Trying to create an exclusive bridal studio from whole cloth, Veatrice Conley turned to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Urban Vision Initiative, which connects local entrepreneurs from underserved communities with student consultants to help pave the path to economic viability.
Conley and eight other would-be entrepreneurs recently completed their first milestone, graduating from a six-week boot camp consisting of six four-hour sessions on Saturday mornings to stabilize their new businesses or tweak business plans.
“It’s just been rewarding to sit with other entrepreneurs from the area, especially those who look like me, and to just be welcomed amongst them,” said Conley, 39, owner of Unveiled Bridal Studio on Cherry Street in downtown Chattanooga.
Conley considers her bridal studio eclectic, exclusive—appointment only—and unique because it caters its “bohemian” dresses to African Americans.
“It’s a wonderful wedding gown shopping experience that we ladies dream about as young girls,” she said. “We carry very unique gowns. African American designers don’t cater to this area. This is our niche for the studio.
“The Urban Vision Initiative has helped me take a deeper dive into my business plan to identify what I could do better in my business moving forward. Two big takeaways have been to focus on all points of contact I have with potential customers and how to better sell my brand to the marketplace,” Conley said.
“The entrepreneurial networking has been unmatched to any past business program I have participated in, and I owe a great deal of my recent business connections to UVI.”
Mike Bradshaw is the director of UVI as well as the first entrepreneur-in-residence at UTC’s Center for Innovation nd Entrepreneurship, both of which are housed within the Gary W. Rollins College of Business.
Since 2021, Bradshaw has been building the foundation of UVI, an entrepreneurship program designed to reduce poverty and wealth inequality among Chattanooga’s underserved communities. Nearly one in five Chattanoogans live in poverty.
UVI encourages budding entrepreneurs from these communities to take the leap and start or grow their own businesses—on the side if they have full-time jobs already. In return, program participants are mentored toward profitability through sessions with consultants and community leaders.
After the fall 2022 semester, seven student consultants who have trained for UVI will guide the entrepreneurs in specific areas, such as web design, cash flow and marketing. The program is made possible by the Jack and Charlotte Frost Family Foundation, which covers student pay and other expenses. Other program collaborators include Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union through its Idea Leap Grant competitions and LAUNCH Chattanooga, whose initiatives promote entrepreneurship, technology advancement, capital formation and workforce development.
UVI is fueling the hopes and dreams of entrepreneurs from underserved communities who want to run street-level mom-and-pop businesses, Bradshaw said.
“We help entrepreneurs determine if and when is a good time to quit your day job because that may never be the case if the business is not stable and predictable,” Bradshaw said.
“The rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. You have to pump some water into those communities. We’re connecting UTC to that aspect of the ecosystem of entrepreneurs.”
UVI is modeled after a program created by Michael H. Morris, a professor of entrepreneurship and social innovation at the University of Notre Dame. Morris also is behind the national Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, which provides free training, mentoring and management expertise for small businesses founded by military veterans.
Morris said the UVI project has partners in 26 cities in the U.S., Brazil, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Uganda, India and South Africa.
“We basically take the entire process from idea to sustainable business,” Morris said. “The challenge when you’re low income is much more complicated than just being low income. If you’re from poverty, you frequently face literacy gaps; you have trouble focusing on business because you have more nonbusiness factors, such as crime and [lack of affordable] housing. It’s a complex mosaic” that includes the “inability to focus and no safety net.
“The thing that might surprise you is just the huge volume of people in Chattanooga who have a dream for having their own business,” Morris added. “It’s a much bigger population than you think. Your program there is getting traction. We’re servicing 70 entrepreneurs a year and South Bend is not as big as Chattanooga, and we have a big wait list.”
Marshun Hardnett, 52, is a member of LAUNCH Chattanooga’s board but also one of nine UVI participants.
“I am so grateful for UVI,” said Hardnett, owner and lead designer for Enchanted Events Décor and More. “The program has truly reiterated for me the importance of having the business side of my business in order.
“You see, loving what you do is just not enough. One must also be able to properly manage their business,” she said. “Although this is something that I knew, UVI has really helped me to focus on getting my business in the proper order and setting up systems so that I can generate my desired profit.”
Shateria Smith, 31, founder, owner and CEO of SimplyProps LLC, said building her business has been a challenge made easier through UVI.
“UVI has been instrumental in uncovering blind spots in my business,” Smith said. “I have learned and put so many things into practice moving forward as a result of the course and its teachings.”
UVI participant Cardell Davis, 27, cofounded The Transition: Digitally Evolving, which helps business rebrand through researching demographics.
“This program has helped me thus far by their resources and their genuine care in making your business more successful,” Davis said. “The different presenters and connections that they know I don’t ever think I would have ever been able to make. This program has been a huge eye-opener by expanding the way I would approach my business.”
