Tucked away in a coworking space on the fourth floor of Crosstown Concourse, Vonesha Mitchell and Lamisa Hasan are at the forefront of a federal effort to increase the resources offered to women-owned businesses.
Women’s Business Center South recently launched in Memphis, part of a historic expansion of Small Business Administration-funded centers to support women entrepreneurs across the country.
Mitchell, executive director of WBC South, said growing local economies requires supporting entrepreneurship of both men and women. Providing resources specifically for women entrepreneurs is essential, she said, in helping them vault over the unique barriers women face in the business world.
“It’s definitely exciting to see energy, emphasis, attention, focus being put on women and women’s initiatives,” she said.
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WBC South, which was established under the umbrella of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, is one of 136 such centers nationwide. The SBA called for the establishment of 20 more this year, one of the federal agency’s largest targeted investments in women-owned businesses in about three decades.
The centers offer networking opportunities, technical assistance, one-on-one mentoring and workshops for women entrepreneurs. Programming covers everything from financial management to marketing and procurement.
Hasan, program manager for WBC South, said the desire and the need for that type of programming have been evident to her since the center launched. In a two-week span, the center heard from more than 140 women entrepreneurs looking for resources from startup assistance to advice on managing cash flow, she said. The center will start training sessions in August.
“There are so many different needs that our (women’s business enterprises) have,” she said. “We’ll be providing technical assistance and also we will be starting up trainings…. so that we can really plug our WBEs into these types of classes so that they have the business and financial literacy to really be meeting some of these gaps that they’re running into.”
‘Supporting each other personally’
Networking events are also going to be essential to the organization moving forward, connecting women-owned businesses in Memphis to one another, Hasan said.
“These networks are a lot of the time what would get us our foot in the door in certain places,” she said.
It’s essential to have women helping connect women to these resources because they have shared experiences men might not be able to relate to, not out of a lack of caring, but from a lack of experience.
“We understand, we have similar experiences to our WBEs,” Hasan said. “There are a lot of unspoken experiences that women have that men sometimes don’t understand.”
LEO Events principal Cindy Brewer said connecting with other professionals over those shared experiences is essential.
“A lot of the conversations that we were having and continue to have with this network, have been over the fact that we all have families, we all have a business and how we’re not only holding our own professionally, but how we’re supporting each other personally,” she said.
WBC South offers services for enterprises of all sizes and ages, from a one-woman startup to well-established businesses pursuing new growth opportunities. The center will also help women-owned businesses navigate the process of getting certified as a woman-owned business, a laborious, paperwork-laden journey, but one that pays dividends, Brewer said.
If a company is looking to partner with a WBE or a government agency is looking to award a contract to a WBE, enterprises that aren’t certified are often immediately counted out to help narrow the pool of potential businesses. Brewer said getting certified in 2015 was important for growing her business.
“There’s a lot of corporations out there that will only work with you if you have that certification,” she said.
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Mitchell described WBC South as almost like business triage — assessing enterprises’ immediate needs and connecting women with new and existing resources to help fill in those areas.
Phala Mire, president and CEO of Women’s Business Enterprise Council South, said the center would “play a pivotal role” for women-owned businesses as the economy continues to recover from the effects of COVID-19.
“Memphis has long been recognized as one of the top cities for women entrepreneurs,” she said in a statement. “We’re excited to support women-owned businesses in Memphis in a sustainable way.”
Hasan said the opportunity to work with women was “a pleasure and an honor.”
“I love having that kind of connection and also just working to make sure we empower each other,” she said.
For Mitchell, entrepreneurship and a desire to help lift up women entrepreneurs is in her blood. She said her grandmother owned a store in the center of Byhalia, Mississippi, “at a time when a Black woman didn’t own a store anywhere.”
“That was so impressive to me and I just always really admired that,” she said. “But she had a lot of hurdles that, had she had appropriate support, she could have sailed across and who knows how that enterprise would have grown.”
Now, every day, she gets to offer that support to another enterprising woman.
Corinne S Kennedy covers economic development, healthcare and soccer for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email at Corinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com
Women’s Business Center South
Where: Crosstown Concourse, 1350 Concourse Ave., Suite 434
More information: wbcsouth.org
Grand opening: 11:30 a.m. Aug. 23 at Crosstown Concourse, registration at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/womens-business-center-south-grand-opening-tickets-163246339195
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