Nichole Crust has always been a people person.
And it’s her love for helping others that she says will serve her well as the new director of a program that aims to elevate black-led businesses in Madison.
Last December, downtown startup developer gener8tor and the Urban League of Greater Madison unveiled “gBETA Urban League” – an accelerator that will not only help black entrepreneurs start their businesses, but will eventually take up space in the development of the League’s Black Business Hub on the South Side.
While black people make up about 13.4% of the United States, they own just 4% of the nation’s wealth, according to a 2020 report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC think tank. And black business owners who sought venture capital funding in the first half of 2021 received just 1.2% of the total $147 billion raised in the United States, according to a Crunchbase News report from July. 2021.
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But gBETA Urban League aims to offer two tiers of programming for black entrepreneurs: “gALPHA” and “gBETA,” Crust said. And gALPHA is a four-week accelerator offering business development training, plus access to mentors and coaches, while gBETA (also including access to coaching and mentoring) offers seven weeks of programming with an event of presentation, and is intended exclusively for companies that are actively gaining ground.
The Hub, a $25.3 million construction project, would be the city’s first black-run business center — an 81,000 square foot, four-story building on the corner of Park Street and Hughes Place. Crews are expected to inaugurate the project in the coming weeks or months. The development is also expected to include space for window displays, pop-up vendors and even a shared commercial kitchen.
Founded in 2012, gener8tor globally has more than 40 acceleration programs available for startups in the United States and the small European country of Luxembourg. The programs also support musicians, artists, investors and universities.
Crust said she is planning the first gALPHA cohort and hopes to launch gBETA in six months. She works remotely but will soon have an office at the Urban League, which also recently announced a grant program for Black-owned businesses titled “Together We Build,” Crust said. The fund aims to raise $200,000 by summer to provide money to black businesses.
Originally from Altoona, Pennsylvania, Crust spent some time in the Peace Corps after graduating from high school. Crust recalls traveling in her early twenties to southern Africa, where she became part of a community of women with whom she remains connected to this day. She learned to be aware of her cultural biases there, as well as that “customs and traditions different from mine weren’t bad, they were just different.”
“That idea helped shape the lens through which I view the world,” said Crust, who moved to Madison a few years ago.
To her role as director, Crust brings a background in social work and community organizing. She previously worked as a program manager for Kiva Greater Milwaukee. Kiva is an international small loans program for women and people of color.
During her tenure that began in 2016, Crust not only expanded Kiva Greater Milwaukee in the Madison area, but throughout Wisconsin, she said. From 2018 to January 2020, Crust was the Capital Access Manager for Kiva Greater Madison.
Then, after working for Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes’ office for a little over a year, Crust was hired at gener8tor as the Acceleration Studio Program Manager and worked her way up to her position. current director of the gBETA Urban League.
She earned her undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies at Cairn University, Pennsylvania, and continued her master’s studies at UW-Milwaukee.
How did you become the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation program manager for Kiva Greater Milwaukee?
In 2018 I joined Kiva Greater Milwaukee as a Fellow. I enrolled in the Masters Program in Sustainable Peacebuilding at UW-Milwaukee and was awarded a scholarship through the college’s Economic Development Scholarship Program.
This was a two-year scholarship focused on combining work with community organization and coursework. WWBIC (a statewide economic development corporation) was looking for a fellow to operate their Kiva program and asked to interview me for the position.
At the time, I didn’t know much about economic development or Kiva. Fortunately, those who interviewed me recognized that I had a transferable skill set that I could successfully apply with Kiva. After they graciously allowed me to change my mind, I joined their team and launched Kiva Greater Milwaukee to new heights of success.
How did you develop this program?
We’ve expanded the program beyond Milwaukee to include all of Wisconsin. We helped 190 business owners access $1 million through social capital and microcredit.
We often reached unbanked populations – 64% of our loans went to women and 68% to people identifying as non-white. We have helped many people take their first steps towards starting a business. The success of Kiva Milwaukee laid the foundation for the launch of Kiva Greater Madison.
What ultimately prompted you to apply for the position of director of the gBETA Urban League?
I was already working for gener8tor when I saw the advertisement for the position of director of the gBETA Urban League. I was working on the business side of gener8tor with high growth startups.
It was an amazing opportunity that gave me valuable insight into venture capital and owning my own business. When I first read the gBETA job description, I thought it was written especially for me. I love that in this role I can shamelessly support black-owned businesses.
Tell us what you hope Black-led businesses will get out of the gALPHA and gBETA Urban League programs. How will your experience help guide this for program participants?
Through these programs, Black-led businesses will have an easier time acquiring the expertise they need to launch or grow their business. We’re here to help businesses — at every step of the spectrum.
In my work with Kiva and Economic Development, I gained knowledge of Madison-based and statewide business resources. I have developed partnerships with people and organizations who wish to support the work of the Black Business Hub.
Why is the gBETA Urban League needed in Madison?
We need programs like gBETA Urban League in Madison because white supremacy is woven tightly into the fabric of our country.
Sure, there are black-owned businesses already thriving in Madison and across the country, but racism and white supremacy create unnecessary challenges for them. We need spaces where Black business owners can learn, thrive, and be freely part of a Black-led entrepreneurial ecosystem.
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