From Suitcase to Briefcase: Homeless Entrepreneur Class at The Haven



Business course for homeless starts in Charlottesville

Article By Allison Wrabel for The Daily Progress, October 16, 2016

A program designed to teach people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless how to start a business is launching this week in Charlottesville.

The pilot program, From Suitcase to Briefcase, is an eight-week course designed to teach people how to start their own business. The first course will have 11 participants, and people are already singing up for the second offering in January, said instructor Becky Blanton, author of “The Homeless Entrepreneur.”

It will be hosted at The Haven and taught by Blanton and fellow entrepreneur David Durovy.

Blanton worked as a journalist and ended up living in a van for 18 months after she couldn’t find a job that paid enough for her to rent an apartment in Denver.

“Homelessness is where you are,” she said at a recent information session for the program. “Who you are is who you are. It’s who you were before you were homeless, it’s who you are now, it’s who you’re going to be after you get off the streets — and that’s what this program is about.”

Blanton said the course’s staff also will provide emotional and personal support, something you don’t get with an online “how to start a business” program.

Durovy and Blanton met through the Community Investment Collaborative’s entrepreneurship training workshop.

“I think it’s great when you see a couple of your own graduates, people who came through your program, take the things that they learned and feel so excited about them that they want to share them with others,” said CIC Program Director Keir Zander.

“Becky has always had a lot of entrepreneurial energy; she’s someone who just has this drive,” he said.

Zander said programs like these that encourage entrepreneurs to go after something they’re passionate about also can be beneficial in other aspects of life, such as participants’ discipline, enthusiasm for life and ability to express themselves.

“Both Becky and David have worked with homeless populations in the past, so I think they see an opportunity there,” Zander said. “They feel like the techniques and the ways that we coach entrepreneurs and get them thinking like an entrepreneur can be really helpful even if you wind up just using those skills to go be a better employee or go find an opportunity in the job market.”

Brittany Neff, of Woodforest National Bank, will teach a financial responsibility class and sign up participants for a free checking account.

“I have a background in finance with the bank, but also in psychology, so I will be here for anything you really need, whether it be personal, business or finance,” she said.

Other classes will include how to market a business, how to make a business plan, what to do if hard times hit and information on other resources in the area. Blanton said they plan to go on field trips to local businesses to hear from the owners how they started.

Charlottesville’s commissioner of revenue, Todd Divers, said it is realistic for people who are homeless to start a business.

“The type of businesses that I think a lot of the folks are taking this class are going to be doing are going to be peddlers and merchants and things like that,” he said. “There is a business license associated with that — it’s about $35 — and usually a zoning permit. They can add up, but I don’t think that should stand in the way of somebody doing this.”

There is an additional fee to be a peddler, as well as a permit fee to set up on the Downtown Mall, if that is where they want to be.

“The things that they’re going to be teaching these people, I think it will be useful,” Divers said. “We see entrepreneurs coming in every day getting a business license, and there’s not a lot of difference between the people we already see and these people, other than a roof over their head.”

“I don’t think the financial hurdles need to be as daunting as we think. They can be dealt with,” he said.

A representative from Divers’ office will speak during one of the sessions, said Luis Salazar, business tax auditor for the city.

“We’ll come in or I’ll come in to talk during one of the sessions about taxation for businesses and how that affects them as entrepreneur,” Salazar said. “There’re a lot of different types of taxes so it’s important for them to be aware, have a basic understanding of what some of those are. So we’ll provide guidance and information in that sense.”

Salazar said that personally, he supports the program and thinks it’s a great idea.

“I think it’s a positive thing for the city and it’s a positive thing for them,” he said. “I think it’s an all around good thing. It can’t hurt.”

According to Point-in-Time Count Data, there were 261 people who were homeless in Charlottesville during one night in January. Twenty-two of those were unsheltered, while 239 were sheltered.

Nancy Carpenter, prevention coordinator and case manager at The Haven, called the participants in the business course “trailblazers” and said the class shows how the nature of work is changing.

“To be an entrepreneur and to create a niche where your skill or your idea will then be financially rewarding to you, as well as rewarding to your own self-care, I think it’ll help other people who are here with us to see that,” she said. “You all can spark a new movement here in Charlottesville.”

Among those signed up for the class is Darryl Rojas, who started out at The Haven as a homeless person and worked his way up to a staff position. He said he’s more of a service-oriented person, but he can help come up with some product ideas too.

“The impetus to all of this was actually a volunteer,” Rojas said. “A volunteer found [Blanton’s] book and came in one day all excited and was like, ‘Darryl! We’re going to find this lady and you’re going to do this,’ and I said, ‘OK, whatever.’ And she ended up contacting her, and this thing just rolled in.”

The materials for the class, as well as videos of the class and participants’ personal story videos and other resources from the course, will be posted on for anyone to download and use for free.