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Minority mission: Arkansas native returns to help with bootstrap venture company.

Minority Mission

The southwest Little Rock group is a good bit less refined than Hanover, N.H., home of Dartmouth College, where Stephanie McHenry-Downing got her bachelor's degree in economics. Committed to bringing positive change to Arkansas, 27-year-old McHenry-Downing is speaking to small business groups across the state this year, helping them raise needed capital for expansion.

"I am in Arkansas because I want to be in Arkansas," she says. "I feel I could be in other places, but I've chosen to be here because I see a real opportunity and feel a real commitment."

McHenry-Downing is an investment manager for Southern Ventures Inc., an affiliate of Southern Development Bancorporation. Based in Arkadelphia, the innovative firm encourages economic development in the southern half of the state by fronting seed capital to growing businesses.

Southern Ventures is one of the few -if not the only - sources of venture capital for small-to medium-sized businesses, ranging from about $100,000 to $150,000 each. It has a portfolio of about $1.8 million, has made about six investments accounting for $1.2 million, and has about $600,000 more to invest. The maximum amount it can loan to an individual firm is $250,000.

Also unique, McHenry-Downing is the highest ranking black professional at the holding company and its affiliated companies.

"I guess I'm most proud of what I've been able to contribute to awareness of minority issues at the company."

McHenry-Downing works to focus the company on minority business needs and to ensure that other minority executives like herself are appointed to management roles. Of the six firms backed by Southern Ventures, one is minority based.

After leaving Little Rock, where she graduated from Hall High School, and despite being exposed to many challenges and enticements not found in "The Natural State," the young business executive has returned. But not before she received an Ivy League education and worked for ITT Life Marketing at Dallas and Shorebank Corporation at Chicago. In her management role at Southern Ventures, she travels the state promoting business growth.

Earlier this month, McHenry-Downing spoke to a gathering at the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department. In contrast to her white-collar colleagues from previous jobs, the crowd was composed of about two dozen men and women who own construction companies and other labor-intensive businesses. All were seeking insight into improving their chances for success.

In her speech, McHenry-Downing emphasizes the importance of small businesses, which can work to build up the state's economy. She offers to help the minority businessmen and businesswomen with the venture capital her company can supply. But she cautions, competition is fierce for the relatively small amount of money Southern Ventures has to lend.

Following her speech, she fields many questions about how businesses could be assisted by Southern Ventures.

"I don't want to make it sound like we've got a roomful of money to pass out," she says. "But I also don't want to discourage people from doing a good job of drawing up a business plan and submitting it."

Each of the loans contains a provision by which Southern Ventures acquires and maintains some ownership in the company obtaining an investment. The company will keep an equity position until the loan is paid off.

Some construction executives see McHenry-Downing's work and Southern Development Bancorporation as a godsend and a bootstrap, by which the state's people can pull themselves up.

She agrees that Southern Ventures can help. But success is not going to be achieved all at once. It will be accomplished little by little, investment by investment.

PHOTO : SPREADING THE WORD: Stephanie-McHenry-Downing, an investment manager with Southern Ventures Inc., has a mission to help minority businesses and professionals by planting seed capital across south Arkansas.

PHOTO : SPECIAL FOCUS: McHenry-Downing works to focus the company on minority business needs.
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Title Annotation:Stephanie McHenry-Downing, of Southern Ventures Inc.
Author:Kern, David F.
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 9, 1990
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