Lessons from West Philadelphia: The Leader of The Enterprise Center, Della Clark

Della Clark, president/CEO of The Enterprise Center

Media Outlet


Ben Speggen

A connector, bridge builder, and leader of a capital revolution

Between 45th and 46th streets in West Philadelphia, a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC)  marker stands on Market Street. The fifth of five sentences informs passersby that the Nationally Registered Historic building erected there in 1947 was "one of the first designed and constructed exclusively for television productions." Noteworthy for its potential, sure, but the first four sentences explain how and why the building gained national notoriety: It was the birthplace of American Bandstand.

Live from Studio B in WFIL – which advertised itself as WFIL-adelphia – Bandstand, as it was first known, hit airwaves in 1952. Broadcasting the pulse of music, culture, dance, fashion, and more, it captured the American teenage zeitgeist as youth gathered to gyrate to the soundtracks of the times – an experience initially delivered to some six million households throughout the region.

Four years later, a then-young, up-and-coming DJ by the name of Dick Clark took over at the helm, and "American" was added in front of "Bandstand." The popularity and reach of the show grew to an estimated 20 million viewers, as it hit national airwaves on Aug. 5, 1957. The building would remain the home of American Bandstand until 1964, when the show packed up and moved across the country to Los Angeles, where it continued its run until 1989.

Twenty-eight years after American Bandstand headed west, another Clark – Della Clark – would happen upon that block and see that historic building. There, she would find trash-strewn streets and graffiti brought on by years of abandonment. "Is this my journey?," the Texas native who'd married a Philadelphian and had relocated to the city of Brotherly Love asked herself. "Is this what I'm supposed to do?" the entrepreneur who'd run a water-bottling company, wondered.

Della Clark, who self-identified then in 1992 as a for-profit woman, not a nonprofit leader, found herself pondering those questions because she'd received a call telling her she was chosen to run the future of The Enterprise Center, a then-18-month-old community development nonprofit.

"Is everything that I learned in life preparing me for this role?," Clark rhetorically asked me on a Zoom call in early February, answering, without hesitation, "I can honestly say it was – and that is why I've stayed 32 years, because this is my journey."

That journey – the story of Della Clark, and the evolution of The Enterprise Center into the full-throttled economic and community development engine it has become – was on display in Erie, when Clark presented "Promoting Racial and Economic Equity: Ways to Lead Community Revitalization" on the campus of Gannon University as part of the Jefferson Educational Society's (JES) Global Summit.

By title, Della Clark is the president and chief executive officer of The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit whose mission is to cultivate and invest in minority entrepreneurs. But to know Clark by her title alone would be akin to knowing a Swiss-Army knife only as a knife because it happens to have a blade.

On stage, throughout the course of the 90-minute event, she told some 300-plus attendees she views herself as a capital revolutionary, a disruptor, a connector, an intermediary, and bridge builder. In flashes of wit sparking from a steady current of humor that matches her intelligence, and acumen that comprise an ever-present moxie, she added that she also considers herself to be a professional beggar and a pickpocket. She might even pick someone's pocket that night, she half-joked.

At the core of that sense of identity is a commandment of Clark's: "Capital flows where it knows," which she told the Erie audience, highlighting why it is important to introduce investment capital to audiences that aren't traditionally at the tables, or even know how to get a seat there. Her mission: open doors, make introductions, channel capital in new directions. She is someone who's reached the control room, understands the panel, and has a hand on the levers.

That has meant turning what was, in 1992, a one-and-a-half-year-old nonprofit housed at the University of Pennsylvania with $2,000 in the bank and a $31,000 grant on the way into an independent, multi-pronged approach to promoting racial and economic equity by supporting and investing in diverse small businesses while partnering with West Philadelphia communities on revitalization strategies with an operating budget today of $12.8 million and a team of 45 full-time employees and a wider network of experts and coaches ready to help throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

It means long days – heading to work in the dark, and returning home in the dark – and persistence – the stick-to-itiveness to turn "nos" and "maybes" into "yeses." And in Clark's case, it also means sometimes saying "no" to opportunities that don't look or feel right – like eschewing programming dollars to instead channel her energy in pursuit of investment capital.

Clark's rebuke of programming-based initiatives is in the spirit of a phrase she repeats often: "Low-wealth communities get program dollars while prosperous communities get investment capital."

She and her team are working to change that.

