Small Business, Big Reach

By Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer

It wasn’t too long ago that Brian Parham was a humble guitar teacher, lugging his instrument on his back as he biked from lesson to lesson in the rain. He was doing what he loved, but it was a hard grind and he wasn’t making much money. But that all changed when he got connected to an organization called Microenterprises Services of Oregon (MESO).

For nearly twenty years, MESO has been quietly supporting small businesses in the Portland area. It began in the Black United Fund building on Alberta as a response to the  first wave of gentrification that hit that street, helping black-owned businesses build resilience as rents went up and clientele changed. MESO’s mission then, and now, couldn’t be more plain: to improve the economic opportunities of underserved individuals through empowerment, education and entrepreneurship for the benefit of the greater community. That is, everybody, regardless of their background or experience, should have access to the tools to become a successful entrepreneur.

It’s a cause that MESO’s Executive Director, Nita Shah, takes to heart. For fifteen years, she has helped steer the ship and oversee the organization as it grew out of its Alberta location and into its current spot on Northeast MLK. MESO has also opened offices in Gresham and Hillsboro.

“We’ve been expanding where communities are moving because of gentrification and [where there’s] a huge lack of resources for small businesses,” says Shah. Wherever they go, the focus is on building trust with the community there.  Felicia Wells-Thomas, Community Relations Manager at MESO, adds “We’re going to be here for the long haul. We have established ourselves and are putting roots into the community.”

The need is great, and varied. Some businesses need capital, while others need training. But most of them, Nita says, need the whole package: financial education, business skills, mentorship, access to capital and accountability. MESO has worked hard with its modest staff to provide support for businesses from beginning to end, with the goal of being a single stop for busy business owners and would-be entrepreneurs.

It’s not easy, and it requires a complex, always-evolving approach to the work. And MESO has worked tirelessly to lower the barriers to receiving their help so that anyone who walks in the door can get the help they need.

Brian Parham walked through MESO doors a few years ago, and what he discovered there changed his life. His story since that day backs it up: beginning as one guy with a guitar, a bike and a few students, MESO quickly helped him realize that he wasn’t thinking big enough. “They teach you how to build a biz from the ground up,” says Parham. “It’s the ultimate empowerment you can have in today’s age.”

With a mentor’s guidance, and with a lot of help from their Individual Development Account (IDA) program, which makes a 3:1 funding match with money saved, Brian transformed his business and never looked back. Learning to manage, and value, his time was key. Instead of holding individual lessons, he began doing group lessons, and quickly partnered with schools to hold lessons on site. The savings program helped him afford a new vehicle (the Dojomobile) to make the rounds and his business, Rock Dojo, has expanded far beyond what he ever could have imagined, with employees, contractors and even a few awards.

As far as he’s concerned, there’s something magic going on at MESO and recommends anyone who is thinking about starting a business to knock on their door. “They’re releasing an enormous amount of human creativity and potential. If you teach people how to really create wealth from thin air, that’s a tremendous amount of power and that’s what MESO is doing.”