The Enterprise Center

As Philadelphians come together to celebrate Minority Enterprise Development (MED) week –  a time when minority businesses are fêted and encouraged through city-wide events –  we couldn’t imagine a better organization to highlight than The Enterprise Center. This West Philadelphia non-profit has been providing access to capital, capacity building, business education and economic development opportunities to high-potential, minority entrepreneurs since 1989. To learn more about the history of The Enterprise Center (TEC) and its role in the community we spoke with the organization’s president, Della Clark, who has led TEC since 1992. 

The conversation with Della occurs at their 4548 Market Street headquarters, once the home to the TV studio where American Bandstand was filmed. Since they share a last name, Della likes to joke that she was Bandstand host Dick Clark’s first wife. “This building is very significant,” Della explains. “In terms of 46th and Market, West Philadelphia, television, entertainment. It was a place where people would come hoping to hit it big in music and entertainment. We think of it today as a place to hit it big in business.”     

The Enterprise Center provides assistance through three avenues. Their business development efforts accelerate the capacity of minority enterprises to compete in any marketplace through business education, management support, and connections to industry. Their capital corporation provides access to debt and equity capital that businesses need to start, grow, and succeed. And their community development corporation catalyzes benefits for businesses and residents that spark revitalization in distressed, low-income neighborhoods.

When TEC launched, Della explains they “Were mostly focused on starting small businesses, not scaling or accelerating. We certainly were not providing capital.” The mission has evolved over the years to keep up with changes in the business environment, and they’ve also helped businesses keep up with new technologies. 

One of TEC’s earliest clients was FutureNet, a company owned by West Philadelphia native Noel Lowe. In the 90s, FutureNet’s business consisted of repairing typewriters, and SEPTA was their largest company. The Enterprise Center worked with FutureNet to adapt their business model to focus on information technology. “I watched Noel grow,” Della says. “He’s been a client that I have kicked in the butt, yelled at, nurtured, loved, hugged. He’s a local success story.” Today the company does over $2 million in revenue a year and has two major contracts with the City.  

With TEC’s help, Donna Miller of DeBose Printing & Business Services similarly learned how to adjust to changing technologies. When she first came to The Enterprise Center, she had been doing typing work for colleges and universities. but she knew that the decreasing cost of personal computers co would limit her profitability. The Enterprise Center helped her incubate a new business model focused on desktop publishing, graphics, and full scale printing, with a twist.  

“We did some research and found that in the African American community there’s a need for elaborate programs for funeral services,” Della says. “They might be three pages, they have photos, they are very sophisticated.” The Enterprise Center helped connect Donna to local mortuaries serving African American clientele, and her company is still in business today at 72nd and Haverford. “When she came to us she was on public assistance,” Della says. “With our help she owns her own house, her own car. We even coined the joke that people were just dying to give her business.”    

Today, The Enterprise Center is focused on the food and construction industries. They expanded their operation to include the Dorrance Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises (CCE), which supports both established and start-up food businesses and food processors in need of commercial kitchen space and technical assistance. Located at 310 S. 48th Street, CCE houses 5,000 square feet of commercial grade cooking facilities, including four state-of-the-art, shared-use commercial kitchens that are used by local caterers, food trucks, and other mobile vendors. It is also the home of the  48th Street Grille, a sit-down Caribbean restaurant operated by former CCE client Carl Lewis. 

Della is excited by the potential for growth in this industry. “We had four clients vending at the NFL Draft in Philadelphia,” she explains. “We do taste-testings on a regular basis. We invite members of the food services industry who are in the University City area. Penn, Drexel, University of the Sciences, Children’s Hospital. We court their food services companies. Institutions in West Philadelphia and University City have been extremely important to our food sector. We just think it’s going to explode.” TEC supports restaurants through their Common Table program as well, a pop-up restaurant concept where new restaurateurs can test concepts without needing to fully invest in opening a brick and mortar location. The program launched in January of 2017 with Shark Tank participants LuLu Bang, and will welcome Atiya Ola Spirit First Food at the end of October. 

The Enterprise Center has also done similar work around construction, forming a consortium to assist construction firms with best practices, and helping point them to available opportunities so they are ready when they arrive. “In both food and construction, capacity is a big thing,” Della explains. “A food service company, they don’t want to award you a very large food contract if you don’t have capacity. It’s the same way in construction.”

And construction is certainly a major part of the current University City landscape. Della points to the high rate of development throughout the neighborhood and wants The Enterprise Center to be a part of it. Twenty years ago, Della didn’t know when – or if – development would have stretched west to 46th and Market. “Today, I can see it coming,” she says. “It’s at 42nd already.” 

She has long been interested in accelerating growth on Market Street, and the community development corporation is critical to that work. From campaigning for the City to move its police headquarters to the former Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company at 46th & Market to planning a mixed-used development on the south side of that intersection, Della has visions of the best way to activate her corner of West Philadelphia. When they moved into their current headquarters, the building was boarded up and dilapidated, and Della explains the work they’ve done to bring it back to life. “We see this building as our lighthouse for entrepreneurship. In terms of putting our stakes in the ground at 46th and Market, it’s been a huge community investment. We’ve been in this building 20 plus years, and we’re very proud of how we’ve been able to help small businesses in this community.”

They’ve also given back to the community, particularly through their work to turn around a plot of land at 4610 Market Street through the creation of a pocket park and urban garden. “We took a very small plot of land, what I call an uneconomic remnant, that SEPTA had next to their station. In a partnership between the Walnut Hill Community, Center City Toyota, the Toyota Foundation, and The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation, we completely brought that small parcel of land back to life. Around Halloween, we have a big party for the kids. In November we give away approximately 200 turkeys in conjunction with Central City Toyota with Walnut Hill providing the trimmings that go along with the turkey. In December we typically have a Santa Clause during a Christmas party, and typically give away about 300 gifts in conjunction with Central City Toyota.” 

Della also contributes to the community in a major way by serving as a board member here at University City District. Della has been involved almost since the beginning, and, as we explained in a previous story, she is largely responsible for bringing Matt Bergheiser – her former employee – to University City, something we covered in a previous story. 

Della views her current role as a board member for UCD as a connector. She says most of the stakeholders who sit at the UCD table are experts in areas like research, innovation, real estate development and construction, and regional strategy, but they don’t necessarily know diversity and inclusion. “I view one of my roles as being able to help bring diversity and inclusion to innovation, construction, growth and development of their institutions. If I think your organization can do better, I will come see you and lay out a vision for how you can be more diverse and inclusive. That’s where I see my role and that of the Enterprise Center.”  

“In our early years we didn’t present ourselves with as much clarity and focus as we do today. It took me 25 years to learn how to do this job,” she says with a laugh. “But I know it now.”

She sure does. Della Clark has been an integral part of UCD’s work in the community, and we can’t imagine our work without her contributions.  

To learn more about the Enterprise Center, attend The Lighting the Torch Awards tomorrow, October 5th, from 5 to 8 pm, as part of MEDWeek, which this year is built around the theme of “All Roads Lead to Inclusion.” Enjoy delicious treats and sips while networking with regional stakeholders and entrepreneurs. The theme of the event is "Tipping The Balance Toward Equity." Proceeds from the event support TEC's ongoing work to accelerate the growth of disadvantaged, minority- and women-owned small businesses in the greater Philadelphia region through business technical assistance, financial acumen development, community development, and access-to-capital.