Building an Ecosystem for Black Businesses
Last year, Genia Stevens’00 launched Rock County Jumpstart, an incubator and accelerator program for Black business owners in the greater Beloit area. The organization provides tools, training, and resources for Black entrepreneurs to start and sustain their small businesses. The training focuses on business planning, startup basics, marketing and sales, finance, customer service, leadership, and more.
Stevens, who is executive director, says Jumpstart’s mission is “to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Rock County that invests in Black business owners and provides vehicles for creating both economic growth and wealth in the Black community.”
Stevens founded the nonprofit because of her own experiences.
When she started her marketing and communications business 20 years ago in Beloit, she found Black business ownership challenging. White networking circles felt closed off to newcomers, especially people of color, she says.
In 2018, she moved Belwah Media, her integrated digital marketing agency, to Madison because the city felt more welcoming, with more resources and spaces for Black and Brown business owners to network and thrive.
At one point she had an epiphany: She could create the welcoming business incubator environment she found in Madison but place it where it was needed—in the Beloit-Janesville region. So she launched Jumpstart.
As owner of Belwah Media, Stevens helps mainly nonprofits and social enterprises develop market strategy and strategic communications. The company specializes in helping clients maximize community engagement and improve volunteer recruitment, retention, and sustainability. Stevens is also managing partner at its sister company, Belwah Strategy.
In 2015, she renamed her companies to incorporate “Belwah,” the French tongue-in-cheek pronunciation of Beloit. She first encountered the word as a new student when she saw it painted in huge letters on the roof of Commons.
She says it made her realize she had just “joined a very close-knit group of people,” and she wanted to make that connection back to her alma mater with her business name. She loves it when fellow alumni like Angela Moten Russell’99, a Madison executive who founded and hosts a podcast called Black Oxygen, recognize Belwah as an insider Beloit College term.
Russell interviewed Stevens in December on her program, which tells the stories of Black Wisconsinites. The two Beloiters talked about Jumpstart, Black businesses, Beloit College, being a Black woman in the predominantly white world of Wisconsin, and much more.
In her career early on, Stevens says her company worked almost exclusively with for-profit companies, like Jockey, the LPGA, Chicago-Rockford Airport, and Whole Foods. Now she has intentionally shifted the focus to nonprofit clients and social enterprises, work she finds more satisfying.
She’s acquired quite a few kudos on her journey, including being named the 2015 LGBT Business of the Year by the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce. She was invited to join the Forbes Agency Council, an organization of diverse executives in media, and in 2019, became the first Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Madison College’s Goodman South Campus.
Beyond establishing Jumpstart and running her businesses, Stevens is embracing new public service roles. She was appointed to the city of Beloit’s Equal Opportunities Commission and chairs the Beloit NAACP’s Economic Development Committee. Most recently, she was chosen to serve as District 17 supervisor on the Rock County Board of Supervisors.
“My goal is to play a very active role in ensuring that all people in Rock County, particularly BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous, people of color), are treated fairly and equitably, especially in areas of economic development and housing,” she says of the County Board appointment.
“I’d like to see Rock County allot more resources toward assisting underserved and disadvantaged small business owners as they get started, but also help them sustain those businesses. I’d like to see the county look at more creative, affordable, and sustainable ways to help BIPOC people become homeowners. Home ownership is one way to close the racial wealth gap in Rock County, and it creates a healthy economy that benefits everyone who lives in our community.”