The following is a conversation between Jane Veron, co-founder and CEO of The Acceleration Project, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: The Acceleration Project or TAP is the nonprofit organization that accelerates small business growth. Their business consulting services empower under-resourced entrepreneurs in order to create a more inclusive economy. And here to tell us more about their model and how this work is done is Jane Veron, the co-founder and CEO of The Acceleration Project.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Jane.

Jane Veron, co-founder and CEO of The Acceleration Project

Jane: Denver, I am so delighted to be here.

Denver: So listeners out there might be saying, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa! What’s going on here? You are a nonprofit organization, and you’re helping business. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around, where businesses help nonprofit organizations?

Tell us about your vision and how this whole thing got started.

Jane: That’s such a great question, and that question was posed a dozen years ago when I got started because: Why did I build out the competencies in a way that would deliver service in a nonprofit structure? And the reason is because small business owners are the engine of our economy.

There are 33 million small business owners across the country, and we employ half… the small businesses employ half of the population, and yet many, many, many do not have access to the services, the financial, operating, marketing services that would enable them to succeed.

And so to me, it was a societal necessity for us to be able to serve small business owners the way big corporate America could get served with the professional expertise.

Denver: How did that idea come to you? I mean, is this something that you studied, or was this maybe just walking down Main Street and seeing a lot of places closed?

Jane: So my background… I’m an MBA and I worked in the private sector and I worked for a management consulting firm, marketing strategy. But you’re right, the way it started was walking down Main Street.

I have had a role in local government. In fact, I just came off being mayor of my town, and I so viscerally understood the importance of a small business owner to the local economy. Not only do they ensure vibrancy, but you’re employing people. You are providing service to the people who live in your community.

And what we learned so quickly and experienced so viscerally was what happened during COVID. Because during COVID… so I started pre-COVID. I started when the Internet and big box stores were really changing the way buyers behaved. And I used to go in and talk to small business owners.

And at that point, when I started this, the small business owners didn’t really believe that their customers would leave and would prefer to get a brown box at their front doorstep. They said: “No, the customers love me. They want my advice.”  But what happened was there was so much more price discovery, the ease and convenience… It just… it changed the nature of consumer behavior.

Denver: Yeah.

Jane: And so at the time, because I had the professional skills, I was able to speak to business owner after business owner and talk about how we need to pivot and modify the way we operate in order to secure customers. What is your new value proposition? How are you going to bring people in?

That became like a crisis during COVID because what happened during COVID is you had small businesses who maybe had two months of cash on hand, immediately recognized that with people not coming out to shop, they were about to shut down.

And we saw empty storefront after empty storefront after empty storefront. And I took, at that moment, where we were growing, I took the risk to really dabble because I knew that that was it, like the lifeblood of who we are, and we were able to keep small businesses open.

“Typically, a lot of small businesses are solopreneurs. Our goal is job creation, job preservation, income creation, wealth generation. And so we’re looking to be able to bring our services to bear, to support those businesses that can really accelerate. Because in the end, this is a societal goal, a societal need that we need to really enable them to do what they know how to do super well, which is their product or service.”

Denver: Yeah. To this day, I miss our hardware store out in Morristown, New Jersey. I mean, you just thought it was never going to go away, and nothing has really replaced it. How do you identify the small businesses that you’re going to support? I mean, is there some kind of pipeline that helps you filter this? How does that connection get made?

Jane: So, great question. When I started, I opened the floodgates, and what I learned was that our services… and remember, I fundraise to support what we do… so we want to use donor dollars as efficiently as possible for the best impact. So we tend to focus on small business owners that are steady state…  they’re not pre-revenue. They have between $50,000 and $1 million in revenue.

Typically, a lot of small businesses are solopreneurs. Our goal is job creation, job preservation, income creation, wealth generation. And so we’re looking to be able to bring our services to bear, to support those businesses that can really accelerate. Because in the end, this is a societal goal, a societal need that we need to really enable them to do what they know how to do super well, which is their product or service.

Denver: What are the three biggest challenges? I mean…

Jane: Always cash, always cash, finance. And no matter the size, no matter the complexity of the business, the biggest challenge is always, one: access to capital. And you find particularly the underserved businesses with whom we work… women, people of color… that has been a real challenge across the board.

And then also understanding your financials. Having your financials be your friend instead of something that you outsource to an accountant so that it really helps you understand. I will tell you over and over, we show businesses where they’re making money and where they’re not, if they’re working effectively, what their cost structure looks like. And so number one, financials.

