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EMBERS Offers Hope to Low-Income Entrepreneurs
By Doctor Marcia Nozick, Executive Director, Eastside Movement for Business and Economic Renewal Society (EMBERS)

New hope and plans for a better future are being generated in Canada’s poorest urban neighborhoods, through an initiative designed to hone the entrepreneurial skills of low-income residents, to start their own micro-enterprises. Downtown, Eastside, Vancouver, is Canada’s poorest postal code with 68% of residents living in poverty. It is a community at a crossroads, struggling through disinvestment, health crises and addiction issues. It is also a community working hard to foster hope among residents and provide them with opportunities to improve their lives and their community.

EMBERS is a community economic development organization in Downtown, Eastside Vancouver, that works with residents and local organizations to help them research, develop, launch and operate their own self-sustaining businesses. With a grant provided by CEDTAP, EMBERS developed a self-employment training course, “Build Your Own Business,” designed to offer entrepreneurial opportunities to those unable to access traditional self-employment programs.

Adult learning styles are adopted with group work, exercises, hands on assistance and one-to-one business coaching. The target group we serve is people with low-income. Many of these people have barriers to mainstream employment, but entrepreneurship and self-employment is a realistic option. There are many creative and resourceful people in the community and many who have had previous experience in business. For one reason or another, their lives took a turn and they ended up outside of the mainstream.

We seek people at the point where they are starting over, beginning a new life. People come with a variety of skills, a business idea, and a passion to start a business. Our approach is very person-centered. We encourage people to work at their own pace and empower them to move forward with their ideas.

Due to the high risk of business start-ups in general and particularly for low income entrepreneurs without experience and financial backing, we have expanded our services beyond business development training. We have a business incubation program that offers ongoing coaching support to fledgling operating businesses, to assist in marketing, management and record keeping.

Examples of micro-enterprises being set up include rubbish removal, personal chef, jewelry design/production, web design, security operations, health teas, manufacturer of skin products, clothing alterations, moving company, construction contractor, and graphic design to mention a few.

Bill S. is a recovering addict with 3 years clean time under his belt. A highly skilled finishing carpenter, he had a dream to set up his own contracting company but needed a loan to purchase tools and a vehicle. What he found was that no bank would extend him a loan because of a poor credit rating dating back to his days of substance abuse. EMBERS worked with him to develop a business plan and apply for a ‘character loan’ through VanCity. Based on the merits of his plan, current work history, our reference and the ongoing support we were providing, VanCity approved his loan. As a result Bill now runs a successful business and has recently qualified for a mortgage to purchase a condo where he will soon be moving with his new wife. Bill has repaired his credit, started a business, built his confidence and is moving forward in a new life, clean and sober. “It’s these transformational stories that makes the work worth doing,” says Marcia Nozick, Executive Director of EMBERS.

Many lessons have been learned through the ongoing provision of the self-employment training and incubation services. When providing business training with marginalized segments of the population, it’s important to have adequate screening at the front-end to ensure the personal readiness of the participants for the rigours of business training, which can be quite stressful.

We don’t want to set people up for failure. Participants from low-income groups often have difficulty with writing and research using computers and library resources. They need hands-on assistance in learning these skills. We must be flexible in our program, due to various situations that prevent people from attending each session. Circumstances such as welfare appointments, housing dilemmas, illness, part-time employment, childcare, or basic security issues must be addressed. Obstacles faced by low-income people include a lack of financial resources and the understanding of financial terminology and tools.

Since 2004, 45 participants have successfully completed the “Build Your Own Business” self-employment course. In the last two years, over 100 people have benefited from our individualized business coaching service. We’ve had 26 businesses started, 40 people employed and 5 micro-enterprises have expanded their operations.

Through funding provided by CEDTAP, Western Diversification, VanCity Community Foundation, Vancouver Foundation, Social Venture Partners and VanCity Credit Union, EMBERS continues to provide micro-enterprise training and one on one business coaching, as well as developing new projects designed to fill in the gaps in services for low -income entrepreneurs.Farm Product (Grain)

One new project underway is the development of a financial literacy course in partnership with Canadian Mental Health Consumer-Run Business Program and Enterprising Women’s Asset Development Project. Another is to set up an Asset Development Account program that will allow low-income entrepreneurs to leverage matched savings 3 to 1, on condition that the funds are applied to their future business development. Combined with financial literacy training, the Asset Development Accounts will serve as a small equity fund for new business owners to access further capital and/or purchase hard assets for their business.

To access the business resources offered by EMBERS in Vancouver, call 604-692-0781. For more information about EMBERS; please contact Doctor Marcia Nozick at


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