The first cohort of a new Micro-Business Assistance Program graduated last week with a $4,000 gift waiting for them.

A six-month business education program designed to infuse knowledge and investment into the local business community graduated its first 12 people in a ceremony Tuesday at Baker Boyer Bank.

“This is the first step toward your future where you control your own destiny,” said Baker Boyer President and CEO Mark Kajita in a keynote address to the graduating class.

The Micro-Business Assistance Program was created by Mercy Corps Northwest, a Portland-based nonprofit and alternative lender that created a program known as the Individual Development Account.

Participants in the Micro-Business Assistance Program use the Individual Development Accounts as a savings vehicle. Every $1 saved in an account is matched by $8 in grant money. The end goal during the six-month program is for participants to save $500 that will be matched by $4,000 from the program and used to invest in the business, largely in the form of hard assets.

Participants also attend one day of business training for six weeks where they further develop in areas of finance, marketing, business strategy and credit building on the way to the final step before graduation: building a business plan.

“We believe in the power of human potential,” said Mercy Corps Northwest Executive Director Lynn Renken.

The program, she said, invests in a small-business community that may not qualify for lending through traditional means but holds potential for success with a helping hand.

While $4,000 may not be much to some businesses, for many others it is just the right boost for equipment purchases that take them to the next level.

“What makes this unique (to Walla Walla) is the significant number of partners,” Renken said.

The initial program budget is just under $120,000 and is provided by a city of Walla Walla Community Development Block Grant ($80,000); Port of Walla Walla ($5,000); city of College Place ($7,200); Banner Bank ($10,000); Baker Boyer Bank ($10,000); Blue Mountain Community Foundation ($6,000); Community Bank ($5,000); HAPO Community Credit Union ($2,500); Walla Walla Community College (in-kind); and Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce (in-kind).

“One thing we see in Walla Walla that we don’t see anywhere else is this buzz to work together,” she said.

Mercy Corps Northwest opened a Walla Walla office in space housed at the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce this year, cementing its commitment to the community.

The Micro-Business Assistance Program will repeat in cycles. Applications for the next class will be accepted starting May 1. Information sessions will be held about the program that day at 5:30 p.m. and again May 3 at 4:30 p.m. at the Carrie Center, 711 Carrie Ave.

“We’re new to Walla Walla, but we’re here to stay,” Renken said.

The program is targeted for entrepreneurs who may be ineligible for traditional lending; this is a specialty of Mercy Corps. Participants must earn less than 80 percent of the area median income ($52,550 for a household of four); have five or fewer employees; and have a maximum net worth of $20,000, in addition to residency and applicable business licensing requirements. There is no credit-history requirement.

Here are take-away snap shots of just a few graduates.

La Shell Stanberry: Shell’s Got to Have It!

It was no shock to La Shell Stanberry that Southeastern Washington didn’t have the flash of L.A. when she moved from California to Walla Walla.

But she didn’t expect that to include accessorizing.

For her, a pair of earrings or a divine shoe can change how a person faces the day.

“It makes you feel some kind of way,” she said. “Everybody wants to feel special.”

So she launched a business last October designed to offer handbags, earrings, necklaces and bracelets.

“My passion is shopping, and I have a desire to see everyone find that perfect pair or two of earrings that will accent that outfit for work, add elegance to your evening attire or a fun, trendy pair for a girl’s trip. If you need a special pair, then Shell’s Got to Have it,” her mission explains.

A disabled veteran who medically retired from Veterans Affairs, she is now a buyer working through the supply chain for her online inventory.

“My dream is to do brick and mortar,” she said. “Right now it’s just me and my family trying to make it happens.”

Ximena Gachet

It’s a big leap from client services to bounce houses.

Almost as big as an international move.

Both are the case for Ximena Gachet, who came to the United States in June 2018 from Ecuador.

“I wanted to be independent. I wanted to have my own business,” Gachet said through an interpreter.

After first living in Virginia, she made her way to Walla Walla, where she has launched a business supplying party rental equipment, including bouncy castles, tables and chairs.

After working 22 years in client services for companies, she said the changeover allows her to be in charge of her own direct interaction with customers, a change she relishes from the corporate structure she knew before.

In the Micro-Business Assistance Program, she learned more about the paperwork required, managing people and a route she believes will help her business be successful.

“I’m very happy here,” she said. “It’s another opportunity.”

Laura Segovia, Juan Segovia Plumbing

Laura Segovia’s family plumbing operation was far from new when she enrolled in the Micro-Business Assistance Program. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have plenty to learn.

Although she’d picked up much through the on-the-ground experience helping on the ledger side of Juan Segovia Plumbing starting five years ago, the program affirmed the parts she knew. It opened her eyes, too, to some things she didn’t.

How much to budget for advertising, for instance. Also, keeping the business account separate from the personal one.

With the money earned, she said, she and her husband may invest it into a more fuel-efficient work van to build their operation.

As great a prize as the money from the program are the relationships.

“Being in the class was more like a family,” she marveled.

The experience brought together a group of people with an interest in seeing each other succeed and a commitment to support one another.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, vickihillhouse@wwub.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/VickiHillhouse.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.

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