La Mesa takes the LEAP with small business partnership

The East County Economic Development Council is now accepting applications for a second round of its La Mesa Entrepreneurship Accelerator Program in partnership with the city of La Mesa.

The LEAP partnership aims to directly address two large obstacles involved with starting a new business: training and funding. Every entrepreneur who is accepted into the program will receive individualized advising sessions and case management, and will be eligible for grant funding upon completing the program.

ECEDC President and Chief Executive Officer James Sly said all the business advisors who provide counseling for new business owners are successful entrepreneurs with niche expertise such as retail, restaurant ownership, marketing and finance expertise.

All the business advisors are initially pooled together for participants to ensure a “baseline of knowledge,” Sly said, before they are diverted into a more personalized path.

“Every person who comes in will have some understanding of finance and after that, they move into the one-on one, sort of tactical and detailed interaction that happens. For example, someone might conceptually understand how to write a business plan but what does that mean or look like for their particular business? Part of the role of advisors is to walk through the ‘how and what’ but also the ‘why’ to help people identify their passion and serve as models,” Sly said.

The program was established in part to reduce empty La Mesa storefronts post-pandemic, Sly said, and the ultimate goal is to increase the number of successful brick and mortar businesses. However, the program factors in the rapid growth of online businesses over the last few years due in part to pandemic-related in-person restrictions.

“During the pandemic, lots of calls were about people shutting down, layoffs and furloughs, trying to figure out how to adapt. We’ve adapted pretty readily with digital media marketing specialists, people who can shift to online sales. For LEAP participants, the intent is a brick and mortar business but we’ve also been approaching it as a ramp-up rather than a one-step because we want to make sure people are ready for a brick and mortar location,” Sly said.

For example, someone interested in establishing a new restaurant is guided toward the end goal of opening an in-person eatery, but LEAP trainers might advocate for them to start with food trucks or catering to ramp up business before taking the plunge with a storefront location.

“We select our advisors not as college professors but because they’re current business owners with very pragmatic and realistic experience and advice. Our advisors coach probably close to 2000 owners a year and raise hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of capital. The LEAP program, while ambitious, is run by very experienced professionals through the small business development center and the people doing counseling now teach 1,500 to 2,000 people a year with common questions,” Sly said.

Each entrepreneur who is accepted into the LEAP program will be required to complete five business training classes, ten one-on-one advisory sessions, and sign a lease within La Mesa. In addition to these requirements, applicants will be expected to register with the San Diego Business Development Center, and complete all their course materials, develop a business plan and acquire the proper business licenses and permits.

Established businesses may be eligible for the LEAP program if they do not currently have a brick-and-mortar location and are expanding to a commercial space in La Mesa. To qualify, pre-existing businesses must “demonstrate the requisite entrepreneurial spirit that is the foundation of the program” and their eligibility will be determined as with any other applicant.

“The two things that stand out to me about this program are that first, it is very courageous for La Mesa to take this step and second, that I’m very impressed with the breadth of applicants we received for the first round. We’ve had future engineers, a coffee company, just a great cross section of entrepreneurs. Finally, I’ll add that I’m super impressed because— so far— our first cohort completed all the training and meeting with all their advisors,” Sly said.

Applications for the second round are available at and are open through Feb. 28. Interviews will be held in March and April; classes begin on May 15.