. It's very very difficult for so many people to find jobs especially if they aren't skilled at interviewing, have a felony in their background or need to work on a flexible schedule because of their kids."
Bowling said during the LAUNCH Chattanooga class, he and the staff work with participants to figure out what their skills are and how they can turn that into an income. Some of the businesses LAUNCH Chattanooga has helped start include an adult day care service, a pressure washing service, a hair product manufacturer and a barbeque restaurant that is soon to open on Glass Street.
"Statistics show that the net worth of an individual who owns a business is considerably higher than those who don't," he said. "Some of what we're doing is just helping people help themselves. The mindset of someone accustomed to being on welfare can be difficult to change, but owning your own business can give people the motivation they need to get out of that rut."
Before starting LAUNCH Chattanooga, Bowling said he and Soltau studied other programs around the country doing similar things. His goal for the program is to help make low-income neighborhoods more self sustaining.
"I know it's been said a lot, but I really believe there are two Chattanoogas," he said. "There are the Amazons and the Volkswagens and then you have the neighborhoods like Alton Park and East Chattanooga where these residents aren't working at Volkswagen and these residents aren't receiving the benefits of those companies being here. What I hope we can do is provide something that will support those people and bring the business community in contact with these people."
Citing the Bistro at the Beth as an example of a community driven small business in Alton Park, Bowling said creating new businesses from within the neighborhood helps to meet the community's needs and makes the community a better place to live.
"Look at the Bistro at the Beth," he said. "It's really just about the only healthy food choice in Alton Park. And just by doing that, by starting that one business in a community where transportation is a real issue, there are less people going to the corner store and eating fried food or cheetos for lunch."
For more information about LAUNCH Chattanooga, visit www.launchchattanooga.org or call 266-1384, ext. 28.