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‘If You’re Not Leading, You’re Not Living’: How Women Entrepreneurs are Building Businesses in Bessemer

It takes more than a great idea to start and sustain a business and claim your piece of the American dream.

It takes the courage to step away from a safe, if boring, 9-5 job, a burning desire to persist in your quest and a clear vision of the unique product or service you want to offer.

And it’s helpful — even essential — to have mentors and a support system.

About 20 small businesses are finding that support at the non-profit Bessemer Business Incubation System, according to executive director Devron Veasley — about six in the Downtown Entrepreneurial Center (DEC) and 14 more in the Bessemer Business Center on Ninth Avenue.

Many of the business people pursuing their dreams at one of the Bessemer incubators are women, and several of them sat down with recently at the DEC to talk about their hopes and dreams, how and why they became entrepreneurs, and how the incubator — and, in some cases, the bonds they have formed with each other — have helped sustain them on their quest to work for themselves.

Why become an entrepreneur?

Like so many other entrepreneurs, most of the female business owners at the Bessemer incubators display a fiery independence of spirit and a deep desire to be their own bosses.

Juanita Graham, CEO of the non-profit Alabama STEM Education, which seeks the educate inner-city kids in the critical STEM disciplines, said “freedom” is the key element in her decision to be an entrepreneur. “When you own your own business, you call your own shots, and you get a chance to leave a legacy,” she said.

Graham said she “always had very good jobs” but that there was something missing. “I’ve always had that cliché in my mind, if you are not leading, you are not living,” she said.

Rita Rox-Chatman — owner of Benchmark@Stat LLC, a medical billing, management and training company — said she “just had an overwhelming passion to do my own thing” and “had that entrepreneurial spirit” from an early age. “I knew that I would eventually I would own my own business,” she said.

Attorney Kewana Smith, formerly a social worker, has been self-employed since 2008 and enjoys having a flexible schedule. “The freedom is definitely there, especially if you have a family and you have children,” said Smith, who has a son, Noah. “That’s the biggest reason I work for myself.”

Not all of the business people in the incubator have nurtured lifelong dreams of entrepreneurship the way Graham and Chatman did.

When Donna Smiley founded Continuing Education Resources Inc., which offers insurance industry classes and training, in 2001, she did so out necessity due to sudden changes in her life and career. “It was hunger that drove me,” she said.

Smiley, after graduating from Auburn University, had worked for Allstate insurance in claims, sales management and training for 15 years and become an executive. She liked the pay, the travel, the company car and the nice hotels. “I had no absolutely plans to go anywhere.”

But Smiley — recently divorced with a young son — was faced with a tough choice when Allstate asked her to leave her “support system” in Birmingham and move to Atlanta. Smiley took a severance package and left Allstate and thought she would have no trouble finding another good job.

She was wrong, and struggled to make her “astronomical” car and house payments while working low-paying jobs. But Smiley had continued to do training for Allstate and, she says, “I figured I could do it for someone else.”

Smiley got started by putting together an insurance certification class for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Special Studies program and has been at the incubator twice since 2006. She recently purchased the old Standard Furniture Co. warehouse in downtown Bessemer for use as a conference and training venue.

Bringing Bessemer back

When Ka’Rita Pickens was a little girl, she’d look forward to riding the bus with her cousin and her grandmother from the south side of Bessemer downtown. Her grandma would take them to Bellsouth and Alagasco to pay her bills, and if she and her cousin didn’t fight they’d get to get a treat at a downtown bakery or they’d get to go to a news stand where she and her cousin could spin around on the chairs.

Now, Pickens has kids of her own, and her husband works for the city.

“I was talking to my husband, and I was like, there’s nothing like that for our kids to do here. And we’re trying to build a legacy for my family. I said, I think it’s only right that we bring some of that tradition back to the city of Bessemer,” Pickens said. “I worked and worked and work to bring my business here, and I don’t plan on moving it.”

Pickens, a 2005 Miles College accounting graduate, had a flexible schedule as a revenue agent for the IRS, so she opened her own bakery, Kraze Kreations. She still works as an auditor and runs the baker with the help of her mother, Vernell Williams, a legendary Bessemer baker.

