“It’s incredibly important to our country that we get more people starting businesses. If you don’t own stuff in our society, you’re not a stakeholder.”
Brian Hamilton is used to speaking in front of a board room and as an entrepreneur and philanthropist, he does it a lot. But on a quiet night in Durham, he’s doing something a little different: sharing his story with the Greater Triangle’s next generation of entrepreneurs.
These entrepreneurs aren’t looking to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. They’re bringing the strength of small business back to a society overflowing with big-box retailers and Helius, a United Way-funded nonprofit, is helping them get there.
Geraud Staton, Founder and Executive Director of the Helius Foundation, has worn many hats during his career. He’s served in the military, worked as a private investigator, and even launched and sold his own Chapel Hill dog-sitting business. But his passion for entrepreneurship was really born from necessity.
Geraud was raised by his single mother in a low-income Durham neighborhood but at 10 years old, district rezoning took him out of his neighborhood’s economic constraints and into George L. Carrington Middle School and Northern High School, which were built in adjacent, more affluent neighborhoods.
He suddenly found himself navigating hallways alongside students that didn’t represent his own background. But in that situation, he also found the opportunity for his own advancement.
“A lot of affluent people went to both of those schools and I wasn’t one of them. One of the things I did to help myself was sell candy to kids in school,” Geraud explains. “I would walk about two miles to school, stopping to get a bag of candy on the way, and would sell it in class.”
Geraud’s school principal didn’t try to temper his budding entrepreneurialism. He encouraged him to think bigger.
“They explained that I could charge those rich kids more. I was buying Blow Pops for $.10 and selling them for $.25 but after speaking with him and other people, I eventually got to where I was selling them for $1.50, except during exams when they sold for $2.50.”
That experience changed Geraud’s future. He was addicted to entrepreneurship.
In 2007, the United States economy began to spiral and so did Geraud’s career as an oil painter. He decided to go back to school at North Carolina Central University in the hopes that by learning accounting, marketing, and organizational management, he could build a career for his canvases. But he learned something else instead.
“While I was in school, I saw that if my classmates wanted to start a business, they had people to talk to. I didn’t have that so I wanted to be that person, someone people could go to for advice.”
Geraud worked with two classmates to start a service giving free advice to students. He graduated with seven clients, which quickly grew to 13. It made him realize he needed to create something more official to sustain his new company’s growth.
The Helius Foundation was officially founded in 2015 with the goal of helping people experiencing poverty “turn their side hustle into a good living wage career.”
What he identified through his school project, which became his work, was this:
“We’ve found that there are a bunch of people doing small jobs just trying to make ends meet. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to support themselves doing what they’re passionate about. We want to help that group of people do whatever it is they’re doing and make a fair living wage doing just that.”
When the company was founded, Geraud only intended on sustaining 15 clients per year. Those 15 quickly became 30.
So he brought in a board of directors and with their support, spent a year teasing out a 10-week, flipped classroom-style program designed to ease students into the entrepreneurial waters and teach them everything from applying for business loans to how to bring a company up to legal code.
On October 15, the Helius Foundation graduated 9 more.
The first time that Hassan Shaheed applied to become a Helius Foundation student, he was denied.
“I guess I wasn’t as detailed as I should have been,” Hassan laughs. “I had to actually open up my business and really show him that my business was growing. I kept going back and forth with him and showed him that I could make it happen.”
At the time, Hassan was working as a Patient Care Advocate at a local mental health and substance abuse facility but he wanted more for his family. He’s a single dad and wants to build generational wealth that can be passed to his son.
He hopes that gift will provide his son with social mobility, something that Hassan didn’t have growing up on the east side of Buffalo, NY in what he describes as a “poverty and drug environment.”
Despite its challenges, that environment also gave him a passion for food. His dad was a chef and his kitchen became a second home. Hassan also refers to Buffalo as “the best city with the best food in the world” and wanted to bring that feeling of home — as well as the comfort of buffalo wings and savory pastelitos — to the Greater Triangle. From that passion came his company: 716ers Food.
“716ers Food is a late-night food delivery and catering business. Ordering is as simple as sending a text, DM, email, or Facebook message. You can contact us, place the order, and we’ll deliver to wherever you are, anywhere in the Triangle area.”
Regina Mays is another graduate. She found the Helius Foundation when she was experiencing homelessness.
Regina is a single mom to 5 kids. She served in the Army for 14 years and after retiring, took a job with a major pharmaceutical company before layoffs left her living off savings.
She took odd jobs to make ends meet but it wasn’t enough. Her health declined and she just couldn’t work anymore.
The thing about Regina is that she won’t allow life to keep her down. Even while she was experiencing homelessness and struggling with job loss, she was still motivated to help her family with all of their troubles.
“My ex-husband suffers from alcoholism and I walked into a local nonprofit seeking services for family members who suffer from all the dynamics that addiction of any form can cause,” she explains.
She started taking wellness classes as part of her healing process. That led to her volunteering with people suffering from substance use and mental health disorders.
“The next thing I knew, I was taking workshops and classes for certifications.”
Helping people overcome addictions became Regina’s passion but she wasn’t content working for established recovery centers because she saw that their decisions were guided by the influx of money, not necessarily what the clients actually needed.
“There was a lot of overhead at some of these companies. Higher-ups were making decisions when they didn’t understand how it would affect patients because they weren’t the ones down there with their boots on the ground.”
The Helius Foundation helped, and is helping, Regina launch her own independent practice. They taught her business structure, accounting best practices, and how to pitch.
That education won’t just strengthen the Greater Triangle community, it’s paving the way for her own family’s social mobility too.
“I have definitely tried to set the pathway for my kids by teaching them to be their own person, to go after their own goals and be wise while doing it. I’ve tried to teach them everything from how to be responsible in the household, be present emotionally and mentally, and hopefully how to be the right example for how family pulls together in tough times,” she says.
“That’s really what recovery is centered around. If we can re-engage people with their family members on a positive note, we can change lives.”