Delaware: Open For Business

The First State is gaining national attention for community development through programs like Launcher and the determination of neighborhood entrepreneurs

By Mary Ellen Mitchell
Photos courtesy West End Neighborhood House

Since 1883, West End Neighborhood House (WENH) has offered programs, services, support, and advocacy to enhance quality of life for thousands of residents on the West Side of Wilmington. But don’t let the name fool you. WENH’s mission has expanded in recent years to include communities throughout Delaware.

The West Side, which includes Little Italy, Cool Spring/Tilton Park, Hilltop and The Flats, was devasted by construction of Interstate 95 in the 1960s. The interstate bisected the city, and hundreds of residents and businesses in the path of construction were displaced, leading to deterioration of the area and decades of disinvestment.

Thanks to the community development efforts of WENH programs, the West Side has made an incredible comeback over the last 10 years and now encompasses more than 300 successful small businesses.

Operating from a modest brick building nestled in the heart of the Little Italy neighborhood, the 140-year-old nonprofit powerhouse offers a lifeline to low-income Delaware residents seeking assistance with housing, education, employment, and family services.

“I’m especially proud that no one who comes through our door is ever turned away,” says Executive Director Paul Calistro. “If we don’t have the answer under our roof, we won’t give up until we find someone who does.”

WENH’s effort to continually adapt to the changing needs of Delaware communities is exemplified by one of their newest initiatives, the Launcher program.


The Genesis of Launcher

Launcher follows a nationally recognized, proven community development model created in the early 1990s by Mihailo Temali, of St. Paul, Minn.

Temali grew up on the East Side of St. Paul, where he watched once vibrant neighborhoods fall into decline from decades of systemic disinvestment and consumer flight to big-box retail in the suburbs in the 1980s. After college, he set his sights on finding a solution to alleviate concentrated poverty at home. He learned that relying on sporadic development from outside investors doesn’t go far enough to improve the lives of residents. In many cases, it creates fear of displacement and mistrust of outsiders.

At play were two key observations he made regarding all low-income neighborhoods: High unemployment is the result of limited job opportunities, and many residents have talents in a variety of areas.

Then came an “Aha!” moment: With proper training, resources and support, skilled residents with energy and ideas could own and operate small businesses to help support their families, fill vacant storefronts, create jobs, and build lasting economic growth.

One success led to another, and Temali’s build-from-within model became the foundation for the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) of St. Paul, which he founded in 1993 to support neighborhood entrepreneurs in four key areas: training, lending, technical assistance, and real estate.

In the ensuing years, NDC became synonymous with community development done right. To join forces with like-minded practitioners, Temali went on to create the Build From Within Alliance (BfWA), which has expanded over the last three decades, now encompassing members from 50 neighborhoods in 30 cities across the nation, including Wilmington — through Launcher.


The Power of Launcher

Since 2017, Launcher has helped 324 Delaware entrepreneurs start or enhance their small business and ignite economic growth by creating nearly 900 jobs — initially on the West Side, but with recent expansion into the communities of Bear, Claymont, Dover, Georgetown, and New Castle. The program has almost 1,000 graduates statewide among the 10 partner sites.

Through the Launcher Training Program, a rigorous 12-week course offered in spring and fall cohorts in both English and Spanish, students learn all aspects of owning and operating a small business, such as business plan development, sales and marketing, operations, taxes, insurance, and payroll.

Classes take place at WENH and partner organizations throughout New Castle County, including the Bear Library, Claymont Library and Community Center, and the Route 9 Library & Innovation Center in New Castle.

After graduation, held at Wilmington University, Launcher entrepreneurs can attend workshops for specialized assistance through the Launcher Business Lab.

Individualized coaching and support are ongoing. Entrepreneurs can reach the small business experts at Launcher and WENH “any time for any reason,” says Launcher Program Manager Naseem Matthews. “We stay closely connected to our graduates through regular engagement.”

Launcher entrepreneurs receive financial support through partnerships with many banks and nonprofit foundations. “We also can also assist with nontraditional lending,” he says.