To her, the Enterprise Center is not a "social service organization; we are a wealth creation organization. I've created millionaires; I've created multi-millionaires," she'd told the Erie audience in November. "I haven't created a billionaire yet – but that's the goal."

Overviewing in broad strokes, that approach has resulted in three nonprofit entities – the Enterprise Center (TEC), TEC's Community Development Corporation, and TEC's Capital Corporation, and two for-profits – The Enterprise Center Construction, LLC (more on that in a minute) and the Innovate Capital Growth Fund.

Between 2016 and 2020, the Enterprise Center served nearly 8,000 clients, procured over $460 million of contracts and over $95 million in capital, and created nearly 2,000 jobs. A goal in the coming years: grow to a $25 million organization that consistently connects minority entrepreneurs with over $100 million in contracts annually.

"Why is capital so critical?" she asked the audience, answering, that for entrepreneurs and businesses, "it is the number-one disruptor. There are 18 pain points associated with the lack of capital – you make bad decisions because you can't hire people, you can't build the infrastructure you need to be successful."

Clark continued, explaining she heard too often that businesses didn't have the capacity to take on larger contracts and scale. "That is when I decided I needed to become a capital revolutionary. I'm focused on bridging the capital gap."

That means saying no – like to more programs – and focusing on getting investment capital. It also means launching a construction company, which Clark and the Enterprise Center have done. Why? In Philadelphia, "construction is the number-one industry cluster for minorities," Clark told me. TEC Construction supports 100 percent minority contractors to empower them to build a track record. And rather than looking at an education component as, say, "technical assistance" or "training," Clark sees it as "expertise and management coaching and consulting," pairing those who want to learn and do with those who know how and have done – just as how she's done in the number-two industry cluster for minorities in Philadelphia: food.

The Enterprise Center launched the Center for Culinary Enterprises that provides area residents in food deserts with access to farm-fresh and high-quality food while connecting Black and brown food entrepreneurs with retail and contract opportunities.

But what if entrepreneurs can't get to the Enterprise Center? Take the resources to them.

Clark told the Erie audience she likes to vacation on the weekends. But she does it online. Opening a browser, she heads anywhere in the world to see what is working elsewhere that could be modeled and scaled. One weekend, a virtual trip took her to India, where she saw an organization that used a van to meet entrepreneurs where they are. So, from India she headed to North Carolina and found a used van. She also found an area company that could customize it. Thus, Biz on Wheels was born – curbside business services to bring business loan and support services to the doorsteps of small businesses in commercial corridors and in residential neighborhoods.

One of the Enterprise Center's latest ventures, which Clark told the Erie audience about in November as her presentation drew to a close, is "Cocktails and Economics – Developing an Eye for the Economy." A 22-city tour, the concept is to kindle an interest in key economic indicators in minority CEOs to fuel informed decision-making by connecting them with economists and experts.

That's the "economics" part. To make it more approachable and lower the barrier of entry: feature cocktails – or beer, wine, and spirits. In keeping with the spirit of the series, ensure they're produced by minority business owners.

In November, there were 21 cities. Now, it's 22.

Of the cities, Erie is now right there alongside Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, St. Louis, Memphis, Charlotte, Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City. The series will also help Clark and The Enterprise Center take a pulse on the interests, needs, challenges, and successes of minority business owners throughout the country. This will help further inform the work Clark and the Enterprise Center do, not just in West Philadelphia, but beyond.

This latest initiative, like the host of others, to Clark, "is not about the Enterprise Center, or West Philadelphia – this is about America."

"We have to identify ambitious people who want to hit it big," Clark told me. "And we need to rally resources and subject matter experts to help them. They will help save the economy, save our communities, and save our country."

The original office space for The Enterprise Center wasn't in that building that sits on Market Street in West Philadelphia between 45th and 46th streets. They were across the street. That historic relic had been boarded up – its glory days, presumably, left to the annals of bygone times.

On her second day on the job, Clark bet on the historic building – that its brighter days lie not in the past, but the future. On day three, she started negotiations. Eighteen months later, the American Bandstand building was theirs.

Over three decades, transformational change has been seen in the West Philadelphia neighborhood. It's not just because Della Clark had a vision. It's because she knows change requires more than hopes and dreams; it requires dollars and cents, and she's the woman on a mission, called to her assignment, to be the bridge builder, the capital revolutionary that connects those with dreams and visions to the resources needed to turn ideas into reality.