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NEON president Marcus Owens has the key to a sustainable community

Marcus Owens, president, Northside Economic Opportunity Network (Photo courtesy of NEON)

There are four key points to a sustainable community: growth, opportunity, and a strong support system and a leader with a vision. Since joining NEON in 2014, Marcus Owens, president of the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON) has focused on establishing a strategic financial leadership, while creating impactful partnerships that support the entrepreneur. “We [have to] develop a pipeline of opportunities and growth for our organization. And I have watched the organization grow substantially by quadrupling NEON’s operating budget and growing a dynamic team to drive the mission of economic development in North Minneapolis,” says Owens. His vision and leadership has increased the pipeline of scalable businesses as well as launched a social enterprise and co-working space so that entrepreneurs can start, grow and thrive.

What sparked the idea for NEON?

NEON was an idea born 11 years ago to meet the demand of entrepreneurs [who] resided in North Minneapolis yet did not have access to resources or knowledge to enter into business ownership. The concept of NEON was to be a premier resource or “hub” of other economic development while providers came together to add resources to existing businesses. After becoming involved on the board of directors in 2012, I began to recognize a pattern of untapped potential within the community we served. This then led me to a deeper connection to join the organization in a different capacity to lead the business in a new direction with a vision to enhance our overall value proposition. What we have determined was that our greatest opportunity for success is to create, develop and support entrepreneurs that have potential to 1) attract and retain our local economic purchasing power and 2) to build opportunities that enable businesses to scale and compete in a larger economy. By achieving this, our community can then position itself for growth and sustainability through the creation of jobs, ownership and wealth.

What is the vision for NEON?

Our vision is to create a prosperous, visible, sustainable and highly diverse multicultural business community in North Minneapolis and the surrounding area.

How do you approach business challenges?

We see two key approaches to solve this problem. First, we believe that understanding the current market conditions in the local economy is vital to business development; while attracting and retaining our local economic power. Think of this as our Main Street approach. If we are able to supply goods and services by tapping into the pipeline of owned and operated businesses within our own community, we can meet the Main Street demand with strong intention. The second approach to business challenges is to increase procurement opportunities for scalable businesses in order to create ownership and job opportunities for residents in our community. We believe in the power of living, eating and working where you reside and plant your seeds.

How do you evaluate talent and what skills are you looking for in today’s marketplace?

The ability to problem solve and achieve resourcefulness is one of the greatest assets that people possess. Leaders today desire to build teams that can quickly identify the problem; while critically thinking through the best solution for the organization. Being resourceful means that you possess an innate ability to recognize and utilize tools necessary to execute the best solution. Last, communication is imperative. It is important to articulate what is happening within your work (past and present) in a succinct, yet a dynamic way that creates a space for others to connect with you.

What are the top three benefits of membership in your organization?

As a member of our organization, entrepreneurs have an opportunity to engage with other like-minded businesses through industry-specific curated events (workshops), programs, marketplaces and co-working spaces flexibly designed for growing businesses. We are intentional in how we create pathways to grow at various stages of business ownership.

How do you utilize technology to give yourself business advantages?

NEON is focused on streamlining and automating our services to clients to improve overall user experiences. In the past year, we have launched a new website, expanded our social media and digital marketing presence and will in the near future transform NEON Spaces through the incorporation of a 21st century media room where entrepreneurs can utilize computers, audio/visual recording equipment as well as an online-learning system to access business-focused courses 24/7.

Why it is important for the community to do business with NEON and Black entrepreneurs? 

Flip it: Why is it important for NEON and black entrepreneurs to meet the demands of the community?

  1. If we supply the current needs of our community we will see an increase in opportunity for business ownership, wealth, and jobs.
  2. By supplying the needs of the community, the overall health of the business community will benefit from consistent and growing sales and opportunity.
  3. Other factors, [such] as community health, income, education, housing, safety, etc. will all benefit from a more stable local economy. Residents will be able to realize their personal value and stake within the community as the sole factor in sustainability.

What are the two key factors for career success in the IT field?

At NEON we are primarily focused on serving clients within industries specific to food, property maintenance (includes landscaping, janitorial and construction) as well as retail industries. However, we do often serve clients who work within the IT field. It is key to recognize trends and shifts that the economy demands so that business models are flexible during times of transition and growth. Keeping the changing economic lens in focus will enable businesses to remain viable during times of transition.

Name three nonprofit leaders whose work you respect and appreciate.

Chanda Smith Baker, Minneapolis Foundation; Trista Harris, Minnesota Council on Foundations; Duchesne Drew, The Bush Foundation.

Each of these leaders is respected by the collective work they have accomplished in their individual careers, and their unwavering support for me personally and professionally within the nonprofit sector. I value their sound and direct advice I and am constantly reminded to continue to focus on letting action speak louder than words.

Name your three favorite business books for insight and inspiration.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell; Black Economics: Solutions for Economic and Community Empowerment by Jawanza Kunjufu; Leadership on the Line by Marty Linsky · Ronald A. Heifetz and Lean StartUP by Eric Reis