When Walter Geier first mentioned to his wife his idea of a training program to educate minorities in business, the chief executive of Walter Geier Co., a sales and management training provider to Fortune 500 companies, had no idea that his dream one day would be known as New York’s best-kept secret.
“I believed that the only way African-Americans would gain social and political equality was if they had the ability to own businesses and property,” Geier says. In those heady days of Black activism, Geier was confident he could teach African-Americans to run businesses and control large properties, thus becoming employers in their own community, he says. At the time, financial institutions that provided loans to African-American entrepreneurs offered no training to help them run successful businesses, essentially setting them up for failure and indebtedness, he says.
A Bronx, N.Y., native who did not know any Black people, Geier enlisted the help of Mallalieu Woolfolk, a successful African-American lawyer in Harlem, the heart of New York City’s Black community. He recruited experts in various aspects of business and real estate ownership from among his own clients and associates and, bolstered by his partnership with Woolfolk, organized the first workshop in Harlem in 1966. Thus was born The Workshop in Business Opportunities, or WIBO. Of the 15 students who participated in that workshop, 14 graduated and 11 went on to launch their own businesses.
Today, funded by donations and with the help of volunteers who serve as teachers and mentors, WIBO runs two 16-week workshops a year in nine locations throughout the city. Its Web site, www.wibo.org , boasts that it is “the oldest and probably the largest” independent adult entrepreneurial training program. Its criteria for would-be participants are that they have a solid business plan, the tenacity to complete the workshop and the wherewithal to pay for the course materials.
Marketing strategist Celeste Morris is a typical WIBO success story. She completed the workshop in 1987 and subsequently established Optimum Strategies, which provides marketing and management services to politicians, nonprofit organizations and businesses. The WIBO workshop was “fantastic,” she says. “The training helped me avoid mistakes because of the practical approach of the training,” she says.
Morris, who was honored by The Network Journal as an influential Black woman in business, is now a WIBO volunteer.
When Farid Ali decided to take the workshop in the fall of 2004, he was not prepared for the intensity of the course, he says. “The main challenge I faced was putting aside everything and thinking like a business person,” he says. Ali and his business partner, George Constatinou, own Bogota Bistro, a successful restaurant in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, N.Y. Both credit WIBO for their success.
When Geier retired in 2002, he handed the reins to Congolese-born Amini Kajunju, the organization’s current executive director and a 2005 TNJ “40 Under-Forty Dynamic Achievers” honoree. While the training program remains intact, Kajunju has implemented a vigorous fund-raising strategy and publicity campaign. WIBO has since seen a sizable increase in funding from corporations and foundations. With more than 100 business owners volunteering, WIBO now conducts 256 sessions a year, educating more than 400 entrepreneurs each year and providing meaningful support to its entrepreneur graduates.
WIBO commemorates its 40th anniversary on Oct. 18 with a grand celebration of the accomplishments and contributions of its entrepreneurs and local business leaders. Among the honorees is Kwame Jackson, who was a runner-up on The Apprentice television show and is president of Legacy Holdings L.L.C.
By Katherine Adu