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Five-hundred small businesses in Wards 7 and 8 could get mentorship, training, and access to capital over the next three years through a new program cosponsored by the District and American University.

Announced on Wednesday, “Project 500” aims to help locally-owned businesses largely located east of the Anacostia River increase their bottom lines, customer bases, and staff sizes. At least six program mentors from AU will collaborate with small businesses in cohorts of 50 to start, says Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden. Most of this work will take place outside of traditional business hours so that entrepreneurs have time to do strategic planning.

“Think about it a little like an individual business development plan,” Snowden explains. “We’re filling a resource and assistance gap that has existed for a long time. One of the ways we’re going to maintain [these businesses] as prosperity expands is by helping them to adapt, but also helping them to grow.”

The District and AU will track economic data from the small businesses to evaluate the program, such as revenue, Snowden says. Already, around 100 entities have applied for the program, she adds. (One is a portable-restroom company owned by Fred Hill called Gotta-Go-Now.) The university will provide resources like marketing and pitch workshops to owners, who could possibly be matched with venture capitalists.

“Many disadvantaged businesses have far more risk than other entrepreneurs as they are depending on a patchwork of contacts and capital to advance their ideas,” Melissa Bradley, director of AU’s Center for Innovation in the Capital, says in a statement. “Often their lack of economic security is a barrier to running a successful business.”

Snowden says people who apply can expect to hear back about specific opportunities in the next few weeks. Data from the program will be made public, she says, like the number of new employees. “Business owners hire when they feel confident they have enough revenue to make payroll,” Snowden says.

The announcement comes as part of a month-long “innovation”-themed series of events organized by the D.C. government and its partners.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery