Entrepreneurs discuss their business ideas during a Start:ME breakout session.

There are three things small business owners need to be successful: knowledge, networks and capital. Entrepreneurs in Clarkston and East Lake are catching on fast thanks to an accelerator program that provides training and support for local small businesses.

For four years, Start:ME Accelerator has hosted an intensive, 14-week journey that helps entrepreneurs start from an idea to expanding their business. Erin Igleheart, program manager, said Start:ME was developed and delivered by Emory University’s Goizueta Business School as a way to engage local talent.

“Our belief is that small businesses are critical to making neighborhoods vibrant and strong, and that there are promising entrepreneurs living in all communities,” Igleheart said. “It really is open to anyone who has a promising business idea, or is already operating a promising business.”

Each program is part of a coalition of business schools, local partners and community organizations, like the East Lake Foundation and Friends of Refugees, as well as key stakeholders to tailor the program to each community. They fundraise as a coalition to make sure the program is free and accessible to entrepreneurs regardless of background.

Start:Me has operated five cohorts in Clarkston since 2013 and three in East Lake since 2015. Over the years, 110 micro-businesses and blossomed under the program and 89 percent of the graduates are still active with their businesses. Over 50 percent of those businesses employ others, resulting in 186 local jobs in the community.

Recent Start:ME graduate Paris Campeau learned more about marketing campaigns and business practices to expand her boutique spa Indigo Wellness in Kirkwood to include a yoga studio and community center.

“Start:ME is a great place for people just starting out because it goes from concept and idea all the way to opening your business,” Campeau said.

Campeau was inspired by her parents, both small business owners, and wanted to shift the focus from beauty to business as she opened her yoga studio last year. She enrolled in the East Lake and Kirkwood Start:ME program and spent 14 weeks rebranding her business.

Campeau said her Start:ME program met weekly on Tuesday nights from 6-9 p.m. Each week, students would update each other on the progress of their businesses, listen to a lecture with the topic of the week and then break into small groups led by mentors relevant to each business, from bookkeepers to bakers. The Start:ME program typically begins with writing a business plan and then progresses to insurance, marketing strategies and cost analysis.

Campeau leaned heavily on her mentors Jessica Woodside, of Woodhouse Consulting, and Bryan Alli, a business transformation consultant, both of whom she remains close with today. “Even though the program is over, I still meet with my mentors. It’s a lifelong mentorship,” Campeau said.

Ajah Myers, a 2017 Start:ME graduate, said it was competitive to join the East Lake program. Once her lengthy application was turned in, she pitched her business plan to entrepreneurs, not unlike “Shark Tank.” Out of nearly 90 applicants, Myer’ behavior and therapeutic services business plan was one of the 16 approved to attend the program.

Myers offers tutoring and therapy services to children and adults with developmental disabilities and strives to put the client first – sometimes at the sake of her business. Now she’s able to provide both the best care and use the best business practices by keeping a Start:ME mantra in mind.

“‘Show me the money!’ was a phrase we said over and over,” Myers recalled. “A lot of us were afraid to show the numbers, but you can’t make a decision until you know where that money is going, how much is coming in and see if it aligns with your business plans.”

Myers found a new strength in pitching her business. Myer’s mentor, Brian Cohen, helped her communicate her elevator pitch, in both 30 second sound bites to five minute deliveries for bankers and loan officers. “He made me pitch constantly and now I don’t feel anxiety when doing pitches,” she said. “Now we have a family and meet constantly to work as a team to be successful. We help each other build our businesses.”

For more information on the program, visit startmeaccelerator.org.


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