WE Program Mentors Aspiring Entrepreneurs

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Entrepreneurship, Carmella Williams says, is in her blood.

She wanted to go into business from the time she was old enough to understand the concept. “I just hadn’t found that one thing that I would call its purpose,” she says.

That entrepreneurial spirit goes back to her grandfather who, after he was laid off from his steel mill job, started junking – later increasing the business into a garage – and her mother, who ran a floral shop and sold Avon products, and her uncles, who entered construction and painting in addition to their day jobs.

“Everybody has a second job or business, so to speak,” Williams says.

The Hubbard resident launched her own venture about three years ago after she was laid off temporarily from Youngstown State University. During that time, she started canning food and then began canning hair care products based on her own formulas. She also conducted what she calls “hair seminars.” Sixteen people showed up for the first seminar, double the number she had projected.

“It’s been a life journey,” she says.

Her company, Carmella Maria, has grown to offer nine products for hair care and three for body care. Now Williams is looking to take her business to the next level.

Williams is among the 17 current and prospective female business owners looking for that kind of help through the WE Launch program conducted by Women in Entrepreneurship, an initiative of the Youngstown Business Incubator.

Participants “are going to learn the purpose of a business plan, how to develop a business plan and the marketing aspect of a business,” says Stephanie Gilchrist, program director of Women in Entrepreneurship.

“They’re going to learn the legal aspects of a business, the necessary insurance, accounting tools and other fundamentals in starting a business and maintaining a business.”

The 17 women come from a range of businesses that include media, water purification, clothing retail and graphic design, “They are all diverse in what they do and in their skills they bring to the table,” Gilchrist says.

The program began with a reception in late February, followed March 2 with a class on the components of a business plan and a business model presented by Liberty Merrill, who oversees the small-business assistance programs at Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp.

A business plan “is not this abstract thing that you write up,” Merrill told the WE Launch participants. “This is the concrete, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road of your business, and hopefully you can do it ahead of time so that you know you’re solid and that your business is going to be successful.”

The plan, which can be short, is necessary to communicate the idea of the business to another individual, such as a banker or investor. It must be realistic in its with goals projected growth. In addition, the plan not only has to identify the market but address “how you are going to access that market,” Merrill advised.

“Someone looking at this has to think you’ve thought this through,” she said.

At the end of the program, one of the participants will be awarded a $5,000 grant.

Each woman is paired with an established female business owner who volunteers as her mentor.

Deanna Fusillo is mentoring Williams, who learned about the program by attending the She Started It trade show at YBI in December.

Fusillo owns Sassy Girl Media in Canfield, a Web design, social media and digital marketing firm. Sassy Girl began exploring social media and Web design to promote a business she had launched five years ago, Sweet D Bites.

“Since then, I’ve taken different classes and workshops,” she says, and subsequently helped other female entrepreneurs start their websites and has given seminars on marketing.

As she works with Williams, Fusillo hopes her protégé “learns from the mistakes I’ve made and doesn’t make them herself,” she says.

“There’s always a ton of little mistakes that you make along the way and you learn from it. … Some things work and some things completely flop,” she notes.

Fusillo also hopes to push Williams “outside her comfort zone and inspire her to do more than she thinks she can do right now and not be afraid of the risks,” she adds.

Williams is aware she must do more. She has reached out to a chemist to help her further develop her products, which she still makes in her kitchen. “I know I’ve reached my limits,” she says.

Beyond that, she allows everything has been “disjointed” as she has launched the enterprise. “So this is going to help me bring it all together and polish it,” she says.

Gilchrist acknowledges more women applied than the incubator had slots. “At some point, we just had to say No,” she says.

Planning is underway to conduct a second nine-week WE Launch program this fall in the offices of the Raymond John Wean Foundation in downtown Warren.

Pictured: Participants and mentors gather for the first in the series of weekly educational programs. Front row, from left, are Crystal Wells, Donia Kravitz Foster, Stephanie Kelly, Kim Zeidenstein, Mary Protheroe and Stephanie Gilchrist. Back row: Kathy Serenko, Helen Muga, Tracy Winbush, Melissa D’Apolito, Danica Hobbs, Jack Kravitz, Donna Cadwallader, Carmella Williams, Marissa Devantier and LaKita Williams.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.