Entrepreneurs who feel like they’re walking through a financial or psychological desert now have an oasis: the Level Up program is providing businesses across Maryland with access to capital, training, coaching, mentoring, and networking opportunities.

Level Up — which operates under the umbrella of Largo-based FSC First — has served 2,313 small businesses throughout the state after only 18 months in existence. Level Up is designed to support and empower small minority-owned businesses. Working through a consortium of partners, Level Up hosts events and offers programs, both online and in person, at various locations.

Dawn Medley (Submitted photo)

Business owners find out about the program through social media, radio spots, and word-of-mouth via events, according to Dawn Medley, president and CEO of FSC First. “We serve all ages of business owners — fresh out of college to very seasoned, mature people,” she said. 

The program, which is free, has what Medley strongly believes is a high-quality curriculum. “People are constantly coming up to me and expressing their gratitude,” she said. 

Part of the program involves industry coaches, and Level Up keeps a rolling roster of willing coaches. “The business owners we serve tend to be skilled at their service or their product but generally need assistance in the back office, that is, help understanding financial statements, and getting those tax returns filed,” she said. “They need guidance from a bookkeeper, or an accountant.” 

Through Level Up, industry coaches show these entrepreneurs, step-by-step, how to accomplish some of these tasks. 

Pent-up need

Level Up was created after Medley and her colleagues found that many businesses needed help understanding grant eligibility during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We found that there were thousands of businesses who could not take advantage of those grants because they had no financial statements,” she said — and those same businesses often don’t approach a bank for a loan. “They either don’t have confidence they’ll get approved at the bank or they’re just not conformable with what they have to do to prepare.”

Level Up feeds into FSC First’s other programs, which provide financing for businesses. 

“The pent-up unmet need was unbelievable,” said Medley. “We teach people the business of doing business through tangible and actionable training.”

Level Up is not just bookkeeping support — it allows business owners to surround themselves with their peers. “Many times they can partner in some kind of effort or gain knowledge from someone going through the same thing,” said Medley. “It’s that interchange among fellow business owners.”

Toni Tomlin is CEO of Faith2Felicity, an artisan-centered small business featuring jewelry made from crystals and stones, as well as other products. With one storefront in National Harbor, Tomlin also has a thriving online store. She attended Level Up workshops on business and financing with about a dozen other entrepreneurs. 

“We listened to some of the business coaches, and talked about financials,” said Tomlin. 

Now she’s aiming to open a second location as well as increasing her e-commerce sales. 

“Relationships matter — especially in small businesses starting out,” she said.