Frank Ulrich and Olivia Holden are two practical visionaries. Out of Archbold, Ohio, and the Mercy College building here in Toledo, they champion Assets Toledo, an organization that helps people leverage their abilities; an organization that helps the under and unemployed become small-business people.
Ms. Holden is executive director. Mr. Ulrich, a retired businessman, is a booster and former board member.
The idea is simple: Help people use what they know to begin an enterprise then create wealth for themselves. There are some 500 people on the Assets Toledo waiting list.
Every year, Ms. Holden runs three classes of about 40 people. Each class runs 13 weeks. The instructors are businessmen who give their expertise and their time for free. The only paid staff are Ms. Holden and a part-time secretary. Dan Anderson is a faculty member. Dick Anderson has been a commencement speaker.
To graduate, a student must produce a business plan. Ms. Holden told me, during a visit the other day, that many of these folks have never graduated from anything. It’s life-changing for them. Every single graduate speaks at the graduation ceremony. One, walking to the podium, began to sing.
Ms. Holden adopts the role of drill sergeant and mother figure. She allows some students to repeat the class. But everyone writes that business plan and starts something after graduation.
One “block granny,” who helped people with their kids, now owns and manages two day-care centers. Another makes and markets her own jewelry. Frank Ozanski of Clear Images Promotional Products in Toledo, is the biggest success story. He made posters and bumper stickers for the 2008 Obama campaign and built his work force to 15 people.
Mr. Ulrich, who is from Mennonite stock, told me the radical concept at work here is fresh but very old: Capitalism can combat want; enterprise can defeat the culture of poverty. And Christian love can find an expression in good business practices.
This notion might seem novel, even quaint. There was a time when every American believed in it.
Interestingly, this is the one model that actually works in the Third World. Empower, don’t hand out. Help build small businesses; make micro loans.
It can work in central-city Toledo too. Former Mayor Jack Ford’s youth-employment program — they also had to write a business plan — should be revived as one small, practical way to fight blight.
Assets Toledo is small enough to be responsive and accountable. It is sustained mostly by the Archbold corporate community. And by its alumni. One graduate told Ms. Holden he reserves an occasional $5 to help others acquire what he now has. The Toledo Mennonite Church and Friendship Baptist are the program’s hosts in the city.
Things are happening in Toledo. Some things are working. These, we should celebrate. And duplicate.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.