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    When Dan Heffernan meets potential entrepreneurs at Navigate Enterprise Center, he tells them they don’t necessarily need a lot of formal education or start-up capital to be successful. He knows this from experience. 

    Heffernan, a 44-year-old Minnesota native, started his first business, a mobile DJ service, when he was at Brown College in Minneapolis. In his 20s, he was running a lucrative consulting service that helped struggling health clubs attract new clientele. He’s had failures, too, including several Nextel and Sprint wireless stores he opened that took a nosedive.

    This kind of firsthand business knowledge is helpful in Heffernan’s work as director of Navigate, a subsidiary of Jewish Family and Career Services (where Cannons and Dutchmans lanes meet). The center’s been around since 1995 but has really expanded services since Heffernan took over in 2009. The organization does career coaching and job-search assistance, but the main focus is helping people who want to start businesses but have trouble finding the traditional means to do so. People who come to the center often have bad (or nonexistent) credit. They’re immigrants or refugees, they’ve done time in prison, they’ve filed for bankruptcy. 

    A two-month course on business basics teaches potential entrepreneurs what they’re in for. A “gut check” is how Heffernan describes it. “If you have 20 in a class, you’re hoping that by the end of it, you’re down to 10,”  he says. 

    After that comes the loans (usually $500 to $6,500), created with money from grants and donations. Recipients pay back the loans, plus 8 percent interest, over one to three years. Some of the loans: $1,000 to purchase janitorial equipment and supplies, $1,500 for a taxi license, $4,000 to start a PB&J sandwich shop. One person bought a machine to salt parking lots. Heffernan says Navigate has distributed $350,000 in loans over the past five years and that 92 percent of loans have been repaid or are in good standing. “These businesses are not the next Facebook,” Heffernan says. “But they can make $25,000 or $30,000 a year, which means (recipients are) not on welfare anymore. They’re starting something for their family.”

    Mary Brackens, who lives in Portland, landed one of the 51 loans Navigate granted this year. Her business, which she started in October, is called Gift Basketballers. “It’s a lot of different gift baskets,” she says. “I have Christmas ones, a get-well-soon basket, a happy-birthday basket, movie baskets, golf baskets. I have like 15 or 20 different ones.” Brackens, who says she has worked temp jobs since she was laid off from her government job in 2011, hopes the business will be a fresh start. “I have a vision that the business will grow,” she says. “Maybe I’ll hire some employees.”

    Images courtesy of Chris Witzke

    This article appears in the December issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here.

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    About Amy Talbott

    Piscean. INFJ. Cat person. Runner. Mediocre housekeeper. Excellent cook. Scours the sleaze on Craigslist so you don't have to.

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