Community Assistance Friends Enterprise (CAFE) is filling a gap in the business landscape that can be difficult to navigate for minority business owners. Founded by executive director Rebecca Emerson in 2020, CAFE provides free legal and business consulting to all who need it, but centers entrepreneurs and small business owners who are women, LGBTQ+, people of color and other marginalized local groups. Emerson draws on her background as a business-centric general practice attorney to run her business in conjunction with volunteer attorneys, a professional team, and a board of directors. Emerson conceived of CAFE with her two daughters when the pandemic first hit in 2020.
“I think it’s a general understanding these days that lots of minority and women-owned businesses maybe haven’t had a history of having resources available,” Emerson said. “Being part of the LGBTQ+ community and being a woman, and as a business-owner, I feel that I am not a minority, but I think through my LGBTQ+ experience, I have an understanding of how it can be for somebody to be different, or maybe not have everything handed to them.”
While many of their beneficiaries are women and people of color, Emerson would like to have a wider reach when it comes to helping LGBTQ entrepreneurs.
When requesting services from CAFE, potential beneficiaries are asked to fill in an intake form, where they are prompted to disclose whether they’re already working with an attorney, and if not, that they can’t afford an attorney (though they are not required to show proof). The CAFE team then offers a free phone call with an attorney. Sometimes the volunteer attorney can answer all of the business owners’ questions at that point, but people frequently need more extensive help that can come in the form of filing for an LLC, creating bylaws for a new nonprofit, navigating a lease review, creating contracts, and other legal aspects of running a business. While CAFE’s services are pro bono, they don’t pay for any external fees that a beneficiary may encounter along the way.
Emerson pointed out that many business owners have not had good experiences with attorneys, which can be a deterrent to accessing their services.
“Maybe the only attorney they’ve ever met has been the landlord’s attorney trying to evict them,” Emerson said. “Or unfortunately, a district attorney trying to put somebody they know in jail. And yet, there’s a lot of people out there who are trying to do something positive in the world, they’re looking to also make a contribution.”
Others don’t know how to go about getting legal assistance, or don’t understand the legal help that they need, Emerson said.
“How do you know when you can have an independent contractor versus when do you need an employee?” Emerson asked rhetorically. “How do you know what these legal terms are in this lease that this person’s asking you to sign, or in this contract? Business people need to make lots of business decisions, but as an attorney, I feel like they should understand what they’re deciding. Sometimes as a new business person, you have to sign agreements that maybe aren’t ideal for your side and take a risk. As the attorney, I want you to know what those risks are. They might not even know they need us.”
Toni Lorraine Johnson utilized CAFE’s services to draw up contracts for her business Dr. Brownies, a plant-based dessert company.
“It was really essential for dealing with the foundationals of my business,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone because you can’t patent a recipe. It’s your trade secret, and in order for it to be your trade secret, you still need to make sure you have those NDAs so you can protect your business as best as possible.”
Johnson is working on her Ph.D. in organizational development at Cabrini University. Her dissertation is entitled “Black Women Entrepreneurs: Scaling Ain’t Easy.” In it, she examines the experiences of Black women entrepreneurs, who start more businesses than any other group of people, but whose businesses don’t typically scale.
“There’s multiple reasons,” Johnson said. “Small entrepreneurs, we’re living hand to mouth, so it’s crucial that we’re agile enough and have that ecosystem we can tap into in CAFE and say: I need this done.”
Monica Molina co-founded Innovech Software LLC, a group of technology experts that develop cutting-edge and user-friendly tech solutions for small businesses and nonprofits. She and her co-founders used CAFE to draw up their initiating resolution and operating agreement, and devise terms and conditions for some of their commercial documents, such as quotes and invoices.
“Legal services are expensive, and usually, small businesses don’t have enough capital to cover those fees,” Molina said in an email. “As an immigrant, woman, and minority, I found in Rebecca and her organization the willingness to give us the best advice to succeed with our business. Most significantly, they invest time in making sure we understand the documents. I have much gratitude for her dedication to Innovech Software LLC and her patience in speaking with non-native English speakers.”
Emerson and the CAFE team also helped Dorothi Vaughn with contracts and trademarks for her dental billing and consulting business Master Bill’D, LLC.
“They were very helpful,” Vaughn said. “In the beginning of starting your business, financially, resources are limited. Then you’re excited about your business and you’re not thinking about the protection that you need, and contracts. [Rebecca] always gave me a little bit more insight to look at, and ways to make sure my business was protected. She always gave me extra information, and she never made me feel like I was a pro bono case.”
Emerson also helped Vaughn with her second business, Dot’s Handi Transit, which provides transportation for people with disabilities and seniors.
“In this world, I’m not going to say men dominate, but sometimes they take over and run all over us, so I need that backup and information,” said Vaughn, who is a Black woman. “I do dental billing, so when it comes to the law, I don’t know it all. To have [Rebecca] on my team, it gives me a sense of security.”
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