The Walker Program offers free funding, training and networking to local entrepreneurs of color
By Jin Ni
The Walker Program is a new community project to help people of color start businesses in Rockbridge County.
The program, started by 15 volunteers, was named after Harry and Eliza Walker, prominent African-American entrepreneurs and activists in Lexington during the 1900s. The couple built a successful business supplying meat, seafood and groceries to Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute.
“It’s about giving economic mobility to people,” said Atin Basuchoudhary, chair of the Rockbridge NAACP Economic Empowerment Committee and Walker Program advisory board member. “[It’s] to make sure that people can own something, build something, find it meaningful, find wealth, and then pass that wealth down to their children.”
While the idea for the project isn’t new, advisory board members said recent nationwide protests against racism and discrimination made it clear that the Walker Program was needed now.
“There used to be thriving black businesses in Lexington, and now there’s not,” said Tinni Sen, coordinator of the 50 Ways Rockbridge racial justice group and Walker Program advisory member.
The only requirement for the free program is participants must create a business plan and commit to finishing the training phase. So far, nine people have applied.
“We’re thrilled to have so many already, since it’s still so early in the process,”said Jamie Goodin, GoBV project manager and Walker Program advisor. “We hope there will be many more [applicants]…since we want to nurture the entrepreneurship opportunity for years and years to come.”
Entrepreneurs will also compete for cash and services to help them start their businesses.
The program is funded by 50 Ways Rockbridge and $60,000 in private donations. In addition, Staunton Creative Community Fund provided a professional business training course.
Local businesses and community organizations are also contributing. For instance, MainStreet Lexington will help participants obtain a business license or navigate the Architectural Review Board for signage approval, said Rebecca Logan, executive director of the marketing group.
The group’s Launch Lex program inspired the Walker Program and helped six businesses get started downtown.
Program advisors said they hope the community initiative can rejuvenate the economy in places like Buena Vista. “We’re interested in making the local business community as vibrant and robust as the natural beauty of Shenandoah,” Goodin said.