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Local entrepreneurs complete business training program

Business COVID-19 Metro ATL

Local entrepreneurs complete business training program

SATL- DeAndrea + Roxann: Start:ME Southside alumna DeAndrea Byrd of Tutu Maniac and her mentor Roxann Smithers participated in an improv exercise at the program's first community session earlier this year. Image provided to Decaturish
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By Zoe Seiler, contributor 

Clarkston, GA – Businesses in the Clarkston, East Lake and Southside Atlanta communities recently completed the Goizueta Business School’s Start:Micro-Enterprise Accelerator Program.

Forty-nine small businesses finished the mentorship and business training program on May 5.

The Start:ME program is a 14-session training program that provides entrepreneurs the tools and connections needed to build and grow a successful business, according to the Start:ME website.

The businesses in the program typically have one to five employees and less than $50,000 in startup capital.

The business owners also have various experiences with their ventures. The program works with those who are in the beginning stages that have a good idea of what they want to do and have been selling to family and friends or at markets but that want to launch more formally, Program Manager Erin Igleheart said.

Small businesses that have been operating for several years also participate to gain more business knowledge and a strong supportive network of mentors and peers, Igleheart added.

Igleheart said this year’s group of businesses came from across all industries and backgrounds, from underground dining to art and lawn care.

“We find that while each of those businesses individually is quite small, collectively they have a really significant impact in terms of job creation, occupying brick and mortar locations that can help attract and serve those in the community and in generating wealth for households,” she said.

DeAndrea Byrd participated this year. She owns Tutu Maniac, a children’s birthday party company. She produces themed parties for girls and also sells boutique-style tutus and tiaras.

“One of the things I liked is that they offered mentors. That was cool for me being able to have somebody to help because I never had it before,” Byrd said. “I’ve never experienced this much giving of knowledge in one place.”

“It was the family that I needed, the tribe that I needed at the time,” she added.

This year was an unusual year as the program had to shift to virtual meetings, presentations and networking during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re big proponents of doing things in person and building relationships and delivering content in communities, but obviously that model had to change pretty dramatically,” Igleheart said. “We tried to replicate that as best we could.”

She added that a big part of the program is connecting entrepreneurs with mentors and the mentors continued to engage with and support the business owners in developing business plans and strategies to navigate the pandemic. The mentor-entrepreneur relationship is usually very hands-on.

“It’s had to shift but we found that people are surprisingly willing and resilient to kind of shift as much as they can,” Igleheart said. “We’ve seen a lot of people shift their business models, but maybe even more so they’ve shifted their mindset of what it means to build a relationship,”

Many small businesses have faced many challenges due to COVID-19 and Byrd has felt this.

“When COVID started, I thought ‘oh my god, I’m not going to be able to do spa parties,” Byrd said. “My business instantly shifted, and [the program was] there to support me.”

Throughout the program the group saw “some wonderful stories of pivots and changes and resilience,” Igleheart said.

For example, Byrd was able to shift her business model to sell arts and crafts boxes and has been filling tutu orders. She started doing so after having conversations with a Start:ME friend and another mentor.

“I think that one thing about everybody being home is that they start to realize different needs week (after) week,” Igleheart said. “One thing that we have seen is an upswing and health and beauty products.”

Those who work in hair and skincare have found themselves in high demand and have been able to leverage that to gain new customers, Igleheart said.

She also added that overall, the pandemic has been very challenging for Start:ME alumni.

A March survey of 49 businesses conducted by Start:ME found that 76% of businesses have been significantly impacted. Over that percentage, 43% have decreased business hours and 33% have fully closed.

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Also, 61% of respondents anticipate needing to apply for emergency loans or grants to support their business, which many businesses have struggled to get.

“We’ve seen that a lot have applied for the various loan programs. A lot of people are spending a lot of time applying for various grant opportunities,” Igleheart said. “There are just so many people. There’s so much demand that it can feel a little bit like a moonshot.”

In the midst of these challenges, the program was able to celebrate the end of the session virtually.

“Normally we wrap up with a big celebration in person and we just had the biggest, noisiest Zoom webinar and still brought in a DJ and as much of the joy as we possibly could bring from an in-person event to an online program,” Igleheart said.

Each community also has $10,000 available to give as grants. The entrepreneurs and mentors decide how to allocate the money. Eighteen businesses received grants ranging from $4,000 to $500.

She added that her favorite highlights of the program are the ones where people come together and build relationships.

“We see people start to collaborate,” Igleheart said. “We see people start to advise one another and share what they’re doing during a challenging time like this to pivot and grow and really use that as an opportunity to help one another.”

Start:ME helped Byrd build those connections and friendships. The program also helped her grow her business and feel more confident in her business.

“What’s helped my business grow in a major way was understanding my business, understanding my business from outside of myself, understanding how to tell my story,” Byrd said. “It made me come from behind my business and be more up in front of it.”

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