The Knowledge Park Kickoff in 2018 brought with it new interest and commitment to business development and entrepreneurship in the City of Rock Hill. The Technology Incubator, the entrepreneurial center for the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation (RHEDC) began its work to create a sustainable entrepreneurship community to help power the City’s new economy. The then Director of the Incubator envisioned a new economy led by entrepreneurs that represented creativity, empowerment, inclusivity, and diversity. He quickly realized that participation by Black entrepreneurs was lacking, and he wanted to see that change. He initiated a dialogue with, Black citizens who expressed an interest in his work, community leaders, and Black business owners to get input on a potential solution. The Black Economic Leadership League of Rock Hill (B.E.L.L.) was birthed.
As B.E.L.L. was formalizing its mission, vision, and goals; an opportunity presented itself to partner with the City of Rock Hill on a Workforce Development initiative to bring awareness to the residents of the Saluda Corridor and the Southern part of Rock Hill about educational and job opportunities that could help them obtain jobs paying a livable wage. This initiative provided the foundation for B.E.L.L.s first pillar, Workforce Development and Education.
As entrepreneurship endeavors continued within RHEDC, plans for a business development minor league were being formulated as a pathway to give potential and existing black business owners a foundation to enter into existing programs. Simultaneously as members of B.E.L.L. were educated about the history of Rock Hill’s black business community and the demise that occurred during the 1970’s period of urban renewal. As the African American Cultural Resource Advisory Council erected a monument to memorialize the once active and thriving business community, what could not be recaptured was the loss of independence, opportunity, ownership, and financial stability.
As fate and great timing would have it, a retired bank CEO introduced B.E.L.L. to a local business owner, JM Cope Construction who stepped forward and offered to fund a business competition with B.E.L.L to support its business development program. The $100,000 donation launched the small business competition X-Prize (currently known as BELL-Prize) to interested black entrepreneurs. We saw many in the Rock Hill entrepreneur ecosystem galvanize and offer support. The period of learning, exchanging ideas, and working together as a community was a game-changing moment for B.E.L.L. It solidified our role as supporters of black entrepreneurship, was the foundation for our second pillar, Business Development, and Innovation, and offered a vision for helping those who were underemployed through workforce development initiatives. Building businesses, and helping to develop skills for better job opportunities moved us toward ways of finding solutions to close the income gap disparity for the 38% of African Americans living in the City of Rock. It became clear that equitable inclusion in all areas had to be the way forward. It also became clear that we needed a third pillar to round out the needs of the first two pillars, which became Leadership Development and Training.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
The future direction for B.E.L.L. is to remain focused on supporting the development of PEOPLE! How do we engage in a meaningful and impactful way that empowers the members of our community to move forward with strength, courage, and confidence? We have adopted three strategic pillars of engagement and learning:
Business Development and Innovation: Encourage entrepreneurship in the Black community; help develop businesses in economically disenfranchised neighborhoods and bring money into these communities.
Leadership Development and Training: Help close the opportunity gap through leadership development and training for B.E.L.L. membership and the greater community.
Workforce Development and Education: Provide oversight and direction to initiatives involving educational outreach, educational engagement, and workforce development.
Our long-term aim is to grow into the B.E.L.L Center. We envision this as a community-oriented productivity and resource center where community members gather for workforce and business development solutions. The Center will foster an environment of collaboration, inclusiveness, and innovation, aimed at creating sustainable social and economic impact!