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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Paris Construction Company President Darian Paris is building affordable housing on the 2000 block of Cleveland Avenue. Paris was among 10 recent graduates of Chattanooga's Urban League Next Level program that helps minority-owned small business owners find ways to access capital, make connections and learn the skills to grow their companies.

Three years ago, Darian Paris decided to focus his residential and commercial construction business on building affordable new homes to help meet the growing need for such housing for many low- and moderate-income Chattanoogans.

"I've been funding my projects out of pocket because I felt the need to address this issue, but I was able to build the next home only as I sold the last home I built," he said.

Paris has managed to build new 1,200-square-foot homes priced under $200,000 and the houses typically sell in the current market within two or three days. But like most minority-owned small business owners, Paris didn't get bank loans for his business even though homebuilding is a capital-intensive business that usually doesn't pay off until the house is built and sold.

"The lack of access to capital definitely limited my ability to grow," said Paris, who built three houses amid the pandemic in 2020.

More Info

Information about the NextLevel program is available on the web at https://programs.interise.org/next-level-chattanooga/ or via email at urbanleaguenextlevel@ulchatt.net.

But Paris hopes to more than double his homebuilding activity this year by changing his approach to financing using tools he learned in a programs created by the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga to help minority-owned small business owners like Paris.

Known as "NextLevel," the 7-month training program for small business owners helped Paris recognize the need for him to change some of his accounting practices to help him secure bank financing to build more homes and grow his business.

Paris, who was among a half dozen business owners who graduated from the NextLevel program last week, called the training "an overwhelmingly positive career move.

"In just a few months, I have learned so much about developing strategic goals, managing money, leveraging my resources and connecting with others in order to succeed and to support other business owners," he said.

The training program, which works with the Boston nonprofit Interise to implement, offers training and discussions among minority-owned small businesses to help them grow their business. The 7-month program consists of a cohort of up to 10 business owners and operates as part of the Urban League's new Center for Economic and African American Business Success.

2021 gradutes of NextLevel

* Bibiana Fuller of B&M Remodeling and Furnished Spaces

* Jerry Hanner of JM Hanner Construction

* Dena Smith of Infinity Plus

* Darian Paris of Paris Construction Company

* Kimberly Lloyd of Six Ways Janitorial Services and Moderate Living

* Walter Lindsey of Unity One East

"We know that minority-owned small businesses have traditionally faced barriers to growing their business, including the fact that less than less than 1% of Black-owned businesses get a bank loan," said Candy Johnson, president and CEO of the local Urban League. "Oftentimes, our startup business owners and entrepreneurs really feel isolated on their journey and the lack of access to community resources, mentors and capital are barriers to growth. That's why we continue to offer this program."

The curriculum includes training on everything from financial management to marketing and sales to human resources. Participants learn not only from teachers and mentors but from one another, Johnson said.

In April, NextLevel welcomed more than two dozen local entrepreneurs with existing businesses who are participating in virtual classroom sessions focused on business and strategic assessment, financial planning, marketing and sales, and securing resources.

Urban League works with Interise, a nonprofit group in Boston that helps provide the training. The program, which the local Urban League first introduced in 2015, has been supported by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Lyndhurst Foundation and JPMorgan Chase recently committed $150,000 to the Chattanooga Urban League to expand the NextLevel entrepreneurship training initiative.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Paris Construction Company President Darian Paris poses in front of one of his new construction, affordable homes on the 2000 block of Cleveland Avenue on Thursday, April 29, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"We know the COVID-19 pandemic has uniquely impacted our women and minority small business owners, and this collaboration of partners is focused on investing in an economic recovery that works for everyone, " said Stefanie Mansueto, the Chattanooga market executive for JPMorgan Chase. "There is a strong small business ecosystem in Chattanooga and we are committed to developing innovative strategies for long-term, inclusive growth."

The Tennessee Urban League Affiliates in Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville are also sponsoring similar NextLevel programs.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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