Number two, the human capital piece is super important. You need to train people well; you need for them to embody your business. Finding great talent is super hard. And then I would tell you the third is time management. Solopreneurs or business owners who have like… most business owners are solopreneurs.

Then you have like… the next tranche is like 20 and fewer employees. They’re not always good at making sure their time is spent on the most important activities. And so what we really do is help them learn how to leverage their time and hire the right people to drive their sales and then their profitability.

Denver: Oh, that’s really great. And I mean, so much of it also sounds like you help them reframe everything that they’re doing because they’re doing it a certain way. And when they want to get better at it, they just do it harder.

Jane: Like they’ll work more hours, they’ll burn themselves out.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah.

Jane: So my deep desire… I mean, I am exceedingly impressed by the small business owners. What I get to do every day is like a gift because I get to work with the most tenacious people who have so much grit and determination. And many, many, many are immigrants to this country trying to carve a path, trying to provide for their families and their communities.

And these individuals are rock stars, but what they don’t necessarily have are the things that I was schooled in and my team was schooled in. You don’t intuit a P&L, you don’t necessarily understand like how you think about your margins or how you think about your marketing, and how you pivot to digital.

But what we do super well and what differentiates us is that we are focused on impact. So everything we do is about customization and about meeting a business owner where she or he is. And what we train in is cultural competence because I talked to you, I mentioned P&L. Well, how do you know that language? You wouldn’t know it if you didn’t study it.

So we talk about it in terms that people understand, cash in, cash out. Who do you help? Who do you serve? And we… customize, and we have a lot of intellectual property specific to the business owner.

“So we train professional talent, and we give them tools; we’re very good at oversight to then serve the small business. And so we have a unique leveraged business model. So when people donate to us, they donate to my paid team that then unlocks multiples of that in talent, of pro bono talent.”

Denver: That’s great. Yeah, I think probably a lot of business owners tend to spend most of their time on what they’re good at and what they know and what their expertise is, and we’ll get to that other stuff next week, you know?

The way you’ve been able to scale this is that you have engaged pro bono consultants, which is really fascinating. Tell us a little bit about that strategy and who are these people that become TAP consultants.

Jane: So I told you when I started, I wanted to solve societal problems, I wanted to help the small businesses, the engine of our economy accelerate. What I also wanted to do was channel talent back into the economy, channel professional skills for social impact.

And so at the beginning, I seized upon this incredible population of professionals who had, at that moment, left their jobs to raise families or care for aging parents. And they were investment bankers and consultants and marketers and operations people. And they had left, and it’s really difficult to find a pathway back.

And what you see over and over is that people ready themselves with a resume, and they ready themselves with interview prep, but there is nothing like doing. There is nothing like proving to yourself that you have so much to offer. So I had a bunch of investment bankers who didn’t think that their skills would be valuable for a small business owner, and I quickly showed them that what they had and knew would be so vitally important to a small business owner.

So we train professional talent, and we give them tools; we’re very good at oversight to then serve the small business. And so we have a unique leveraged business model. So when people donate to us, they donate to my paid team that then unlocks multiples of that in talent, of pro bono talent.

And whereas I started with people in career transition, now over half of the people who work on my team and have to apply to be a pro bono consultant, are carefully vetted, exceedingly trained; over half of them come from the full-time professional or part-time workforce.

And so like I’ve created this movement where people are so excited to use their skills and expertise for social good and to watch the catalytic effect of the work that they do.

Denver: So give a gift to The Acceleration Project, and it is a force multiplier.

Jane: A hundred percent. And I think…

Denver: You keep on giving over and over and over again, and I love that idea, particularly for people who’ve been out of the workforce. It’s very static to do a resume, and it is very dynamic to actually get out there and talk to people and utilize those skills.

And also you lose your confidence sometimes. When you haven’t done it in a couple years and you say, “Oh, the world has changed so much!” And then you find out: No, I still got it!

Jane: Exactly. And the single biggest inhibitor… I was being interviewed by the Harvard Business Review. I was talking and I explained that that is a single business inhibitor, is the lack of confidence. They said, “Oh, no, no, you’re wrong like these people are…” I’m like, No, you’re wrong. Stop doing… you forget you’re good.

 And then what happened was so many of the people who would use us as a launching pad were able to secure full-time employment that would be able to pay for their families and use their skills. So it’s been extremely effective. We have a waiting list to join us. We onboard three times a year. And we train in everything.

We train in getting people loan readiness, deploying capital. We’re working on huge curriculum around exits because not only is it important to enable a small business owner to flourish, to hire people to pay a living wage to themselves, but you have to help them prepare for exit because what you don’t want are shuttered businesses again.

