In the winter of 1991, Pam Mims saw her career and her confidence crash and burn. After five years at a downtown law firm, the 42- year-old legal secretary and single mother was laid off, yet another casualty of corporate downsizing.
"It really devastated me," she said. "My self-esteem was below zero. . . . I didn't think I was capable of doing too much of anything."
As a desperate, unemployed mother of a preschooler, Mims hardly seemed destined for entrepreneurial success.
Yet, four years later, with the help of the Pasadena Neighborhood Enterprise Center, Mims operates a one-woman office consulting company, offering medical and legal transcription, bookkeeping and desktop publishing services.
The center, she said, has "really opened up a lot of doors for me as far as working as an entrepreneur, as opposed to working in a law firm."
For five years, the Pasadena Neighborhood Enterprise Center has provided free business training and small loans to prospective entrepreneurs. Based on a model that started in Bangladesh and has spread worldwide, the program nurtures ultra-small, mainly home-based businesses, known as micro-enterprises.
Its core structure is the peer group--a combination social network and banking unit. Clusters of four to seven participants meet twice a month to share advice and encouragement. They act as loan officers and guarantors, deciding among themselves who gets to borrow money, and then co-signing each other's loans.
Since the inception of the Pasadena center, the program has spawned 215 companies, most of them in the San Gabriel Valley, said Director Nettie Collins. (The agency lacks statistics on how many are still in operation.) The center-backed enterprises have ranged from computer and office services to day-care centers, catering companies--even a small record label, an art dealership and a harpist who plays silvery melodies for weddings and brunches.
The center also sponsors a monthly event called the African Marketplace, where members and other vendors can sell their wares. Although many of the goods are African imports--clothes, jewelry and craft items--they don't have to be. Nor do the vendors have to be black, or even members of the center. The event, held in northwest Pasadena, provides a marketplace for any interested small merchants.
Unlike ambitious, grand-scale economic development projects, such as Rebuild L.A., which aim to draw corporate investment to Los Angeles neighborhoods, the center works with low- and moderate-income people to build their businesses up.
"Small businesses are the lifeblood of this country," said Curt Lewis, a financial consultant for Dreyfus Fund and a member of the center's advisory board. "We think that in the future, as more corporations are downsizing and cutting back, this concept has even more appeal. It gives people the opportunity to have more control over their lives and their future."
It certainly was a godsend for Mims.
For years, the frenetic world of legal work was her life, and overtime and weekend hours were the norm. After she had her daughter seven years ago, though, it took the skill of an acrobat to juggle doctor visits and preschool parties with her jampacked workday.
"You feel so afraid to take time off, for fear of being fired," she said.
When her position was axed during a round of staff cutbacks, she panicked.
"As a single parent, I didn't know what I was going to do." At the time, she was not receiving support from the child's father.
Then came depression and the struggle to make ends meet. Despite an occasional free-lance job, she once was nearly evicted from her $775-a-month apartment. She also spent a brief and, for her, humiliating stint on welfare.
A friend told her about the enterprise center, which is free and open to anyone with an interest in starting a business.
Gradually, with the help of the center, she overcame her plight and eventually opened her own company. The center taught her networking skills, restored her confidence, and loaned her $500 to buy a fax machine.
"As far as the (peer) group itself, we would share ideas, and just having someone who's trying to do the same thing as you are, in terms of opening a business, really boosted your morale," she said.
Moreover, she was able to bring her child to center meetings. And while her work hours are often demanding (she sometimes rises at 3 a.m. to complete a project), now she can always squeeze in time for her daughter.
Her current income comes in fits and spurts, varying from month to month. Although she said it averages less than half the $3,300 a month she grossed as a legal secretary, she hopes to establish a regular client base that will generate stable revenue.
Not all the enterprises pan out, said Saundra L. Knox, executive director of Pasadena Neighborhood Housing Services, a nonprofit housing development agency that serves as the center's parent organization.