Empowering Business Owners Through Storytelling

Genia Stevens in a blue jean jacket smiling. 

Genia Stevens

Founder and Executive Director of Rock County Jumpstart

Genia used storytelling to empower Black business owners in her community.

IDEO U COURSE COMPLETED: 

Storytelling for Influence

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  “Your story is your story, and hold onto it. You might have people who don't like it, but be authentic and tell authentic stories. That's my lesson learned from taking Storytelling for Influence.”

 

 

Can you tell us about yourself?

I'm the founder and executive director of Rock County Jumpstart, an incubator and accelerator that works with Black business owners in Rock County, Wisconsin. I wanted to help Black business owners find resources, mentors, and tools for their businesses. You could go 35 miles away to a larger area for those resources, but because we're in a more rural area, we didn't have that. I saw that there was a need.

Headshots of nine business owners in Rock County, WI with the message, “Happy Black Business Month Rock County!” above.

I'm also a consultant who works with nonprofit leaders and community leaders who lead on grassroots racial and social justice initiatives, and run a marketing and strategic planning business.

How did you get into starting your own business?

I got into it about 20 years ago when I was an undergraduate at Beloit College. It was mostly out of necessity, because I needed to figure out how to make money as a single working mom. I thought about the people in my life—how my grandmother and father figured out how to start a business to take care of their families.

It's not necessarily because you have this desire or drive to be an entrepreneur. It’s primarily out of necessity, and then learning that you love it. That's really what it's like for a lot of the Black business owners who I work with. It's like, “Well, I really need to do this because I need extra income,” and then learning that they like it and making it something that they want to do long term.

 


“I wanted to help Black business owners find resources, mentors, and tools for their businesses. Because we're in a more rural area, we didn't have that.”
Genia Stevens


 

Who’s an example of a business owner you work with?

A lot of the businesses I work with are on the basement level. We have one business owner, Paquita Purnell, who has a business called Blessed Divine Creations. She started operating out of the basement, and then she started doing farmers markets and vendor expos and even a dairy expo. Paquita has grown her business by using a really creative model of renting a retail space in the mall and then sharing it with 13 other business owners.

Three women standing in front of a storefront surrounded by purple balloons.

Instead of taking on a space on her own, Paquita decided to get a space that's large enough to bring in other business owners with her. One of the things that I have been doing with people who I work with is getting them to think more about collaborating. How do you collaborate with other business owners, so that you don't bear the burden alone? 

Why did you decide to take Storytelling for Influence with IDEO U?

It's extremely important for the business owners I work with to tell their story. You have to be able to tell your story to funders, to the community, and to the media. I have to be able to impress upon people how important it is to tell your story to grow your brand and help others understand what you are doing.

What was your story about?

The story that I spent my time crafting during that course was the story of my grandmother, and what I learned from her running a bootlegging business. My grandmother had run her own business from her home. This was 40 years ago in a small southern town, a dry county, and it wasn't necessarily a business that was on the up-and-up. My father also ran his own business as a handyman, so I learned from them that you could always do something yourself and didn't have to rely on somebody else's job to feed your children. I asked myself, “What is it that I can do?”

 

That has become a part of the story I tell for Rock County Jumpstart. I remember I put this story in my case study and presented it to a banker here in our area, and he asked me to take it out. He said I would probably have funders who would be turned off by that story. I thought, “That's my story, that's my grandma's story.” So I kept it in.

I got my first two funders because they said they were absolutely inspired by the story. My advice to folks is that your story is your story, and hold onto it. You might have people who don't like it, but be authentic and tell authentic stories. That's my lesson learned from taking Storytelling for Influence.

  


“The story that I spent my time crafting during that course was the story of my grandmother, and what I learned from her running a bootlegging business. That has become a part of the story I tell for Rock County Jumpstart.”
Genia Stevens


 

What have you done since taking the course?

Ever since taking Storytelling for Influence, things have changed dramatically for Rock County Jumpstart. Immediately after taking the course, we secured funding. Now, a large part of what I coach and teach people is this: really rely on who you are to move through the process of building your business.

Seven people sitting around a conference table, with the Rock County Jumpstart logo overlaid.

Next, I hope to help change the culture of local politics by encouraging a more creative and collaborative approach to tackling the issues we see in our local economy. I'd like to see more involvement of community grassroots organizations and minority-owned businesses. It's going to be a huge lift.



Check out Genia’s organization Rock County Jumpstart, or dig through more stories from our IDEO U learner community. If you’re interested in learning how to craft your own story to motivate and inspire, check out IDEO U’s online course Storytelling for Influence.


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