For example, Kiva Delaware was launched in May of 2022, through a partnership between WENH’s Cornerstone West CDC and local nonprofit Wilmington Alliance, as a Hub of Kiva US, to provide alternative access to capital for those with lower incomes and credit scores. In just two years of operation, Kiva Delaware has awarded loans to 25 small businesses throughout Delaware, 84% of which are minority-owned, and 53% of which are women-owned, totaling $188,500.

“Another collaborative partner — M&T Bank — worked with us to simplify their micro-loan application, enabling small business owners to quickly and easily secure amounts of $5,000 to $15,000 at zero percent interest,” Matthews says.

Launcher also relies on experts within the community for guidance. These trusted partners include resources at Delaware State University and Wilmington University, as well as accountants, realtors, and lawyers.


Lighting the Way From Wilmington

In recognition of Launcher’s success in the First State, the BfWA chose Wilmington to host its 2024 convening — a four-day, spirited event held in early May.

“Launcher is a shining example of how quickly and robustly we can generate scale and create impact,” Temali says. “Members of the alliance from Alaska to Florida were all amazed at what they’ve accomplished here in Delaware.  And while we’re learning from them, they’re learning from us.”

With nearly 150 attendees representing BfWA members from across the country, the convening provided a valuable opportunity for learning, fellowship, and support.

“The energy and passion of entrepreneurs who embody the personality, culture and ethnicity of a neighborhood creates a ripple effect, which can gradually change longstanding negative perceptions,” Temali says.

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, and U.S. Sen. Chris Coons addressed the convening with upbeat messages that noted the success of community development through entrepreneurship in Delaware and throughout the country.

Sponsors of the convening included Barclays, Kresge Foundation, Stearns Bank, Fulton Forward Foundation, Capital One, Comenity Bank, Discover, M&T Bank, TD Bank, WSFS Cares Foundation, and Starbucks-Middletown Crossing.

The event, at Barclays’ headquarters on the Wilmington Riverfront, kicked off with the bank’s sixth annual Small Business Week Vendor Fair, which enabled 40 Launcher graduates to showcase their ideas, products and services in a fun and demonstrable way. Barclays and Launcher also partnered to host a  Small Business Pitch Competition, awarding five small businesses over $22,000 in prizes that ranged from $1,000 to $10,000, for start-up and improvement capital.

The remainder of the convening was held at WENH, where BfWA members attended insightful case study presentations and participated in break-out sessions to share ideas and discuss challenges and opportunities.

Small businesses powered by Launcher, such as Nick’s Pizza, Lucky Shot Coffee Company, along with members of the Wilmington Kitchen Collective provided specialty food and beverages for the event.

Both days concluded with walking tours of some small businesses backed by Launcher on the West Side, including Hell’s Belles Bake Shop, The Juice Joint 2.0, and Dino’s Ice Cream & Water Ice Store.

Sarah Lester, CEO of WENH’s Cornerstone West CDC, highlighted additional revitalization projects, including a greatly improved parking design implemented in the commercial corridor that has made it easier than ever to shop and dine on the West Side.

Attendees also learned about the West Side Grows Innovation Grant, which offers $10,000 to help West Side business owners with storefront improvements and equipment needs. Taco House & Pizza, a recent grant recipient, was highlighted on the tour.

“Nearly 45% of Launcher entrepreneurs are new to America,” Calistro says. “This would make West End Neighborhood House’s founder, Emily Bissell, proud of how we’re carrying out her mission. Emily started West End in the Forty Acres neighborhood to help immigrants assimilate into the community and find work.”

Indeed, from the West Side and beyond, Wilmington communities are invigorated by those who dare to dream. They provide towing services and hair care. They’ve opened boutiques and beauty bars, as well as some of the best and most ethnically diverse culinary establishments in Delaware.

— For a comprehensive directory of small businesses powered by Launcher, and for more information, visit  To learn more about the history, people, and programs of WENH, visit

Above: Members of the Launcher crew (l-r): Savion Thompson, Naseem Matthews, G’Jurel Jones and Kristin Bowen.