Many of the women entrepreneurs were born in Bessemer or have lived there a majority of their lives. Most speak fondly of their city, but see empty storefronts that used to be bustling with life.

Things in Bessemer seem to be coming around a bit, with several major employers moving to or being annexed into the city or expanding their operations — for example, Amsted Rail, Masonry Arts, U.S. Pipe & Foundry Co., Consolidated Pipe & Supply, high-end gun maker Steyr Arms and auto-parts manufacturer Intertec.

However, there’s still negative attention on the city where Graham grew up – attention she hopes her efforts and those of other entrepreneurs can combat.”

“A lot of what we see, media-driven, is a lot of the negative, but Bessemer has roots that are very deep. I went to school here. My sons were born here in Bessemer. When you’re in Bessemer, and you’ve got relatives in Bessemer, you begin to appreciate Bessemer,” Graham said. “I know that we harbor a lot of history here, and that’s important to me.”

For Rox-Chatman, some of Bessemer’s issues are what drives her in her business.

“It wasn’t pre-planned for me to be in Bessemer, but I do believe it was predestined. Now that I’m in Bessemer, I really do think it was the best thing for me,” Rox-Chatman said.

She’s researched Bessemer’s demographics and learned that there are many single-parent homes or households led by women.

“What better target to go after than those young women who are leading their households, to bring them up out of their position where they’re working at McDonald’s or a fast-food place and to bring them into something that’s not a job, but a career?” Rox-Chatman said. “We all started our businesses here to make money. And it’s important for us to make money. But I think it’s more important for us to give back to where we came from.

That’s why she’s started a training program to help local women become certified medical billers. It’s not only a skill in demand, but it’s a job that can brink workers economic stability without a college degree, she said.

“I’ve worked for years in the healthcare business, I’ve made thousands of dollars for other people. I’ve been making money for other people — for a long time, people who don’t quite look like me,” Smiley said. “It’s been so important for me to help people like me — women like me.”

It’s part of what drives Donna Smiley – yes, she’s out to make money. But through her training programs, she helps other people make money, too.

“Insurance is one of those jobs where you can go all the way to Wall Street without a college degree,” Smiley said. “The power you can have in changing someone’s life…”

Barriers to entry

Most of the women of the Bessemer incubator share a common experience: being the only black woman in the room.

“In my regular day job, I am a traveling auditor, so 90 percent of the people I see are men,” Pickens said.

“For me, in corporate America, there were probably like 12 people that managed the state of Alabama, and a gentleman, an African-American male, got promoted so they could hire me. I was the only African-American district manager at that time, and then there was one other female,” Smiley said, recalling her Allstate days.

When they come to the incubator, they’re surrounded by black women who have started their own businesses. They’ve gotten to know each other, and they can ask each other for advice.

“The women in this building have formed a sort of sisterhood,” Rox-Chatman said.

Dr. Nova Law, a family-practice physician, already had an office in Birmingham when she opened a second location at the DEC in January.

Law said in an email that she has become friends with most of the other women at the incubator and that they have referred clients to each other and promised to help each other succeed.

“I am inspired by their hard work and tenacity,” Law said.

Graham said though black women aren’t given the same advantages in the workplace as white men, she hopes her work – and the work of the women in the incubator – will lower the bar a little bit for her own children.

“In Caucasian families, they are trained to own the business. In our families, we are trained to work for the business,” she said. “We are going to turn that around.”

More women, more energy

There’s been a significant uptick in women-owned businesses in the incubator in recent years, Veasley said. He said he see it as a reflection of a national trend of women outnumbering men in colleges as well as more women in the workforce.

“The women owned businesses in the incubator program do add a certain positive vibrancy to the facilities,” Veasley wrote in an email. “These business owners also tend to be a bit more vocal about their needs and add ideas on how the program can be improved; it’s been a change for the program that is a good thing.

The two incubators offer such services as counseling, workshops, administrative support and help with business plans.

The most important service provided to businesses in the incubators is one-on-one counseling, according to Veasley. “It is very important to be able to ‘tailor’ counseling services to fit the specific problems and concerns of the business,” he said.

February 12, 2015

Kelly Poe | By Kelly Poe | writers Kelly Poe and Jesse Chambers co-wrote this article.

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