You don’t want to fire people; you don’t want to have the vacancy on your storefront, in your Main Street. And so exiting is vitally important as well.

“And so you asked me at the beginning: Why nonprofit? I knew that the under-resourced small businesses could never afford to access the market rate talent that I have. And so I felt like my goal was to provide them something that corporate America gets.”

Denver: And not many people think about that. People do not think about an exit strategy. We’re always… it seems to me front loading what we can do and not letting people or helping people think about the end game.

Jane: And so you asked me at the beginning: Why nonprofit? I knew that the under-resourced small businesses could never afford to access the market rate talent that I have. And so I felt like my goal was to provide them something that corporate America gets. But also in the exit piece, it’s not an efficient… and the profit model isn’t there to help a few-million-dollar business exit when you can help a multimillion-dollar business exit.

And so this is a role for a nonprofit because our goal is to provide that service, and all we need to do is to make sure that we’re using donor dollars really wisely.

Denver: Yeah, it keeps you laser-focused on what you’re doing, too. When you have these hybrid models, sometimes they sound good, but you got in the back of your head: We got to make more money. And…

Jane: And we work with lenders, so we work with big banks like JPMorgan Chase and PNC, and we work with a lot of what are called CDFIs. So those are community development financial institutions, alternative lenders.

And what matters so much is marrying the capital with the business advice because you can get a loan, and if you don’t use it wisely, that’s not going to help it accelerate your business. You’re more likely going to default on it.

Denver: Yeah, and I would guess also working with institutions like that, you sort of have a screen in terms of people who’ve had multiple looks at their going concern and their wherewithal and all the things that go around it. So it sounds like it…

Jane: Right. Pipeline… 90 something percent of our pipeline comes from the corporate pre- screen.

Denver: Also your geographic focus, you have hubs. And you’re trying to build an ecosystem around the country. Tell us a little bit about that and where they are.

Jane: Yes, thank you. We started where we knew local likes to support local, and we started in Westchester County. We quickly expanded to the Tri-State of New York. And of course people that… we were early adopters of Zoom. Most small businesses were uncomfortable with that, but COVID really leveled the playing field there.

During COVID, we had so much demand. We had national demand, and we were able to serve businesses across the country. So we now have a footprint in virtually every state. But in terms of hubs, we built out in Northern California, and now we’re in LA and in Boston and Texas.

And the reason you want to not only serve broadly but you want to serve deeply, is that you want to become a partner in a local ecosystem to solve that ecosystem’s problems. We’re here not to still share, we’re here to be complementary. We provide customization.

We meet business owners where they are. We’re super good at verticals. We’re great at the food business. We’re great at helping health and wellness. We’re excellent at professional services. There’s an enormous need to help tradespeople with the desire for construction of houses and infrastructure.

So we’re really good vertically. And the reason that matters is your cost of goods sold for a restaurant or a food truck is really different from your cost of goods for a manufacturer. And so you really want to make sure that you personalize the support and you get the industry.

Denver: Jane, getting back to COVID, if there was one thing that came out of that that helped The Acceleration Project accelerate the way it does business that probably would’ve never happened for another five years if it hadn’t been for that, what would it be?

Jane: It was the understanding that a nonprofit can help a for-profit business. Because I had so many doubters at the beginning. I can’t tell you how many people said no. And people understood that this is the American dream. We are accelerating the American dream. We are teaching people to fish. It is such a great use of philanthropic dollars.

And that was like the biggest aha moment when people saw all the shuttered businesses and understood how vitally important it was for society to help the business owner. That didn’t exist before. Now there’s a… I mean, I did a whole  “buy local” campaign. I’ve done it from city to city, helped municipalities.

My team is amazing. We’re very nimble at delivering service, but the mindset… and also the understanding that individual pockets of society have been left out, and COVID shined a light on that. It’s the Black business owner, the Latina business owner, the vets, and the AEPI, and women, of course.

And so the traditional structures, they’re inhibitors in many ways. You need to trust people in order for you to be willing to partner with them.

Denver: That’s really interesting. I’m just thinking probably pre-COVID, your first three or four minutes was trying to sell people on this idea, and post-COVID, you get about 15 seconds in and they nod their head, “Oh, I get it, I get it. What do you want?” You know what I mean?

Jane: Exactly. Exactly.

Denver: That is really cool. Talk about your own funding challenges and successes. I mean, this takes a fair amount of resources to do all that you’re doing. Tell us a little bit about that and what your plans are to really accelerate that.

