Sharu Goodwyn assumed the role of Community Investment Manager for Office Depot in October 2020. In less than a year, she has made an enormous impact through her oversight of Elevate Together™ powered by Round It Up America®, a new nonprofit initiative designed to help accelerate the creation, growth and prosperity of Black and Hispanic-owned small businesses. The ODP Corporation (parent company to Office Depot) is the initiative’s founding partner and made an initial investment of $250,000, which helped launch the program in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and South Florida in early 2021. Through a partnership with the National Urban League’s (NUL) Entrepreneurship Centers and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), the initiative helps support Black and Hispanic small businesses with five or less employees.
Accelerating Minority-Owned Business Growth and Prosperity
Those are the facts, but they do not showcase the wonderful work being done through the Elevate Together™ initiative. The program directly supports Black and Hispanic small business owners with the mission of helping local economies, fostering job creation, and helping to close the racial wealth gap.
After the death of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed, Gerry Smith, CEO for The ODP Corporation, and the organization’s executive leadership team looked for a way to have an impactful and sustainable response to addressing racial equity. “Since Office Depot has a long history of serving the business community,” says Sharu, “it made sense for the company to try to level the playing field for minority-owned businesses, because that’s the way we could have the most impact in this space.”
Elevate Together™ has three pillars: Education, Access, and Aid. Under the Aid pillar, the initiative provides cash grants and in-kind products and services that go directly to small business owners. The revenue to provide those cash grants is raised from a variety of different sources. Customers are invited to make donations to the initiative in Office Depot and OfficeMax stores or online. The ODP Corporation employees can give to the program through payroll deduction, and vendors and suppliers, as well as other like-minded corporations that want to support the minority business community, are able to become corporate mission sponsors as well. NCR Corporation became the first official Elevate Together™ corporate sponsor in June, investing $200,000 to support minority small businesses through this initiative.
Critical Money and Technical Assistance for Business Sustainability
The funds raised are the source of cash grants awarded directly to small businesses. To date, approximately $1.7 million has been raised, and more than 80 cash grants of $5,000-$10,000 have been awarded. For a small business, this is critical money for business sustainability. Angel Melendez, President of Nextelix, said the money allowed “access to training, certifications, and resources that we otherwise couldn't afford to grow our business, and to help our clients, our families, and our business community,” adding, “The grant is helping us to recruit one person part-time which will allow me to delegate office paperwork to work on business development and sales.”
There is a process for selecting the businesses, and the Elevate Together™ team works with its community partners to assess businesses based on established criteria. Businesses must be licensed, have less than five employees, have been in operation for at least nine months, and importantly, are participating in the technical assistance programs offered by the community partners. This is not an initiative in which money is simply handed to the business.
The community partners create selection committees that evaluate which businesses are ready for support. Sharu explains, “We thought it was important to do it this way so we know which businesses are ready to receive cash grants, and which businesses are ready to be mentored to help their businesses scale and grow.” Under the Education pillar, technical assistance is provided by the NUL and USHCC in the form of one-on-one counseling, workshops, training and bootcamps.
Reaching New Heights with the Help of Mentoring
In addition to the cash grants, small businesses are matched with a mentor who helps take the business to the next level. Mentoring lasts 6-12 months and is a critical component of the initiative. The Venture Mentoring Team was selected to manage the mentoring component of the Elevate Together™ program. For Attiya Atkins, Founder of A+ Editing & Content Creation, mentoring has been her biggest help. “Mentoring has helped me by being able to speak with and get advice from people who have successfully scaled and sold their business. To hear from people who have done this before or similar things is a guiding light in the dark. I believe that the help I’ve received will propel me to the next level and allow me to show other minorities that it is possible to reach new heights and elevate past the status quo.”
The Venture Mentoring Team has a rigorous methodology for training executives who really want to give back to the small community. The executives attend six 2-hour training sessions. Sharu explains, “Corporate executives needing help with something like finance can go to an internal department and get assistance. Small businesses often do everything – sales, marketing, finance, etc. Mentors are trained to right-size their experience in working with small businesses.” Under the Access pillar, the selected minority-owned businesses also gain access to professional networks and platforms and get assistance with finding non-traditional lending sources.
Paying It Forward
Stephannie Cetoute, Co-owner of Amer-Plus Janitorial, describes her experience in this way, “The Elevate Together initiative has helped me to refocus my attention towards working on my business rather than in my business. The mentors have provided invaluable advice and the cash grant has helped to kickstart upgrades to manage growth. A foundational principle that will propel my business to the next level is to develop the leadership skills that I envision my business needing for future success. I am truly humbled to have the opportunity for The ODP Corporation to model this concept for my company as a minority business and will certainly pay it forward by supporting, partnering, and mentoring other up and coming minority businesses.”
The minority-owned businesses that participate in the Elevate Together™ program reap many benefits, but just as importantly, they also see this an opportunity to help other minority-owned businesses. Nadeige Sterlin, Co-owner of La Paix Bakery shared her perspective. “Becoming one of the small business grant winners from the Elevate Together initiative enabled us to make the necessary short-term investments needed to secure a new delivery van and supported our product packaging expansion. We are transparent about the pivot that we took in 2020, by revamping key areas of our business model, rebuilding our brand, making the necessary investments into social media, marketing and elevating our customer in-store experience. Hopefully we inspire other minority businesses to adopt and implement some of these key best practices and innovative ideas to elevate their respective businesses. I want to ensure we continue to pay-it-forward by sharing our story to help strengthen other Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs. This helps us to collectively strengthen our community long-term, while saving and creating more local jobs in the short-term.”
In some cases, participation in Elevate Together™ leads to mutual benefits. David Muir, Director of Island Syndicate, participated in the program. He says, “The Elevate Together grant funds were utilized to improve our team and afford us access to that ‘next level.’ Office Depot has also become one of our clients thus increasing our revenue and giving us another prestigious, national company to list as one of Island Syndicate's satisfied customers.” David notes that the cash grant also allowed the company to “continue utilizing other Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs as subcontractors to the variety of media projects we are entrusted in delivering” and to “continue to partner with Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs to execute client projects that require collaboration as we strive to obtain work which stretches us beyond our currently existing capacity.”
Looking Ahead to a More Just and Inclusive Business Environment
Currently, the Elevate Together™ program is available in five markets - South Florida, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles – but there are plans to expand into new markets. Asked about the future goals of Elevate Together™, Sharu says, “I would love to see Elevate Together become a coalition of companies that are working together to support this initiative. Having a larger coalition of companies would hopefully allow us to enter 25 plus markets, with over 1,000 mentors mentoring small businesses and awarding over 1,000 grants to small businesses.”
Sharu encourages anyone interested in learning more about Elevate Together™ to visit the website at https://www.elevatetogether.org/ and to make a donation at an Office Depot or OfficeMax store, or online at https://www.officedepot.com/elevate-together (no purchase necessary). Every $1 donation is a dollar well spent.