Leigh Lester, founder, the Ubuntu Institute of Learning. Courtesy photo.

While its effects are invisible to many, the shuttering of a nonprofit organization can send shockwaves through a community.

Leigh Lester, who worked with the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency for two years as an outreach specialist among other roles working with nonprofits, has seen the impact.

“We’re literally closing their doors,” Lester said in a phone interview. “When there is one agency that’s been providing services for six, seven counties and it closes its doors, I got to see first hand how it devastates the community.”

Lester worked in a region in eastern North Carolina where most of the jobs were provided by a textile company, and she saw how it crushed the community when the company left the area to go overseas.

“Since many of the nonprofits relied heavily on donations from these same companies, they did not have funds to continue,” Lester said.

“These towns became ghost towns.”

It’s a problem that Lester has spent much of her life trying to solve: the reliance of nonprofit organizations on others to generate their funding. Whether a nonprofit shuts down because the company donating to them disappears, or because its community partners don’t work close enough with the nonprofit to provide funding, the root of the problem is the same.

“I’ve been singing from the rooftops for a long time now that we need to generate our own money,” Lester said. “We need to stop being so heavily dependent on donations and writing grants.”

Looking to provide her expertise to the community to minimize such tragedies, Lester founded the Ubuntu Institute of Learning in Texas in 2018. She moved to California a year later, and settled Ubuntu in Long Beach full time last year.

The institute serves as an educational resource that specializes in three particular areas: affordable housing, diversity and inclusion, and nonprofits.

In her consultation with nonprofits, Lester focuses on helping nonprofit leaders develop a more entrepreneurial mindset. One of the goals she emphasizes is dispelling the myth that nonprofits can’t generate revenue themselves. In fact, nonprofits can sell products and services as long as those profits and services are “mission-aligned” and the profit is directed back into the organization.

For those offering services outside their mission, they can create a for-profit entity like a social enterprise to fund their work, according to Lester. But taking these steps requires changing the way one thinks about their role entirely.

“In for-profit organizations, when things slow down, they pivot and say, ‘OK, what else can I do? How can I generate revenue?,’” Lester said. “But when that happens to nonprofits, they say, ‘OK, well, we’ll just take the same people and we’ll double the work. We can bring in more money,’ and it just doesn’t work.”

One of the programs that Ubuntu has helped put together to spread this message is Launch Long Beach, a partnership with the Downtown Long Beach Business Alliance (DLBA) and Cal State Long Beach’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE).

Launch Long Beach’s mission is to provide both monetary and educational resources to entrepreneurs and small businesses in traditionally underserved communities in Long Beach. The first cohort, which started Jan. 8, consists mainly of businesses just starting out, but also has a business in its ideation phase, as well as a couple that are looking to scale.

“We didn’t want what we saw in the market,” Lester said. “There were a lot of programs for people who were already making money, already in the black, but not really for somebody that was kind of in a middle space. That wasn’t being served.”

The core of what Launch Long Beach offers is a 14-week program, conducted by Ubuntu and the IIE, that provides training that addresses many of the knowledge gaps that, in Lester’s experience, has caused other organizations to crumble.

One of the participants in the first cohort of the program is Dina Feldman, who runs Feel Good Salsa, among other enterprises. She spent most of her career as a behavioral specialist before transitioning to the food business, so she applied to the Launch Long Beach program to learn about how to approach her new field.

“I came to learn the mindset,” Feldman said. “I didn’t notice some of the things that I was doing that I now understand through the program.”

For Feldman, whose background as an immigrant serving her community informs her mindset, one of the toughest things to learn was putting a high enough price on things to keep her business sustainable. While her history played a part, she identified “self-defeating thoughts and ideologies” through the program that she has been able to tackle.

“It’s a whole value system that you have because of your background, so realizing that I have to let go of some of those things,” Feldman said, it forces “me to think about those things and address them.”

Those ideas—reflection, finding solutions and improving your mindset—are the focus of the first eight weeks of the program, conducted by Lester and Ubuntu.

One particular group workshop turned out to be far more productive than Lester expected because business owners were so proactive.

“It wasn’t intended to be an inspirational session,” Lester said.

This particular exercise involved business owners identifying the things that they felt were holding them back, and the other members of the program could give feedback and advice. What unfolded was something Lester remembers as a breakthrough for many in the program.

“The whole time people could chime in and make recommendations,” Lester said. “Not one person left that class not feeling like they had something that they can now do to help them get over it.”

“I was ecstatic, because it wasn’t just me doing it. It was a collective.”

Following this training, the IIE steps in for six weeks with a more technical approach.

The institute provides coaching on setting up accounting, building a team, operating equitably and deciding whether to organize as a limited liability company or a C corporation, among other topics. Taken together, program participants are taught all of the skills they need to run their business.

“We try to help them avoid pitfalls that you see frequently with entrepreneurs,” Wade Martin, Director at the IIE, said by phone.

“I think that it is important that if someone has a vision, that they have the support and the skills to pursue that vision,” Martin added. “It’s more so about understanding the hurdles.”

To help support business owners in the first cohort of the program, the DLBA has partnered with Waterford Property Company and Turnbridge Equities to fund the new Entrepreneurs of Color grant program. Through that program, 10 of the business owners taking part in the current cohort of the Launch Long Beach program will receive $2,500 following the completion of their 14-week training.

“Launch Long Beach is a great opportunity to leverage the resources of the entrepreneurial ecosystem to foster and grow businesses in BIPOC communities,” Austin Metoyer, DLBA’s economic development and policy manager, said in an email. “Supporting this program is part of our longer-term effort for economic development to champion and uplift businesses owned by historically marginalized communities in Downtown.”

This support lends itself to another important facet of Lester’s philosophy: that entrepreneurship is an effective tool to tackle the greater issue of poverty.

“Entrepreneurship is one of the most effective vehicles for eradicating poverty in under-invested communities,” Lester said in a statement. “However, entrepreneurs of color often lack the skills, support and funding necessary to be successful.”

People of color—especially women—have faced disproportionate barriers to entrepreneurship and climbing up the income ladder. Launch Long Beach hopes to address that systemic issue by providing support on an individual level.

“We don’t want to say ‘OK, you face challenges getting access to funding because you’re from a community of color, or you’re a woman that gets only 2% of venture capital funding,” Wan said. “We look at their journey, their desire, their interest, and try to ask ourselves how we can make that go smoother.”

Applications to the Launch Long Beach program are rolling, so businesses are encouraged to apply for the next cohort at any time. For more information, visit launchlongbeach.org. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to state that Wade Martin is the Director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, not James Wan.

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.