UTC’s Gary W. Rollins College of Business released thumbnail sketches of the nine participating entrepreneurs:
- Kenyatta Ashford started Neutral Ground, where the focus is producing a culinary experience “that satisfies the palette, informs the mind and celebrates African culture for one and all.” Ashford studied at the renowned Culinary Institute of America in New York. Before returning to Chattanooga, he gained experience and inspiration while working in New Orleans, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. He is enthused about the expanding food scene in Chattanooga. He was recently awarded a Jean-Louis Palladin Professional Work/Study Grant by the James Beard Foundation and used it to study cuisines of the African American diaspora and West Africa.
- Shawnice Beard is the founder and owner of Callie’s Avenue, a start-up focused on enhancing the bond between a new mother and her newborn through curated products. “As a first-time mama struggling to find high-quality and fashion-forward mommy-and-me clothing, I decided to launch Callie’s Avenue in honor of my daughter, Callie,” Beard said. “Our shop provides high-quality and fashion-forward pieces [that] both you and your daughter will feel beautiful, comfortable and empowered in. We cater to daughters ranging from a few months old all the way to their teenage years.”
- Conley’s Unveiled Bridal Studio gives customers an intimate, premiere experience in selecting the perfect gown for their special days. “My intimate studio showcases distinctive wedding gowns with a personal, one-on-one private experience,” Conley said. “As founder and lead stylist, I pride myself on selecting gowns with exquisite, eclectic artistry that are still affordable.”
- Davis is co-founder of The Transition Digitally Evolving, a company that, as its name implies, is focused on growing the digital presence of its clients, bringing in new customers and strengthening their relationship with their markets. “The Transition specializes in helping businesses rebrand by studying demographics and using that research to strategize in the most efficient way to increase the brand’s target audience,” Davis said. “We can help boost your brand on all digital media platforms.”
- Hardnett founded and owns Enchanted Events Chattanooga, a company that produces events “that are everything the client imagined it to be,” she said. “My husband, Lebron, and I started our business, Enchanted Events Chattanooga, in 2015. In 2016, when my corporate job was eliminated, we made the decision that I would move into full-time entrepreneurship. We have not looked back. I am now a certified event designer. We are now operating in our new name, Enchanted Events Decor and More.”
- Walter Lindsey started Unity One East Inc., which provides a full portfolio of physical security services to ensure that its clients’ employees and property are protected from physical threats. “Our goal is to give our clients the very best service available to protect and secure their family and business from those who intend to cause them harm.”
- Marcus Price’s Chosens’ Pressure Washing uses the “right blend of cleaning solutions applied at the ideal pressure by our licensed and bonded team to protect its customers’ assets while letting their property shine.” Services include property pressure washing and mobile auto detailing. “We provide services for residential and commercial customers. We offer mobile services and come to you for all auto detailing. Not only will we detail your cars, trucks and SUVs, we also detail semi-trucks.”
- Smith is the founder and owner of Simply Props, a company that provides “a decorative, memorable experience for all events with trendy, bold and unique décor.” Simply Props specializes in theme prop rentals, event decor and accessories. “We are the first theme-specific prop rental company located in Chattanooga [and] are excited to bring you some unique rentals that are sure to enhance any event you have.”
- Calvin Woods is the founder and owner of Cal’s Headlight Restoration, a fully mobile service that gives customers’ headlights “a new look with a smooth finish, better vision while driving at night and an enhanced overall beauty of the vehicle.”
The UTC student consultants finishing up their training include:
- Dekayla N. Brewer, a senior entrepreneurship major in the Rollins College of Business and a small business owner.
- Walter Ryan Bullwinkel, an MBA student in the Rollins College of Business. In addition to his work as a student consultant with UVI, he owns his own videography company.
- Carmin Chambers, a student in the Rollins College of Business. She is an accounting major with a strong interest in entrepreneurship. She is also a member of the SGA and president of the First in Fletcher Council, a group focused on supporting first-generation college students in the business school
- Kayla Evans, a junior marketing major in the Rollins College of Business.
- Isaac Cade Hendren, a sophomore accounting major in the Rollins College of Business.
- Ben Milstone, who said UVI has been “such an eye-opening experience. Not only for the companies involved in the program but also for student consultants like me. Furthermore, I believe we are creating a new tradition that will continue through the success of the Gary W. Rollins College of Business.”
Now that UVI’s first milestone—boot camp—has been completed, the next major step will be an event in early 2023 at Transcard, a Chattanooga-based company that provides payment-processing software and application programming interfaces for financial institutions and technology companies.
Bradshaw said participants would share their companies’ status and annual goals, including whatever assistance they require.
The entrepreneurs also may choose to compete for AccelUp’s $15,000 grant, which Transcard has committed to award to two UVI entrepreneurs.
In late spring, the final UVI milestone is to have all the businesses “in a position where they can move into the managed growth phase if they choose,” Bradshaw said. “There may be cases, however, when the entrepreneur decides there is not a workable business model they can pursue.”