Foster School’s Ascend program boosts small business nationwide

A UW program to help Washington small businesses owned by people of color, women and veterans has expanded to 13 cities across the country, with three more cities slated to join this year.

The Consulting and Business Development Center’s Ascend program is based on the research of William Bradford, a finance professor and the Foster School of Business’s first African American dean. Bradford found that businesses owned by people of color are hindered by structural barriers to accessing money, markets and management education.

There’s a reason tech hubs like Seattle and Silicon Valley are booming, says Michael Verchot, co-founder and director of the now 25-year-old center. Networks of venture capital, entrepreneurs and innovators feed off each other and fuel growth. Meanwhile, median revenues at white-owned companies are five times higher than at black-owned companies and 1 1/2 times more than Latinx-owned businesses.

Bradford’s insight is the foundation of a program—called the Three-M model—to cultivate local ecosystems that correct the imbalance of funding, access to markets and management education by connecting women- and minority-owned businesses with universities, community development corporations and banks. “It’s an amazingly simple structure,” Verchot says. And it works.

The national program is funded by JPMorgan Chase with a three-year, $2.5 million grant. An additional $250,000 will help fund the center’s ongoing efforts in Seattle. In the Puget Sound region, the center is already working with companies and agencies like Seattle City Light to boost their contracts with businesses owned by women and people of color.

Rather than parachuting into cities with initiatives that end when funding dries up, Ascend encourages connections that will outlast the grant period, Verchot says. As such, programs are taking shape based on local conditions and around institutions that already have deep connections to their communities. In Chicago, for example, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University are working with local businesses; in Atlanta, the participation of Morehouse, a historically black college, is key.

The Ascend model goes back to the center’s roots providing management education and connecting businesses owners of color with financing. “We’ve been building toward this for 25 years,” Verchot says. “Chase was trying to figure out how do they really move the needle. They were looking around the country asking who’s got a good idea. They saw our work and said, ‘That’s something we want to invest in.’”