Jane: Yes. So five years ago, we were a few hundred thousand dollar organization, and now we’re over a couple million. And the reason that matters for a nonprofit, and particularly a nonprofit that runs well like we do, is that you need dollars to be able to unlock that much more of the talent to be able to deploy it. You need to build infrastructure.

So for me to scale, I have spent the entire year institutionalizing processes, leveraging technology, ensuring our IP is standardized in a way that’s easily digestible. And so one of the things that I have… now that I’ve been in this sector for quite a long time, I think that the focus not on good management is unfortunate in the nonprofit space because people never want to invest in what they call overhead.

But overhead is what I just did this year. I invested in technology; I invested in SOPs;I invested in making sure that we’re scalable easily, turnkey. And so it’s always a funding challenge. You want to get capacity building grants. What you don’t want is to constantly, every year…start that fundraising cycle again and again and again.

But I think we’re going to take the nation by storm. We are now poised and ready. So now I’m looking for multi-year, multimillion-dollar grants because we know how to do this, and we do it well. We measure our impact. We measure the jobs; we measure the revenue. We see where you are at three months, at six months, at 12 months.

And we make sure, in the end, we’re about making sure we change the lives of every single business owner that we touch.

Denver: Yeah. It is unfortunate– that antiquated notion of how much of my dollar is going directly to program has absolutely put nonprofit organizations in straitjackets for so many years. And although everybody’s articulated about it… that it shouldn’t be that way, it still remains way, way too much that way.

And to the investment that you’ve made, I’ve talked to a few other organizations; they have indicated that that is one of the biggest contributors to well-being among staff. When processes are clear and they’re documented, you have so much less frustration, and people feel so much more that they’re achieving so much more that we don’t think of it as a well-being contributor. But it really is.

Jane: So I came from the private sector, and one of the things I did was institute all of the business practices that you would imagine in a private company. So my tax status is a 501(c)(3), but we have annual goals, we have 90-day sprints, we have OKRs. We use the book, Traction, that defines all the processes. People need clarity. They need to know how to deliver, and they need to strive for goals like stretch goals.

And when you mention the clarity, it’s magnified by the fact that we have a hybrid workforce. And so you want to be so clear about what it means to succeed. And then when we miss that, you want to be able to course correct. And you can’t wait till year end. So that’s why we have every leadership meeting, we look at the revenue tracker, the client tracker, what the major issues are.

And we have like this very standardized approach to managing. I hire the best people like that is probably the single most… who you hire, the right people in the right seat, most important thing ever. In business school, we spent not enough time on that. Management of people is the single most important.

Denver: Right. I would agree with that. And I think the only thing more important than hiring well is firing well because: You know what? We know pretty soon when they’re not going to work out, and we just avoid it, and we hope against hope. And I’ve never heard anyone say, I think I fired them too early.

Jane: I one- hundred percent agree. We are very lucky. So when I told you how we built our business, I built it on volunteer talent. For four years, I had zero paid employees. I had my first paid employee four years in, and because I have pro bono talent, and so not only are my businesses creating jobs, I’m creating jobs. So I target my very best pro bono consultants and offer them positions.

And so like, I mean, obviously half of them already have full-time jobs or part-time jobs, but the other don’t. And so I provide a pathway back… our organization provides that; so we get to see people in action. So we’re very lucky to be able to see how people operate.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. You sort of try before you buy in so many different ways. And somebody once said that you’ve never really managed until you’ve managed volunteers.

Jane: Well, I’m so excited that you know that because it is the hardest thing to do. It’s something that we do super well, how you mobilize people, how you make people feel valued… Volunteers have their day jobs to worry about.

So what people say to us, is they come to us because we are so professional; we use their time exceedingly well. We make it very clear what the deliverable is, and we are always there to troubleshoot. And because people’s time is the most precious asset.

“The other thing I learned so well is to listen to the market, pay close attention to what your customers need. Don’t just force feed what you think.”

Denver: Sure. Jane, this has not been an easy time for people to be in charge and lead an organization, and I’d be curious as to how your leadership has changed over the course of the last three or four years, and how you think, perhaps leading a major social enterprise will continue to change. What are some of the keys to doing that well?

Jane: So, of course, hiring and firing, as you mentioned. Managing your talent is super important in giving them clarity. The other thing I have, you kind of always know but you really experience, particularly when you’re a nonprofit and you are very careful about how you spend money, is there are a lot of good ideas out there, but you need people to execute on them.

And what really matters is actually practically getting things done. And so people have grand notions, but if you can’t put those grand notions in practice, you’re not going to get anything. I mean, I ran our local government when I was the mayor. I did things by piloting: let’s try, let’s get feedback from the market, let’s iterate until we get it right.

