Feeding startups: Flint SOUP funds $25,000 to entrepreneurs in five years

FLINT, Michigan—James Shuttleworth is hustling to organize the tables lined with electric slow cookers filled with hot soup. The crowd is filing into The Church of the Harvest International on Dartmouth Street in Flint and a heavy snowfall is complicating a normally precision-run evening. This is the first Flint SOUP of 2018. 

Because of this event—and many others like it over the last five years—there are new businesses growing in Flint, businesses that otherwise might not have ever gotten a chance. 

Flint SOUP is a full-time, but grassroots, organization that has given out more than $25,000 in microgrants. Tonight, like all other meeting nights, someone will walk away with a cash prize and new fuel for their business dreams. 

Once a month or so, Flint SOUP hosts an event that gives entrepreneurs the chance to pitch their business idea and potentially win funding for it. In return for their meal, everyone tosses $5 into the “taco bowl of destiny” that is passed through the crowd and votes for their favorite business presentation. 

Typically, four or five pre-selected presenters offer a sales pitch of their business and the winner takes home that evening’s donations. Former winners have taken home anywhere from a few hundred dollars to well over $1000.

“Originally, I just saw the need,” says founder Adrian Montague.  “This is a way I can serve the community.  I love dreams and I love seeing dreams come to reality. It’s really devastating for me to see dreams die, because I’m a dreamer. There are so many people with dreams but they are just on auto pilot.”

Related story: Inside Flint SOUP: $800 win funds kitchen, licensing for Chef Telly

Flint SOUP is a name that causes the unfamiliar to pause from lack of understanding. It was brought here by Montague and follows the format of the Detroit organization of a similar name.  The origin of the “SOUP” label is unknown—but it does inspire the homemade dishes that always greet attendees.

Shuttleworth made three batches of the soup for this evening, Montague supplied two, and Shuttleworth’s mother contributed another—all of which is paired with salad, bread, and business sales pitches.

According to Shuttleworth, Flint SOUP is designed to launch creative ideas to advance individual business owners but to also benefit the Flint community. “We want to highlight, to draw out, and honor the innovators within the flint community that want to use entrepreneurism to raise themselves out of poverty to change their situation, to change the broken systems they are a part of.”

Beyond the microgrants themselves, winners also receive mentorship from Montague and Shuttleworth.

Montague was part of Detroit Soup for five years before bringing it to Flint. “I want this in my own community,” she thought.  “I approached the Detroit group and they gave me the blessing to launch.” 

Montague started with a grant from the Greater Flint Arts Council. “The dinner was the art,” says Montague. “Pulling the community together over a shared meal is an artistic expression of what is happening in the community. So it was the event as a physical art piece. They loved the idea,” she says.

Flint SOUP, now in its fifth year, is funded by the Ruth Mott and Charles Stewart Mott foundations.

Porcha Clemons is one Flint SOUP’s success stories. Once floundering, Montague helped to focus her future. “What do you want to do?” Montague asked. 

“I like dance,” says Clemons. The line of questioning led her to solidify her desire to open a dance studio. 

Clemons won more than $1,300 in seed money at the October SOUP event. “Adrian mentored me and led me to the right people,” she says. “Adrian and James are doing an amazing job.  They are really affecting people’s lives.”

Today, Clemons runs Heart of Worship Dance Studio inside West Court Street Church of God in Flint with 72 active students and nearly 200 on a waiting list. Clemons has hired three instructors to help fill the high demand.

Charma Dompreh also had a dream that was shaped and bolstered by Flint Soup. Dompreh, a former school teacher, invested her retirement and savings into building marketing her kale chips—but couldn’t quite get the business off the ground. Montague and Shuttleworth gave her encouragement, helped her focus her dream, and establish goals. They became longterm partners and led her to a Flint Soup event. Dompreh won just over $300—the amount she still needed to get her licensing and launch her business. 

Her product—Charma’s Green Chips—now is distributed in Whole Foods stores in Michigan and she was featured in a New York Times story in April of 2016.

Let’s be clear though—the foundation of Flint SOUP is based on more than just winning. “It brings people together. It gives people a platform,” says Montague. “They receive critical feedback on their ideas, but it also creates a culture of generosity.”

Roy Fields of Edible Flint was a presenter that didn’t win a microgrant at Flint SOUP. He was hoping to win funding to dig a well for the gardens that Edible Flint maintains. He ended up sitting next to former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling. “He gave me his card and he said he wanted to help,” Fields said. That connection let him to another connection at the Ruth Mott Foundation—which translated into a $10,000 grant. “You never know who’s going to be sitting in that audience. Even if you don’t win,” Fields says.

Montague said the relationships created at Flint SOUP create a network and a family of support for entrepreneurs in Flint. 

“The best part of our work is that we don’t consider it work. I’ve never worked for Flint SOUP a day in my life. I consider them family. It’s a family-based approach to entrepreneurship.  That’s a critical piece. We are a community.  We love pursuing people. We see talent.

“That’s what community does.  It awakens something in someone they didn’t know they had.  That’s what Flint SOUP is all about, really.”

Read more articles by Bruce Edwards.