Rock County Jumpstart ready to jump start more businesses

Rock County Jumpstart ready to jump start more businesses Main Photo

29 May 2024

BELOIT — Lester Grace Jr. grew up in a household where everything was made from scratch, so when Southeastern Container closed its plant in Beloit in 2013, putting him and 50 others out of work, he decided to pivot to becoming a barbecue pit master.

He began entering barbecue competitions to perfect his craft. Eventually, he dove headfirst into the restaurant business, starting Backyard Barbecue and offering his ribs and chops on the south side of Janesville.

“It lasted a year and eight months,” Grace said. “I’d never run a business. I didn’t know how much more there was to it than just being able to barbecue a good brisket. It was a learning moment.”

Shortly after closing, he read an article about Genia Stevens and her plans to launch Rock County Jumpstart in Beloit with the mission to help African-Americans launch and grow businesses. He signed up and was accepted into the first cohort of her Accelerator program, which is a two-year program for start-up businesses. It includes 10 weeks of in-class instruction as well as coaching and mentoring.

Grace said it’s hard to list all of the ways Stevens helped him.

“At first it was just improving my self-esteem,” said Grace, who was part of Rock County Christian’s first graduating class in 1990. “I’d lost my confidence. She helped re-instill that.”

Stevens then helped Grace focus on improving his credit score. She worked with him on his “elevator pitch,” being able to tell people what he does in 30 seconds or less. She helped him organize his finances, complete a business plan and instructed him on how to use social media to create a following.

After signing up for the Rock County Jumpstart program, Grace got a call from a former customer. He needed an emergency caterer for a wedding with 350 guests.

“I knocked it out of the park, got the check and said to myself, ‘I got this backward. Start with catering and grow to a sandwich shop,’” Grace said.

Grace reopened Backyard Barbecue as a catering business. He did well enough that he was able to buy a concession trailer. It’s a bigger version of a food truck able to haul a grill. Then he opened Backyard Barbecue as a limited hours sandwich shop at 2517 Milton Ave. in Janesville.

He’s so busy now with catering and daily events, that he’s closing the sandwich shop for the summer.

“Genia has been with me every step of the way,” Grace said.

Started in 2019, Rock County Jumpstart is taking applications until 5 p.m. Friday for its next cohort. If you want to start or grow a business, you can apply for the free program at

Based at 2080 Sutler Ave. in the Morgan Square strip mall in Beloit, Stevens has reached a deal with the Beloit Public Library for more space so she can expand the number of companies she can help.

Originally focused on African-Americans, Stevens became partners with the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce and now assists Latino owned businesses as well. She keeps the doors open to even more.

“Although our mission is to help black- and latino-owned businesses, I will not turn anyone away,” Stevens said.

Entrepreneurship is on the rise in the United States. According to the Center for American Progress, the number of startups — firms that are under 1 year old — increased by 16 percent from 2019 to 2023. From 2015 to 2019, it grew just 6%. The rise was steady even in 2020 and 2021, so it’s not a COVID-driven thing. More people in the U.S. seemingly are willing to bet on themselves.

For several years, Beloit has been positioning itself as an entrepreneurial hub. IronTek is home to the gBETA program, which looks mostly for tech-based companies that can be scaled quickly with the right direction and investors. Several of the companies from that program have headquarters at IronTek.

The Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce offers programming for entrepreneurs though SCORE and the SBA Small Business Development Center.

Growing with Jumpstart has other benefits.

“It brings together people with dreams and ideas,” Grace said. “I’ve kept those friendships. We talk and work together when we can. That is a huge encouragement.”

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