On the scene: MESO closes entrepreneurial gap

In a city full of entrepreneurs organizations and start up incubators, MESO (Microenterprise Services of Oregon) stands apart. Founded in 2005 as a program of the Black United Fund of Oregon, the program — which became its own nonprofit in 2001 — provides low income and minority residents with loans and technical assistance to start or expand their companies.

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The businesses MESO serves are not always as sexy as some of the startups that tend to dominate local business headlines: baked goods, child care services, hair salons, art and automotive services. But MESO’s mission, to restore economic balance among minorities and other underserved populations, is timely.

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Today Portland is rocked by two simultaneous economic trends: the rise of a wealthy and tech-centric elite, and the displacement of minorities and low income residents.

MESO, which is about to close a long awaited deal to purchase the building it now leases on Northeast Martin Luther King (the nonprofit also has an office Beaverton), closes the gap. Or as Portland mayor-elect Ted Wheeler said in a speech he delivered during MESO’s annual fundraising gala last night: “Into the void comes MESO.” (The fundraiser also doubled as a graduation night for about 30 new business owners who completed a three-year MESO training program.)

Wheeler described his first, ill-fated entrepreneurial venture selling Betamax cassettes, and then (jokingly) commended MESO graduates for the risks they take every day — including inviting him to speak at the graduation dinner.

“I want to point out that being a successful entrepreneur is not just about hard work and determination. Luck has something to do with it. I want to thank MESO for having the foresight to book me before you knew if this would be a good idea or a bad idea.”

MESO Board chair Jeff Lang described the roots of his own social entrepreneurial journey: volunteering for Cesar Chavez in California in the late 1960s. “I experienced such love from him, such empathy, honest human kindness; he was always inclusive to everyone and always willing to answer our questions. Of course there is one leader that probably tops that: Nita Shah, [MESO’s] executive director.”


MESO client Jessica Chan, founder of Wink Pens, delivered a graceful pitch for her startup, which makes refillable glass fountain pens built to write with alternative inks such as wine, juice, or tea. The modular pens, fashioned from “borosilicate,” aim to “bring back the lost art of hand crafted experience — but with a modern sensibility,” she said.

The fundraiser, held at the Red Lion Hotel in Jantzen Beach, was a reminder that before there were startups there were small businesses, and before there were entrepreneurs there were small business owners. Whatever the lingo, microenterprises, and the people who run them, form the social, cultural and economic backbone of this city and state.

MESO graduates, 2016

Una Barrett: Relics of a New Age
Peg Butler: Peg Butler Studio
Julie Campbell: Written on the Body
Brian Echerer: Velo Gioielli
Kisha Izunagbara: Sah’Rah and Associates
Chermaigne Josie:  Akemi Hair Studio
Susannah Kelly: Antler Gallery
Fatuma Kinga: Happy Car Adult Foster Home
Israel Lopez-Mendoza,  Lopez Scott Handyman LLC
JoannLundberg: Joann Lundberg
Nicholas Munson-Phelps:  Precycle LLC
Lisa Pacioretty:  Umay LLC
Karen Page:  Urban Pantry
Lindsey Reif: Reif Haus
Lindsey Rickert:  Lindsey Rickert Phtography