Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter believes the problems faced by society are best solved by prosperity. And the best way to create prosperity is to find solutions that make communities better.

For a small business, that success begins with the right strategy.

“What unique value can my business deliver to the customers I choose to serve?” Porter asked an audience of entrepreneurs Thursday. “If all I’m doing is delivering the same value as everyone else, I’ve lost my competitive advantage.”

Welcome to Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC). Founded by Porter, a renowned economics professor and author, Boston-based ICCC focuses on companies in or near city centers and teaches them how to access capital to expand.

ICCC held an all-day executive education conference Thursday at Regions Field in Birmingham, Ala. Regions served as the lead sponsor, working with co-sponsors Alabama Power, Birmingham Business Alliance and Protective Life. It wasn’t Regions’ first exposure to the conference, having hosted ICCC Memphis last year.

ICCC Birmingham drew more than 200 business owners from 13 states and 42 cities. In fact, only 54 percent were from Alabama. The free conference is just the first-step of the ICCC program, which includes webinars, coaching and a Nov. 13 pitch conference at the Stearns Business School on the NYU campus.

Regions Chairman, President and CEO Grayson Hall welcomed the participants, explaining the bank’s role in economic development and belief in creating shared value. He also explained why it was important to bring ICCC to Birmingham.

“Birmingham is our headquarters, our home,” Hall said. “We love our community, and we can take it to a different level here.”

David and Wani Shaw, a husband and wife team, opened Magic City Sweet Ice as a part-time business in 2014, selling their Italian ice delicacies from street carts. In April, they began working Magic City Sweet Ice full time out of a storefront in nearby Homewood, Ala.

“I’ve managed stores in retail — a nursery, coffee shops like Starbucks — but I’ve never managed numbers, so this is all new to me,” David Shaw said. “Honestly, this is going to take me a couple of days to process it all. There was so much great information.”

Shaw said one specific piece of advice resonated from him.

Harvard Professor Steven Rogers taught a session on getting ready for capital. He also provided this nugget: Seek help from those you trust by appointing an advisory board.

“You need one S.O.B. on your board of advisors,” Rogers said. “There’s nothing more powerful than having other brilliant people give you advice.”

 

Harvard Professor at ICCC Birmingham

Harvard Professor at ICCC Birmingham

Said Shaw, “That’s such a great idea. It takes such a burden off you.”

Keith Brown founded the sports clothing outfit, State Traditions, in 2007. With friend and business colleague John McElrath, the duo worked the business after hours and on weekends for two years. In 2009, they added Maury Lyon as a partner and took the company full time.

State Traditions recently moved from a cramped office just past the right-field wall of Regions Field to a more spacious setting in Avondale, just east of the city center.

“For us, this is good opportunity to learn more,” Lyon said. “We think that a lot of problems we live with are unique to us, then we get here and find out our problems are the same as everyone in this room.”

Courses included creating strategy and sustaining a competitive advantage, getting ready for capital, and managing growth and making the transition from a startup. The conference also featured “Perfecting Your Pitch,” a coaching session led by Regions business bankers, and panels on alternative funding and equity investment.

C. Clifton Eason, an assistant professor of marketing at Samford University, led a session on customer-centric marketing strategy. For Eason, Thursday’s event was his first exposure to the ICCC program.

“This is huge for Birmingham getting such high-end, high-level people with great depth and real-word experience here,” Eason said, pointing to the participation of Porter and Rogers. “I’m impressed that they came here to Birmingham to work with our local businesses and I’m impressed with the level of expertise.”

Eason focused on five steps to creating a customer-centric culture, reviewing Honda’s leap from its 1980s reputation as a small, safe, underpriced automaker to its current role as an industry leader. He also provided the class with a fictional case study for a new sports energy drink and worked with them on finding strengths to market and create a niche for the product.

“This is the first time I’ve been a part of this and I was excited,” Eason said. “I’m impressed with the participants here. I’m seeing a lot of companies in growth mode led by sharp, entrepreneurial minds.”

For the participants, each of whom is nominated, the entire ICCC course is free leading up to the final pitch session in New York.

“We’d like to go to New York,” said David Shaw of Magic City Sweet Ice. “To be honest, we weren’t really considering it before. After today, that’s something we definitely want to do.”