Alfa Demmellash (Rising Tide Capital)

Social entrepreneur Alfa Demmellash may be a married mother of two, but she knows the plight of single mothers intimately.

Raised in part by a single mother in her native Ethiopia at the height of the devastating Derg regime, Demmellash—who escaped violence that killed family members when she immigrated to the United States at age 12—will never forget how her mother struggled not just to protect her but to provide for her as a talented and hardworking but resourceless entrepreneur.

It inspired Demmellash and her husband, Alex Forrester, to launch Rising Tide Capital, a New Jersey-based nonprofit whose mission is to assist struggling individuals and communities in building strong businesses.

Rising Tide Capital’s programs focus on helping entrepreneurs start, sustain and grow businesses through intensive business-management training, ongoing coaching and mentoring, assistance with accessing financing, and opportunities to win financial grants through its Start Something Challenge, an annual business-pitch competition.

“I was inspired to start [RTC] because of my mother, who worked as a waitress during the day and made beautiful dresses and gowns at night to make ends meet,” says Demmellash, once championed by President Barack Obama for her work and named a 2009 CNN Hero as well as one of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women Changing the World in 2012. “I remember trying to get her to formalize her sewing business, but she was intimidated by the process of creating a business plan and trying to get a bank loan. There are many women and men like my mother with successful side hustles, who lack access to support networks, educational resources or capital.

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“Through Rising Tide we offer programs such as our Community Business Academy, Business Acceleration Services, Credit to Capital and the Start Something Challenge to help people, like my mother, gain the tools they need to transform their side businesses into sustainable and profitable ventures,” she says.

So why New Jersey?

“Alex is from New Jersey, and so, when we graduated from Harvard, we spent a lot of time there, getting to know Camden, Trenton, Newark and Jersey City. We realized we did not have to go far to help those in need. We also recognized that the entrepreneurial spirit in each community could answer the community’s own needs, so we decided to start Rising Tide Capital in Jersey City.”

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So who does Rising Tide Capital work with?

“The average RTC entrepreneur is a 40-year-old single mother of two children, earning less than $35,000 a year,” she explains. “Ninety percent of our entrepreneurs are minorities and 70 percent are women. Eighty percent of RTC entrepreneurs are low- to moderate-income, and 27 percent are unemployed at intake.”

With the help of philanthropists like multibillionaire Warren Buffett’s son Peter, who is co-president of the NoVo Foundation, Demmellash plans to expand the program nationwide. 

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Within the next five years, we see the build-out of our replication program and the emergence of a national community of Rising Tide Capital entrepreneurs,” she says. “As Rising Tide Capital has grown, we’ve had requests from many communities for our programs. We held off on these requests because we wanted to stabilize our model and strategize intentionally on the best way to bring our work to more communities.”

Knowing they’re onto something makes Demmellash that much more motivated to serve.

“We often hear people say, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’ but what if you don’t have a boat?” she asks. “What if you are an aspiring entrepreneur with a viable business idea in an area where there are no resources available to you? What I’ve found is that the only difference between entrepreneurs in Rwanda or Jersey City versus Silicon Valley is access to resources and opportunities. A recent Project Diane report found that, on average, black women founders raise $36,000 in venture funding, while $1.3 million goes to failed startups owned mostly by white men. Rising Tide Capital exists to give underserved entrepreneurs the same access to financial and support networks—to build those boats.”

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To participate in Rising Tide Capital’s Community Business Academy, you must be over 18 years old with an idea or talent that you would like to grow into a viable business, and have some experience in the industry in which you want to grow your business. You also need to be able to travel to New Jersey or Chicago for classes.