YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Stephanie Gilchrist does not back down from challenges – in fact, she welcomes them.
“I’ve always had that thing of challenging people and pushing the envelope,” Gilchrist says.
Gilchrist is no stranger to hard work and perseverance, which landed her the position she is in today as regional director of the Minority Business Assistance Center at the Youngstown Business Incubator –an accomplishment that she humbly brushes off.
She was hired into YBI as the Tech Block Building No. 5 project coordinator in 2014. Hiring Gilchrist was a no-brainer, particularly because she came to the company with the recommendation of former Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams, says Barb Ewing, YBI CEO.
Gilchrist was interning at the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp. when she was hired at YBI. Her internship gave her the economic development experience needed to tackle the Tech Block $5.7 million project.
In 2016, she switched gears and served as the director for the Women and Youth in Entrepreneurship program.
Her abundant passion for women and entrepreneurship led YBI leadership to ask her to oversee the new program.
“We birthed the program and didn’t think it would take off and be as successful as it is,” Gilchrist says.
In late 2017, Gilchrist decided to move into the role of executive director of Inspiring Minds Youngstown, a nonprofit outreach organization that works with under-represented youth.
After three years at Inspiring Minds Youngstown, Gilchrist came back to YBI and developed the Youth in Entrepreneurship Program that kicked off in 2021.
Ewing points to Gilchrist’s tenacity and her willingness to tackle a challenge as her reasons for success.
“From the moment that we hired her, she showed both a deep understanding of how to get things done, as well as a determination to do them. She never shied away from either a challenge or an opportunity, even when she had to take herself out of her comfort zone,” Ewing says. “She also has a graciousness and warmth about her that allows her to be both direct and kind at the same time.”’
Challenges in Gilchrist’s life started at a young age, and so did her ability to rise to the occasion. She was born and raised in Warren and attended Calvary Christian Academy in Youngstown, which closed in 2001.
At age 16, Gilchrist became pregnant with her first son and married her high school sweetheart, Ryan, at 17. Her plans of becoming a pediatric surgeon serving third world countries came to a screeching halt.
“I was married with a baby as a senior in high school. And I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor, like I wanted to be the best pediatric surgeon,” Gilchrist says. “But life really said that’s not going to happen for you.”
Gilchrist entered the entrepreneurial world in 1999 when she and her husband of now 30 years opened a barbershop on Glenwood Avenue: Ryan’s Chair.
“My husband’s been cutting hair since high school. So, what we ended up doing was just taking that talent and growing it,” Gilchrist says.
The shop quickly became a pillar in the community, according to Gilchrist, and now boasts up to 15 stylists. It’s a barber shop and a salon, and she believes it’s the first one in the area to combine the two under one roof.
In 2001, Gilchrist decided it was time to pursue higher education. She graduated from Youngstown State University in 2005 with a baccalaureate in business administration, putting her in the 2% of teenage mothers who earn their college degrees, according to statistics from the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.
Despite the odds being stacked against her according to statistics and stigma, Gilchrist overcame the challenge of becoming a mother and wife in high school.
She credits her faith in God as what kept her sustained enough to achieve the success she holds.
“It was challenging to the point where some days you didn’t want to get up. It’s a lot. When you marry young, there’s a lot of pressure and challenges because marriage is hard, let alone married young with a baby,” Gilchrist said. “It was very challenging, but my faith has kept me sustained.”
In 2017, she completed the Executive MBA program through Strayer University and most recently received her certified business advisor certificate from Kent State University.
It has been quite a journey, Gilchrist says, especially considering all she had to endure – but it’s all part of a bigger plan to better the business world for others with similar stories.
As an African American woman, Gilchrist says she is often the “first to be in a lot of rooms, and sometimes the only one in the room. But making room for those who are coming with me and after me has always been my vision and my goal.”
Empowering women in business is a large part of Gilchrist’s mission. She says women have an innate nurturing quality, and their ability to “wear many hats” makes them excellent leaders.
Gilchrist has carved a space for herself and others in the city of Youngstown, which has kept her in the area all these years.
She sees a bright future for the city and plans to be a part of it.
And she hopes that Youngstown begins to truly invest in its own businesses.
“This is home. I believe in the vision of seeing this place become a hub for entrepreneurs, especially in the inner city,” she says. “My vision is not just for this organization, but for this city.”
Pictured at top: Stephanie GIlchrist, regional director of the Minority Business Assistance Center, empowers entrepreneurs.