Paying It Forward Pays Off Big for Atlanta’s Female Entrepreneurs

A new program works to encourage the city’s women to start their own businesses.

From left: Tiffany Ray (Generation Infocus), Tonya Hicks (Women Do Everything!), Lynn Lilly (Craft Box Girls), Gerard Gibbons (WEI board member; president, U.S. sales, UPS), Mayor Kasim Reed, Theia Washington Smith (WEI executive director), Joanna Douglas (Parketing), Jeannell Darden (Moisture Love), Cicley Gay (The Amplifiers), Jennifer Bluemling (Borrowed by Design), Sherry Popovic (cMEcompete). (Photo: Courtesy City of Atlanta)

Feb 23, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Gionni Ponce is Participant Media’s Assistant of Advocacy and Social Impact.

Downtown Atlanta is fixing for a revival this spring. Mayor Kasim Reed recently announced the inaugural class of a new program—the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative—designed to breathe life back into the historic Flatiron Building and the city’s start-up community.

After an application process, 15 female entrepreneurs were chosen to help further their businesses with offices available in the building, rent-free, for 15 months.

The initial spark for the idea came from a conversation would-be Mayor Reed had on the campaign trail in 2009. According to Reed, many businesswomen were hesitant to commit to leases and were uncomfortable inviting others into their homes. Yet Theia Washington Smith, executive director of WEI, told TakePart the program has evolved. “It really was about thinking beyond the personal safety benefits of a collaborative workspace and thinking about the value of immersing these budding entrepreneurs into a really supportive, engaged community of likeminded counterparts.” They hoped to create an initiative that would “answer the call for some of the other issues that are pretty inherent to women,” said Washington Smith.

As such, the program, like many initiatives nationwide, is designed to foster and promote a sense of community among the women while also providing them with the resources often denied to them in more traditional business spaces. The business owners will receive educational resources, access to funding assistance, and advice on business plans, marketing, legal matters, and strategic development. Microsoft, one of the program’s sponsors, will provide the WEI entrepreneurs with the latest technology, including development software, technology solutions, and innovation-delivery training. The women will also have access to a network of female seasoned mentors who can lend guidance on navigating the pitfalls and obstacles they encountered.

The program is part of the mayor’s larger goal of creating fiscal reform in Atlanta by stimulating the growth of small businesses in the downtown area. “I promised that we would make sure that Atlanta continued to be a city where you could bring and build your dreams,” Reed said in a press conference.

Though Washington Smith was not part of the selection committee, the sense of giving more to the next generation was incredibly important to her as a director, she said. “The program is not just focusing on women who are doing well for themselves but women who are doing good,” Washington Smith told TakePart. “Women who are focused on running businesses that are socially responsible, conscious of their community, and who recognize this as an opportunity to pay it forward.”

Below is a look at a few members of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative 2016 class.

SparkFire Active

What It Does: Creates activewear sized, styled, and designed for teen girls. The company is also creating a positive mind-set around high school girls’ activewear because founder Samantha Hodgkins believes that “Strong Girls = Strong World.”

Discovering a Need: As the mother of two young daughters, Hodgkins saw a need for change within the industry. According to her, the teen years are incredibly important for sparking confidence and passion in young girls. She wanted to create a “for-profit, for-good” company that could help the girls of today become the global leaders of tomorrow.

How Long It Has Been in Business: The website launched in May 2015 and includes blog posts from everyday girls about their energy and passion for life. The company is still in the prelaunch phase and will be moving into clothing production in the next six weeks.

How It Helps the Community: The material for SparkFire Active clothing is made in North Carolina out of recycled Repreve bottles blended with spandex. Even better, for every sale, SparkFire Active will donate to She’s the First, an organization that funds scholarship for girls in 11 different companies.

“It’s not just about what our girls of opportunity and affluence are getting but how they’re on a peer-to-peer level relating and connecting,” Hodgkins said. “Teens have a much larger world view of what they care about.”

Borrowed by Design

What It Does: Runs a woman-to-woman dress-lending platform that allows everyone to get the most out of those expensive dresses that are often only worn once.

Discovering a Need: When cofounders Jennifer Bluemling and Kat Ewing volunteered for a local tech gala, the event required full evening gowns to attend. Given their respective body shapes, they had a hard time finding friends who could lend them dresses, and buying new dresses was out of their financial reach. They decided to launch a website that would pair lenders and borrowers with one another.

How Long It Has Been in Business: The website launched in September 2015. In just five months, the company has more than 120 dresses listed and close to 500 members.

How It Helps the Community: Buying formal wear can be expensive. Borrowed by Design works to get women the dresses they want without busting their budgets.

“All this hard work goes into making these garments, so we should give them a continued life,” said Bluemling. “The women still get to enjoy the dress, they’re saving money, and the dress has a longer future.”

Coco Curls Natural Hair Care

What It Does: Creates a hair-care product line designed for women with curly hair. This is a market that has often been ignored in the past.

Discovering a Need: After a serious bout with chemical relaxers left her hair unable to grow for three years, founder Jeannell Darden cut off her hair to allow it to grow back naturally. Afterward, she couldn’t find any products that worked well for her hair. She decided to manufacture her own sustainable product.

How Long It Has Been in Business: The first product launched in the summer of 2011. After two years, two more were added. The company soon will be rebranding as Moisture Love because curly-headed women need a ton of moisture and love for their hair, Darden said.

How It Helps the Community: The products are completely plant-based and free of harsh chemicals.

“I wanted to create products that I feel good about using. I’m a naturalist, and it’s part of the lifestyle I lead. I wanted to have products that I felt comfortable putting on my kid’s skin and body,” said Darden.

Craft Box Girls

What It Does: Provides a DIY lifestyle brand that caters to women. It works to make DIY simple so anyone can live a creative lifestyle. There aren’t any Pinterest Fails in its collection.

Discovering a Need: While traveling in Tokyo, Lynn Lilly was inspired by the technology of the city. The use of color in food and fashion made her want to add craftiness back into her life—and the lives of others.

How Long It Has Been in Business: The website went live two years ago and was recently redesigned. The company has just begun selling party kits and craft kits online and will launch an Apple TV app in a few weeks.

How It Helps the Community: DIY is all about upcycling. Craft Box Girls puts an emphasis on using the goods a person already has to create new and exciting home pieces.

“We strive to create projects that are easy, affordable, and attainable,” said Lilly. “It’s important to be sustainable, and if you can be creative with things you already have in the home, that’s a win right there.”