And I think that that reduces the kind of fear of risk, but you have to really be practical about it. The other thing I learned so well is to listen to the market, pay close attention to what your customers need. Don’t just force feed what you think.

Like when I first started, I trained our team to… when you get down to business, you get… when you’re there, you have a limited amount of time to get down to business. And then we talk about the different segments of our population. Well, in our Hispanic population, you do not build trust if you get right down to business.

And my Latina colleagues are like: You must talk about the family, talk about their health, talk about… otherwise no one wants to work with you. We deliver service in Spanish because you want to meet people where they are. And so I learned about listening in a way that I didn’t know before.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well that, you know, from governments, particularly in Washington, so much of the legislation has passed, and it’s a big deal. But the people who have to administer it say: It is impossible for us to implement what they just passed. There are laws that prevent it, and they never meet between, as you said, the big idea and the implementers. And there is just this synapse, this gulf that always exists and you’ve really worked hard at that.

Jane: Yeah. And we live that in local government… in the county because there are these mandates, and then you have to build out processes. You need to figure out who you need to hire.

It’s just… you’re a hundred percent right. And so that’s something that I… my civic experience, my… so I work in the private sector, the public sector and the nonprofit, and each informs the other.

Denver: Absolutely.

Jane: I understood the urgency around small business ownership, keeping them open as mayor, and therefore we had outdoor dining, and therefore we brought people together to shop safely, and we kind of built structure. So like everything informs everything else.

Denver: Yeah. You have to have a foot in each world. You have to have urgency, or ideas will die. But you have to have patience because you realize this is the way the system works. And you got to go back and forth between the two because that’s just life.

Let me close with this, Jane. I read a spicy TAP success story last night. It was Gourmet Cha Cha. Why don’t you share with us one of the many success stories you have, whether it’s that one or another one in terms of what’s happened with the people you’ve helped.

Jane: This is what keeps me so happy every single day. It is the people. This is such a human business. Let me tell you about Trent. Trent, when he was 18, was incarcerated. He was a young man in the Albany area. And when he was in jail, he went to class and taught himself so that when he got out, he was going to be able to solve community problems.

And when he got out, he worked the night shift as a janitor at a hotel. But he had no transportation to get there, and so he had to walk to get there. And what he just decided was: “I am going to build a transportation system so that workers can get to their jobs.”

Denver: Wow.

Jane: “And because I spent this time as a Black young man in prison, and I spent this time to learn, I’m going to pay it forward.” He built out a transportation business to get people to their jobs.

We were actually called in by one of our alternative lender partners, Pursuit is the name. And they said, “We’re giving Trent a loan, but we really think he needs your help.” And what we learned subsequently was literally he was about six months away from bankruptcy.

And I’ll fast forward to tell you that he now has a million dollars in sales. And I’ll tell you what we did. We helped him, first and foremost, understand the financials. I mentioned that to you. He was pricing way below market and he had his prices, he had frozen them in time.

So gas goes up; labor goes up, and he didn’t even think about putting the overhead into the pricing. So we helped him enormously with that. We benchmarked competition. We helped him, I had mentioned to you, how to use your time. We taught him that he needed to hire a bookkeeper, and he needed to hire an administrator.

So he created jobs, he created jobs for drivers. And it’s an enormous success story. In fact, he won an award from the Small Business Association in the area. So he’s hired people. He can pay for his own lifestyle, and he’s built this incredible business, and we were there at every step of the way. And he will say that without us, he thought he was going to go out of business.

Denver: Oh, that’s fantastic. What a great story. And it’s a need that you would’ve never known existed if you hadn’t been listening.

For listeners who want to learn more about TAP, that’s The Acceleration Project, financially support this work, or maybe find out more about becoming a pro bono consultant, tell us a little bit about your website and what visitors will find there.

Jane: Yes, so please visit us at You can read our client stories. You can see all the partners with whom we work, economic development agencies, banks, big corporate America. We would love for you to partner with us. People love partnering with us because we help them deliver and meet their goals.

You can find opportunities to volunteer as a pro bono consultant, and we’re right in the middle of our annual campaign. We really need the funding to be able to deliver the service, and we so appreciate the philanthropic kindness of those around us. So you could find us also on Instagram, on LinkedIn, but please come seek us out.

Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Jane,  so much for being here today. What an interesting organization you have, and it was a real pleasure to have you on the show!

Jane: Denver, thank you so much for giving me a chance to tell our story.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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