Helping Black Entrepreneurs Believe in Themselves
It’s easy to look at the historic poverty throughout the Mississippi Delta and feel hopeless. Tim Lampkin, instead, sees opportunity and a chance to make things better. Lampkin founded Higher Purpose in 2016 in Clarksdale, Ms., where he has deep family roots, as an incubator and cheerleader for Black entrepreneurs in the Delta and across Mississippi. Higher Purpose has won national acclaim for its unique blend of training, access to capital, and peer-to-peer learning and counseling as well as its particular focus on helping Black women found and sustain businesses. Spotlight caught up with Lampkin recently; the transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Tim. Let’s just start with some background on Higher Purpose.
We started in February 2016 in Clarksdale with the original vision to fill the void of supporting black owned businesses. We had noticed that while Clarksdale and Coahoma County were roughly 85% Black at the time, the bulk of the businesses were white owned, more established, and were creating other wealth and asset opportunities for the broader community. Prior to this, I was working for a community development finance institution, Southern Bank Corp, leading community development work and really got a little bit more in depth with understanding the different challenges and also the opportunities for Black entrepreneurs. That enabled me to really build out this blueprint for Higher Purpose.
We started with just one, half-day workshop in Clarksdale about entrepreneurship and financial literacy. That went well, so we did four or five more that year. At the end of 2016, we did our first women’s entrepreneurship summit because we noticed the many of the folks that were coming to our events identified as Black women.
We did much the same schedule in the next few years, but we gradually began to understand how important capital access was. Our model really grew into a three-prong approach: education and training, capital access, and advising people who want to start a new business. In 2018, we had a grant opportunity that allowed us to do a seven-week program we called the Delta Creative Business Challenge. We utilized the curriculum from an organization called Springboard for the Arts out of Minnesota. They had did this curriculum for artists that blended business also with creative artistry.
In the next few years, we really started to concentrate on getting funding that would allow us to build capacity. By the summer of 2019, we’d raised half a million dollars and we were able to get some regular staff and concentrate on two main programs: Higher Purpose Business Academy and Higher Purpose Funding Network. We purchased a 14,000-square-foot building in Clarksdale that was a former Greyhound Bus ancillary shop and furniture store. We probably had six people on staff in 2019, including me, and we’re now up to 13.
We’ve also expanded geographically. We went from working in Clarksdale to the wider Mississippi Delta in 2020 and have gradually expanded into Jackson and even the Gulf Coast. In 2020, we also introduced our membership model, which allows us to really build community and support a growing membership of Black businesses. And I think what makes our model very unique is that it’s very multi-generational. When I talk about Black owned businesses, that also includes individuals that identify as Black farmers, Black artists, and more traditional Black entrepreneurs. We literally have farmers in their 60s that are talking with much younger, millennial entrepreneurs that are in their 30s about business development or growing fresh produce, particularly where there’s synergy. We have farmers that are able to provide, fresh produce to our food entrepreneurs that have businesses in that space.
And they can help each other
Absolutely. I’ve looked at other models and definitely don’t want to discount that work. But what makes our work unique is because of the state that we’re in, and also that the need is so great. We become this one-stop shop that is advocating, that is uplifting and elevating Black owned businesses from different sectors, and age ranges and locations because of those things. I also haven’t seen any other model that is bringing this multi-generational approach to organic peer learning that can lift up an entire membership. We have membership meetings monthly where we bring in different speakers, and that’s another place where our members are able to interact, share ideas, share challenges, get advice from each other. Those have been happening virtually, but we’re planning to do them in person in 2023, which I’m excited about.
So, let’s use a hypothetical specific case. I’m a Black entrepreneur in Natchez and I want to start a business and I hear about your organization. What happens next?
So, what typically happens is that we have a membership application, and if you were interested in being a part of our membership, you would apply. We typically work with the early-stage growth and mature stage businesses. We’re currently building out an offering to support those folks that are still in the idea phase. But most of our members are in that early-to-grow stage with at least six months of business activities.
So, you’ll fill out that application and we would verify documentation. And if you qualify based on those things, then we will accept you to the membership. And then you get access to all these other benefits. You get access to the academy, you get access to the funding networks, you get access to these monthly meetings that we do. We send out a monthly resource email with grant opportunities. Membership is a pathway into the organization that unlocks all of these other opportunities, such as advising. Members get access to advising around marketing and branding and legal and accounting. We’ve also been offering free mental health sessions for our members.
Right now, our membership program is free, but we’re looking to introduce a membership fee in 2023 that would help subsidize some of the costs. We’re looking at somewhere around $100 to $200 a year — not anything taxing but something that would help us offset some of the offerings that we provide.
How many members do you have at this point?
We are close to about 500 members, with majority of those members identifying as Black women. About 40% of our membership live in rural parts of the state, with about 17%, in the Jackson area.
And what are the top fields or sectors that are represented?
The top sectors are food, agriculture, beauty, and education.
And Tim, are you a Mississippi native?
I’ve been here long enough to claim it, but I was born in Chicago. My family had roots in Mississippi, and I would come here every summer. Mississippi has definitely been a part of my life for a very long time.
And is your family from the Delta?
Yes, my family’s from Clarksdale
And what made you want to move to and stay in Mississippi? And I say that as someone who worked there and who still has dear friends there — but it’s a hard place to try to make change.
I get that question often. I will say that this is the work that I believe that I’ve been called to do. And I have traveled to other states and done work in other places. I just see so much opportunity here. I think that’s what changes it for me, right? That’s what keeps me focused and grounded, that when people see deficits, I see assets. I think when people see shortcomings, I see ways to really build what’s impossible. While I can go to other places, the work is definitely needed here. We’re also doing things that no other organization has really done in this way, so we’re building and making history at the same time, you know? And for me, that’s rewarding.
I know that everyone who accesses the program is very different, but what’s the one thing that you think benefits people most?
I’m not going to use a traditional metric. But what we offer to our members, and what they gain from working with us, is that they are able to have a group of people that believe in them, and then they start to believe in themselves.
That’s a powerful thing.
Your business plan and getting access to capital and finding the location — that can all happen. But the foundational piece is, as I’ve described it before, a couple of jumps past hope. It’s the motivational piece to keep trying, to believe that this is going to work out. The unique thing that we’re able to do is say, yes, we believe in you, and we’re going to give you the opportunity to believe in yourself. We’re going to still be clapping for you if you make a mistake or you don’t know how to do something. I think that’s the foundational piece we offer.