Economic Development

Women Help Women Become Entrepreneurs

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Earlier this year, nail technician Britney Robinson decided to strike out on her own and do things her way.

For instance, many nail salons don’t permit clients to bring their children. It’s a situation she has sympathy with as a “mom-preneur,” as she puts it, with children ages 4 and 1. 

“I know how difficult it is for women to have self-care days when there’s no child care available to them,” she says.  

On Sept. 6, Robinson celebrated the opening of her own nail salon, Nails by Binq, on East Midlothian Boulevard in Youngstown, by holding what she called a “business shower” for the business, which opened in February. 

“It’s like a bridal shower or anything else,” she says. ”You help start that journey off.” 

Among the “gifts” Robinson received as she prepared for the birth of her business was a $1,000 grant she won a year ago from the Youngstown Business Incubator’s WE Grow program. 

WE Grow, targeted to women who have been in business three to five years, is the newest of three programs that now operate under YBI’s Women in Entrepreneurship initiative. 

YBI launched Women in Entrepreneurship in 2015. Since then, more than 200 female entrepreneurs who provide products and services have participated. 

Aside from WE Grow, Women in Entrepreneurship runs two other programs: WE Create, targeted at entrepreneurs still in the idea phase, and WE Launch, which works with entrepreneurs to advance their proposals from idea to implementation.   

Carmella Williams is familiar with Women in Entrepreneurship from both perspectives. The owner of Carmella Marie Inc., a Youngstown hair- and skin-care products company, Williams participated in the first WE Launch cohort in spring 2016 and won the $5,000 prize in the business plan and pitch competition. She also served until recently as director of the Women in Entrepreneurship program and the Minority Business Assistance Center at YBI.

Williams had operated Carmella Marie since 2013 but “was all over the place,” she admits. “I had a paragraph of a marketing plan here, I had some research there,” she recalls. “I just didn’t have a solid business plan.” 

As she worked on pulling her business together, she encountered Stephanie Gilchrist, at the time the director of Women in Entrepreneurship, and applied to participate in WE Launch. The program forced her to put the business plan together, helped her to develop a go-to-market strategy and understand how to launch the business.

“It also helped me to understand that I was headed in the right direction,” Williams says. 

“It actually gave me the opportunity to put structure to my business,” she continues. Running her own business provides her with additional credibility when speaking with entrepreneurs, to assure them that she is offering not only theory but has the practical experience to back her up. 

Other entrepreneurs who participated in Williams’ cohort included Jamie Jamison of Canfield, owner of Ala Jamie Photography, and Mary Protheroe, co-owner of Culturehouse Coffee Co.  

Jamison’s photography started as a hobby, morphed into a part-time gig, then eventually a full-time enterprise that now includes social media, with clients locally and outside the Mahoning Valley, Jamison says. When she participated in WE Launch, she was still trying to determine what kind of business she wanted, and issues such as whether she wanted a bricks-and-mortar presence. She eventually opted for a virtual storefront. 

Mary Protheroe co-owns Culturehouse Coffee Co.

“I thought this would be a good educational tool for me to listen to some of the different speakers and it was. It was fantastic,” she says. 

Among the speakers who stood out to her were Dennis Schiraldi, founder of the DOYO Live digital marketing and interactive design conference, and Sarra Mohn, co-founder and president of Jet Creative in Boardman.  

“I was immediately drawn to his enthusiasm for social media and marketing,” she says. She later was a speaker at DOYO. Mohn “provided a nice insight into marketing and advertising, and what’s shaping the world.”

Protheroe, who operates Culturehouse Coffee on the north side of Youngstown with her husband, Stephen, says participating in WE Launch showed her that she could launch a small business. The instructors were “very encouraging,” she affirms. 

“Knowing that there were people behind us, supporting us, that were pushing for us to succeed really gave us the push to make sure that we made it happen,” she says.    

One of the most successful alumnae of the program – at least in terms of her product’s reach – is Marisa Sergi, founder and winemaker of RedHead Brands LLC, winner of the $5,000 grant for WE Launch’s fall 2016 cohort. 

Sergi had just moved back to the Mahoning Valley when she learned about WE Launch on Instagram. She was still in the early stages of launching Redhead and it was in about 100 stores at that point. 

Today, Redhead is in 1,500 stores in the tri-state area, including about 150 Walmarts, having been selected to participate in the retail giant’s Investing in American Jobs initiative in 2017. The company is also preparing to launch its third wine, a sweet rosé, and is in conversations to expand to Kentucky and Tennessee. 

Sergi says she expects sales next year to be up at least 60% compared to this year.   

