New Memphis-based women's business support center will hold grand opening August 23

The Women’s Business Enterprise Council South is inviting the public—especially women who own a Memphis-area business or are interested in launching one—to join them for the grand opening of their newest affiliate, the Women’s Business Center South

The new WBCS is located at 1350 Concourse Avenue, Suite 434, in the Crosstown Concourse. The opening celebration will be held Monday, August 23, in the building’s main atrium. Masks are required. Welcome and check-in begins at 11:30 a.m. The event is expected to end between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. It is free to attend, but those interested should pre-register here

Attendees can expect giveaways; tours of the new center; pop-up shops with local, women-owned business; guest speakers; and opportunities to register for WBCS’ business support services. 

Those services include networking events, coaching, resource connections, and specialized training and education on topics ranging from funding and finances to marketing and legal issues. Those trainings are already being offered virtual through the larger WBEC South network, but in-person training will be added at the Memphis center after its opening. 
Vonesha Mitchell is the executive director of the new Women's Business Center South, which will focus on tailored supports for women business owners in the Mid-South. (Submitted)
“The crux of what we do is coaching, but we [also] help with access to capital and certification support,” said WBCS Executive Director Vonesha Mitchell.

Mitchell said they will help their clients gather potential funding and certification sources, decide what’s right for them, and help navigate the often complex processes to secure capital and credentials from the U.S. Small Business Association and additional sources. They also plan to develop their own capital options as they grow. 

“One of the objectives is making sure we're connected in the ecosystem and aware of the resources that are available here,” said Mitchell. 

Cindy Brewer is principle and co-founder of Memphis-based LEO Events. She plans to attend the WBCS grand opening and take advantage of its services.

“What I look forward to is being able to meet other women-owned businesses in Memphis that I may not have had an opportunity to meet before and to be able to professionally build some relationships, as either peer-to-peer networking or peer-to-peer development,” she said.

WBCS will serve woman-owned enterprises across five states —Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle— but Mitchell said it will hyper-focused on Memphis and the Mid-South. 

The only qualifications are geography and gender. Clients must be women who live in those five states and currently own or want to own their own businesses. 

Those seeking help with the WBCS start with a simple form that asks a few questions about the business’s background and needs. Next is a meeting with a deeper assessment to customize and prioritize the help they’ll need. From that meeting comes an initial action plan or set of recommendation.

“That's really where the coaching engagement begins,” said Mitchell. 

Why Brewer Got Certified
The WBCS is funded by the U.S. SBA and its regional partner nonprofit Women's Business Enterprise Council South. WBEC South, in turn, is regional partner of the national Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, which is the largest certifier of women-owned businesses in the nation. 

Brewer said the WBENC certification, which LEO Events earned in 2015, has had a major impact on her business. 

“We knew that that certification carried a good amount of prestige with it on a national basis and also would help us with recognition with procurements at corporations all over the U.S.,” said Brewer. “We've seen very solid results that the certification has gotten us at least a foot in the door, a chance to receive [an] RFP, and respond accordingly.”

LEO Events is based in Memphis, but they plan and facilitate corporate meetings, events, and festivals for a national client base that includes big names like Walmart, Sherwin Williams, and AutoZone. Founded in 2012, they currently have 70 full-time employees and three offices across Tennessee and virtually.

Brewer said her industry is trending towards more intentional inclusion of minority-owned businesses, and companies are increasingly scouting for vendors with official certifications. 

She said the WBENC certification process can be daunting, but WBCS and its network can help navigate it and there are resources like grants to cover the certification and annual renewal fee. 

Mitchell at the Helm
Mitchell’s background includes Communities Unlimited, where she did growth consulting for small businesses. She began there as a volunteer and worked her way to senior management. 

She then spent some time in the classroom teaching math and science before she moved to the Memphis Medical District Collaborative as a program manager. Part of her work there was again focused on small business recruitment, support, and network-building. 

“I enjoy teaching, but there was something about economic development that was a little bit more intoxicating for me,” she said. “The way you're changing this person's life in such an obvious sort of instant way, I really enjoyed that.”

Brewer met Mitchell through MMCD, and said she’s the perfect person to lead the new center. 

“She knows everybody and how they operate and what benefits and assets that they could bring to the table. And also a way to put people together and to link folks together that may not have ever met before,” said Brewer. 

“I think it’s really cool when you do get to focus on certain groups of the population, and I've always been drawn to working with youth, women, minorities in spaces that I feel like there's not a lot of room for them already,” said Mitchell.

A Growing Network
WBC South currently has two full-time employees, Mitchell and Program Manager Lamisa Hasan, as well as part-time admin support and a broad network of local, regional, and national coaches and contacts. 

WBEC South is headquartered in New Orleans and has a satellite center in Nashville, but the new WBCS in Memphis is the only Mid-South location.

WBCS is one of 20 new locations funded by the U.S. SBA as part of its largest expansion of its women-owned business center program in 30 years. All 20 centers will be opened in underserved rural and urban communities across the country.

Natalie Madeira Cofield, assistant administrator of the U.S. SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership, will give the keynote address. 

“It’s a big deal for her to be coming to speak, so we’re so excited about that,” said Mitchell.

Thanks, Pandemic.   
Mitchell said WBCS announced its impending opening on July 8. By July 12, they already had 135 requests for support. They’re up to 165 as of August 4.

She believes the pandemic has played a large role in driving that demand. 

Many people are deciding to work for themselves for the first time, and Mitchell said the last statistic she read showed 200,000 businesses had closed nationwide. Many of those business owners are looking to start new endeavors. Others are seeking help to keep their struggling businesses afloat as the pandemic drags on. 

On a positive note, Mitchell and Brewer both said the pandemic has normalized virtual events and networking, which has opened up access for WBEC South’s clients to its entire nationwide network of experts, coaches, and fellow women business owners.

“I think there used to be a time when if you couldn't meet in person, it could kill whatever you were trying to do. Now, people are really accustomed to that, so it’s great having access to that [robust coaching network],” she said.

As a member of WBEC South, Brewer wanted to attend classes and events pre-pandemic, but they always seemed to be in Nashville, Birmingham, or New Orleans and she never seemed to have the time to travel. She’d planned to attend the national conference in 2020, but the pandemic intervened. Now there are virtual events hosted by centers in other cities. 

“I think being able to not have to travel to those cities to be able to get that same experience has been very helpful for me,” she said. 

Brewer said she hadn’t taken advantage of many WBENC or WBEC South programs until the pandemic hit. In 2020, she was accepted into WBENC’s virtual WeThrive program. There were 40 women in Brewer’s “Thrive” group, none of which had businesses exactly like hers. She said the four months of once-weekly zoom calls were invaluable for meeting peers and potential clients, skillsharing, problem solving, and commiserating through the stress of COVID-19.

“I think it allowed me to kind of take a break and to spend some time focusing back on some of the creative and innovative ways I could grow my business instead of being in triage mode,” said Brewer.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.