Demmellash: Big award can be start of something big

Rising Tide Capital’s co-founder hopes prestigious Heinz Award is 1st step in bolder moves for entrepreneurial community in N.J.

Once she got over the shock of being honored with a prestigious Heinz Award — and the emotions that only can come when good deeds are recognized on a big stage — Rising Tide Capital co-founder Alfa Demmellash pondered the question that only a visionary can handle: How can we take this to the next level?

How can the $250,000 check that came with the award be used with the greatest impact?

Rising Tide was cited in the technology, economy and employment category by the Heinz Family Foundation. Demmellash wants to make sure all of those categories are fulfilled. But how?

Is it helping those in the nonprofit’s lane — entrepreneurs from underserved communities that Rising Tide has helped, is helping and is planning on helping — make the necessary COVID-19 pivot?

Is it expanding Rising Tide’s reach outside of Jersey City to across the state, the country or even the world?

Or could it be a first step in helping everyone understand the importance of entrepreneurs and small businesses to the economy and the fabric of society?

Big moments bring about big action.

“I think back to Paris, when the Notre Dame cathedral burned,” Demmellash said. “In 24 hours, a billion dollars was mobilized to actually repair and rebuild it. When I look at New Jersey and our communities, I say, ‘What would it take to do something like that here?’

“This is our cathedral. These entrepreneurs, these communities, these small businesses — they are our cathedral. What would it take for New Jersey’s business community, foundations and investors to come together and do what Paris did?

“That’s the question we’re asking. How could this be the burning light that would bring people to say, ‘Let’s rebuild our small businesses, our cathedrals, for future generations?’”

Demmellash, who co-founded Rising Tide with her husband, Alex Forrester, talked with ROI-NJ after being honored with the Heinz Award on Tuesday. Here is more of the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Talk about the feeling of being so honored.

Alfa Demmellash: It is a pretty extraordinary and jaw-dropping honor. I’m extremely grateful. It’s an honor to not just have the recognition and the award, but for someone to invest in the dream. And we have big dreams.

What also was astounding was the reaction we got from others. They asked so many of our volunteers, funders and entrepreneurs to write about us for the selection committee. To hear people saying, ‘We were honored to write’ is a truly remarkable moment and affirmation — that in the midst of such daunting challenges of COVID for others to say: ‘Don’t give up. Keep going.’

ROI: Now comes the hard part — deciding how to spend the grant. Give us some early thoughts?

AD: We’ve already spent the money in our heads 1,000 different ways, because we have 1,000 different entrepreneurs and community members who are doing unseen things. For us, one of the most important things is to look around at who has capacity, who’s invisible, who needs the most help — because somebody saw that capacity in us, saw our vision and invested in us.

Alex and I are thinking about using this moment to catalyze resources to broaden the work. I have a whole network of social entrepreneurs who ask, ‘When will Rising Tide come?’ So, we’re doing the national work, trying to think about how we can expand the realm of this work.

I wish I could tell you what that would look like, but it’s going to take more creativity, more innovation to really expand the impact of our work and to make sure that we can share what we’ve learned with more communities.

ROI: Of course, there is so much need in Jersey City and the state. Talk about the added impact you could have here.

AD: We’ve been brainstorming the living daylights out of this because of the many ways that we can leverage it. We’ve been working on innovation projects, because the people that we work with, that we’ve worked with, are currently working with and want to work with, are all facing a common challenge, which is: They all need to pivot.

People are saying, ‘How do we innovate in the face of this?’

We’re looking at 40% of small businesses potentially being permanently closed because of COVID. And we know the long-term recovery that is coming is going to require all of our creativity.

ROI: Put this all in perspective.

AD: This is going to be a generation-defining moment for all of us. We’re small, but we’re a mighty community. And we need to take all of the creativity and the grit and resilience that our entrepreneurs are bringing to the table and invest in them and others who want to do this work on a much bigger level.

We look at the Heinz Award as a catalytic moment to say to all of our funders and our partners: ‘Let’s fully activate what we’re capable of.’

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