Building More Equitable Ecosystems through the Ascend Program

Written by Kim Zeuli, EEP 

Individual entrepreneurial support organizations (ESOs) provide critical support for entrepreneurs, but their impact is amplified when they are integrated into local entrepreneurial ecosystems. Ascend was established by the University of Washington Foster School of Business’ Consulting and Business Development Center, in partnership with JPMorgan Chase to pursue this goal.

Currently in 13 cities, Ascend programs support entrepreneurs of color through a comprehensive M3 model that leverages local partners to provide management education, access to money, and access to markets—three fundamentals all entrepreneurs need to start and grow a business.

The Ascend program simultaneously builds businesses while it is building local ecosystems. JPMorgan Chase recognizes that investing in initiatives that fill critical ecosystem gaps facing entrepreneurs of color is a step towards addressing the historic, systemic barriers that have led to national business ownership and performance inequities.

In 2021, we evaluated the effectiveness and impact of 10 Ascend programs (there are two in Chicago). Our survey was completed by 190 entrepreneurs who had participated in an Ascend management-education cohort. In 2020, seven Ascend programs were evaluated and 192 businesses completed the survey.

Ascend Programs Participating in the 2021 Evaluation

Continuing to Drive Growth During the Pandemic  

Since Ascend programs were first launched, they have supported more than 600 businesses. In 2021, the 10 Ascend programs reported they had supported 264 entrepreneurs through their cohort programs. The increase from 2020 reflects the three additional programs evaluated. The number of businesses supported did not increase significantly because many cohort programs were delayed in 2021 due to the pandemic and were not completed before our evaluation.

Since not all businesses supported by Ascend programs responded to the survey, and not all Ascend programs were included in the evaluation, the true impact of Ascend is likely significantly higher than what is documented in this report.

National Ascend Impact

In aggregate, the 190 businesses that completed the survey raised $36 million in capital, generated $313 million in revenue, created 2,877 jobs (filling 42 percent with local hires) and paid $217 million in wages. The survey asks for information from end-of-year 2020, which means the effect of the pandemic shows up in the 2021 data. This may explain the decrease in revenue year-over-year. Research has documented the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color and women.

The 2021 increase in capital (which includes debt, equity and grants), total jobs and wages may reflect the impact of government relief programs for businesses during the pandemic—although we also know that entrepreneurs of color and women, especially in the early months of the pandemic, did not proportionately benefit from these programs. However, 41 percent of the businesses responding to the survey had received pandemic-related support from the Ascend programs, which included help accessing business relief resources.

Ascend made progress towards their ‘North Star’—moving companies earning $1 million in annual revenue to over $10 million in annual revenue. For the businesses that responded to the survey in 2021:

  • Number of businesses reporting $1-$4 million in annual revenue: 38
  • Number of businesses reporting $5-$9 million in annual revenue: 7
  • Number of businesses reporting $10 million or more in annual revenue: 2

Total revenue for this set of 47 businesses was $291 million, which means 25 percent of the businesses responding to the survey represent 93 percent of the total reported Ascend revenue. As Ascend (and other programs like Ascend), report on business growth, it will be important to track the distribution of revenue gains across businesses to measure widespread impact.

At the core of the Ascend M3 model is helping businesses secure contracts—going beyond a transaction approach to a broader market access model. On average, the businesses submitted nearly 13 bids for contracts at anchor organizations (corporations, universities, and hospitals) and government agencies and over one-third of the bids were awarded. While no comparable benchmarks are available to assess whether Ascend businesses are more or less successful than those not in the program, this data will allow Ascend to track annual progress.

The total value of all contracts received in 2020 was remarkable—$1.6 billion. However, one business alone (in the construction industry) reported receiving a $1.1 billion contract, which also skews the average. Of those that received contracts, 25 percent said their participation in the Ascend program mattered—they would not have received the contract without support from their Ascend program.


Feedback from the Entrepreneurs

Ascend has already tapped into a pipeline of successful, diverse entrepreneurs, and helped to center them in their local small business ecosystems, which is one marker of success. Effectively supporting established, growth-oriented businesses as they scale is not an easy charge, but one in which the Ascend programs seem to be succeeding at based on entrepreneur feedback.

Ascending in 2022

The data and insights from our evaluation is one input the Ascend team uses to refine their M3 model and identify challenges and opportunities across programs. We look forward to continuing to partner on the evaluation of Ascend in 2022, gathering insights on new Ascend programs as well as capturing the impact of established programs as they continue to build their local ecosystems and reach more entrepreneurs of color.

Find insights from EEP’s evaluation of other entrepreneurial support organizations here.