WE Launch was helpful to Sergi in developing a business plan and “understanding what activities to focus on to help ramp things up,” she says. She also was inspired by presentations by the owners of Hudson Fasteners, a YBI company. 

“They taught me how they utilize social media, especially Twitter, to engage with their users,” she says. Accordingly, social media has become a key component of her marketing strategy.  

Diana McDonald, owner of Diana M. It’s Personal, is a registered nurse by training and her gift-basket business is beginning its third year. She was recommended to participate in WE Launch by a couple of friends, One Hot Cookie’s Bergen Giordani and Barb Hierro, director of business development for the Serenity Center

“A nursing background is definitely not a business background,” McDonald says. Participating in the program helped her with marketing, legal issues and how to write a business plan that helped her obtain financing.  “Honestly, the program was worth gold to me.”  

Diana McDonald is a nurse who creates gift baskets

McDonald’s baskets typically feature items from local companies such as Branch Street Coffee Roasters and Grey Boutique, as well as from Women in Entrepreneurship participants such as Dough House Cookies, Too Hot Mamas and McDivitt Family Maple

TaRee Avery, owner of Dough House Cookies, benefited from the connections she made through participating in WE Create and We Launch in 2017. Primarily selling through farmers markets, Gilchrist and Heidi Daniel, then the executive director of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County and part of the Women in Entrepreneurship program steering committee, suggested she operate the food counter at the Canfield Branch Library. 

After two years, Avery chose not to renew her lease at the library and is preparing to open a small storefront operation at the commercial kitchen she now leases from Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. Through Women in Entrepreneurship, Avery learned about a small-business loan program that provided financing for her expansion.  

For Avery, who came from higher education, which is “really structured,” the hardest part of launching her business was navigating a completely new industry, she says – issues such as understanding what documents to keep, managing finances and operating separate business and personal accounts. “I spent a lot of time in Stephanie Gilchrist’s office and with the YBI team,” she says.  

TaRee Avery is the owner of Dough House Cookies.

Like McDonald, Avery says she looks for opportunities to collaborate with other WE program participants. She recently acquired pepper peach jam from Too Hot Mamas to test in her products. 

“I always look at a WE cohort before I go anywhere else. I’m always looking to support another female entrepreneur, but they’re also people that I trust,” she says. “I go to them first because they understand what the journey is like. We commiserate together but we are also super supportive.”

The co-owner of Too Hot Mamas in Hubbard, Audra Thorton, is another WE Launch $5,000 grant winner. She learned about the program through the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator. She, too, praises the networking and bonds formed among the program team and participants. 

The canned pepper company is in its third year of business this month and its products are now sold at 32 retail sites, including Giant Eagle stores and several independent butchers, Thorton reports. And it recently entered the Pennsylvania market. 

Stacy McDivitt, owner of McDivitt Family Maple in Southington, praises the WE Launch program as “a huge resource for this area.” 

McDivitt won the $5,000 grant for the WE Launch cohort that followed Thorton’s. She used the funds to establish a commercial kitchen for her business, which makes and distributes maple-coated peanuts, almonds and popcorn, as well as barbecue sauce, salad dressings and seasonal fruit jams, among other products. 

Like other participants, she says WE Launch helped her develop her business plan. 

Stacy McDivitt owns McDivitt Family Maple.

“That was my roadmap for success,” she says. “You just get it all down on paper, write down exactly how you’re going to get from Point A to Point B.” 

Brenda Williams, owner of the Brenda Williams Insurance Agency in Hubbard, launched MyOffice985, a co-working space, after participating in the spring 2018 We Launch cohort. She saw a need for such spaces because she would often need to meet with a client in a restaurant. 

“I started looking for space and just happened to have a perfect situation fall into my lap and was able to purchase it,” she says. In addition to having her insurance agency based at MyOffice985, she has two permanent tenants, another using the offices through next month and additional spaces available.  

Meanwhile, Women in Entrepreneurship is moving into a new phase. Gilchrist is returning to YBI as a consultant and will again be director of Women in Entrepreneurship. Williams will move to a part-time role as director of diversity inclusion, in which she will work with local companies and organizations to encourage the use of businesses owned by women and minorities as suppliers.     

Gilchrist says her “first love” is empowerment of women and seeing them thrive. “I am definitely a believer in our community’s strength being based in the strength of women and our youth,” she adds. 

Williams says her new YBI role will give her more time to take Carmella Marie to the next level. Year- to-date, sales are up 87% from last year, she reports. 

Carmella Marie’s products are sold online and in two retail sites, and she expects to add more soon. She is also preparing to move her manufacturing operation from her basement into lab space locally.

Pictured above: Britney Robinson welcomes guests to the grand opening Sept. 6 of her business, Nails by Binq.

Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.