To find the roots of Andrea Wright‘s entrepreneurial drive, you have to travel back in time to visit the kitchens of her grandmother and great-grandmother. “They were always in the kitchen cooking something or baking something. And if you were around, you were involved in it, too,” she recalls.
In her close-knit family, Wright says, “Eating time, sitting around talking — that was our fun time.” Now Wright and three of her sisters have banded together to turn that love of family, food and good times into a business: My Sisters and I, an event planning and catering company. Xpress caught up with Wright just before the awards ceremony of Minority Enterprise Development Week, where My Sisters and I received the Emerging Business of the Year award.
In business for just under a year, Wright says things are off to a great start. She credits the Western Women’s Business Center, a program of the Carolina Small Business Development Fund, with providing crucial support.
“They were the catalysts for us getting our business out there,” says Wright of the WWBC. “They have been the best for us being able to display our goods, to networking, to giving us information.” The center has hired My Sisters and I to cater many of its meetings and functions, Wright continues, which has provided valuable exposure.
With the experience of the first year under their belts, Wright and her sisters — Benita Chambers, Sonja Chambers and Kenya Chambers — are “looking forward to working with a lot more people.” Currently, Wright is collaborating with Brenda Mills, economic development specialist for the city of Asheville, to pursue contracting opportunities with the city, and she’s looking for space for the business. In Asheville’s hot real estate market, she says, finding an affordable location is one of the biggest challenges she’s faced.
“We are helping women entrepreneurs build the businesses of their dreams,” says Sharon Oxendine, director of the WWBC. One unique feature of the center is its willingness to “listen to the dream,” she continues. “The women want us to be a part of their process. … They are doing all the work. We are here to listen and partner with them and give them the best business guidance available.”
The WWBC exists, Oxendine explains, to help women overcome challenges and barriers to accessing resources. Many women have been referred to Oxendine’s program by banks. “They may have good credit and some even have collateral,” she says, but banks don’t want to take on the risks associated with loaning to new businesses. The center provides loans from $3,000 to $250,000. The funds come from a variety of sources; the operations of the WWBC itself are funded by the Small Business Administration, which also supports three other women’s business centers in North Carolina.
The WWBC offers one-on-one counseling to meet each prospective entrepreneur’s needs. “All of them are very smart,” Oxendine says, “but they may never have heard of a business plan or overhead costs or variable costs. We are there to help bridge that lack of business knowledge and help them through the loan application.”
Another way the WWBC provides access is by fitting into women entrepreneurs’ tight schedules. “We try to meet with them in their lunch hour, or early mornings, or late evenings — even on the weekend. It’s not just 9 to 5,” she explains. “Most of our entrepreneurs are working another job, and they aren’t going to quit that until they have their business totally up and running.”
Once a business has been launched, coaches from the WWBC monitor client success through site visits. “That’s different from a bank,” Oxendine says. “We look at their financials, look at the business, see how many people are there,” she continues. That firsthand experience and observation of the business provides the basis for additional coaching and support.
Wright says her success in getting her business off the ground is proof of the value of what WWBC provides. “I encourage anyone to go to them. They will help you. They see your passion and feel your passion. And they want you to succeed. I am so grateful,” she enthuses.
Family and community
The WWBC serves many women who are members of minority groups. In Latino culture, explains Carolina Small Business Development Fund staff member Victor Palomino, women are seen as powerful figures. “Women run the household and support the family. In our tradition,” he continues, “women are used to carrying a lot of responsibility from an early age, and immigrants bring that ethic to this country.”
Instead of an individual endeavor, Palomino says, WWBC clients tend to see their entrepreneurial path as “a family and community journey.” Many want to give back to their communities from the time they first launch their businesses. He mentions a client who hopes to start a bakery. Her ambition is inspired by fond memories of visiting a bakery with her husband when they were first married. “They didn’t have a lot of money,” Palomino explains, “and it was a nice ritual for them. She wants to make that kind of place for other people, where they can have an ice cream or a pastry and enjoy themselves.”
Speaking of her clients’ enthusiasm for serving others in the community, Oxendine notes, “We sometimes have to reel them in a little. We say, first get yourself on a solid footing, and then you can start thinking about all the things you want to do for other people.”
According to Oxendine, Latina entrepreneurs also give a lot of thought to how a business will mesh with family responsibilities. In Hispanic culture, she says, day care is not commonly used. Thus, entrepreneurship offers a way to care for children while earning a living and building familial wealth.
Palomino speaks of another Latina client who started a cleaning service with just one client. Now she has a full schedule of clients, including some commercial accounts, and she is creating jobs for others. “At the same time,” he says, “she is keeping her family together.” As her business grows, this entrepreneur is exploring additional opportunities for growth and is considering hiring someone to help her with bookkeeping. “She’s starting to see real numbers,” Palomino reveals.
The ultimate goal is for WWBC clients to become bankable on their own. “That person who can get a bank loan is usually well on her way to building an asset and building wealth,” Oxendine says.
Opportunities to connect
Since this year’s second annual Women’s Business Conference, which was held at the U.S. Cellular Center in June, Oxendine says, the volume of both inquiries and loans is up at the WWBC. The conference, she continues, offers support and allows people to see the full range of resources that are available. “It’s a place where women make some huge decisions about how they will proceed in following their dreams. They also find the people in their tribe who can work with them and support them.”
In addition to the WWBC, many other resources exist to support women, minorities and other entrepreneurs in Western North Carolina. OnTrack WNC Financial Education and Counseling, for example, will present its Women and Money conference on Oct. 22 in Asheville (avl.mx/30s). The half-day conference will offer workshops for small-business owners or prospective entrepreneurs, including sessions on turning your side hustle into a business, marketing for small business, making the leap away from public assistance, repairing or establishing credit and navigating financial transitions, among others.
Local networking groups aimed at supporting and empowering women include the American Business Women’s Association Sky-Hy Chapter (www.abwaskyhy.com) and the WNC Women Entrepreneurs Meetup group (avl.mx/30r), both of which hold monthly meetings. Asheville SCORE also hosts monthly Women’s Roundtable Events at the Small Business Center on the A-B Tech Enka campus (avl.mx/006).
Mountain BizWorks is another organization that provides counseling, loans and education to area entrepreneurs, including many women and minorities (see article in this issue of Xpress, “She’s the boss”). The Small Business and Technology Development Center at Western Carolina University has offices in both Asheville and Cullowhee to advise small-business owners and help them access capital (avl.mx/30z), while the Small Business Center at A-B Tech’s Enka campus is another source of training and support (avl.mx/310). For entrepreneurs who are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as well as residents of the seven far-western counties of the state, the Sequoyah Fund provides training and business loans from $1,000 to $150,000 (avl.mx/311).
Over the years she’s been doing this work, Oxendine says, it’s “gotten much easier for women to believe they can actually start their own businesses.” In years past, she says, “We used to see more hesitations with self-confidence and self-esteem.”
These days, however, Oxendine’s clients display “a lot more willingness to take a risk, maybe because there are so many entrepreneurs who are providing that example of success.”
With businesses like Andrea Wright’s My Sisters and I demonstrating the possibilities, entrepreneurial women in WNC — with the support of the WWBC and other local resources — appear poised to pursue their business dreams, give back to their communities, encourage one another, support their families and build wealth for future generations.