Helping Entrepreneurs To Spread Their Wings

Aug 6, 2012

Starting a new company is a lonely business. It can be particularly difficult if you have nowhere to turn for guidance or support. One program in Bridgeport has aimed to fill that gap for local entrepreneurs for the last 12 years. WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports.

“Good to see you!.......

“Thank all of you for coming. Hope you guys are enjoying your meal….”

At a quiet office in Bridgeport, after hours, some twenty people gather, over a chicken barbecue supper, for talk, reflection and support.

“I’m Vyola Parker, I’m president of the WIBO alumni association.”

This is WIBO, or Workshops in Business Opportunities. These people are all veterans of the business education program, and now, small business owners. Vyola Parker is a case in point.

“The name of my business is Parker’s Pampering LLC, which is a spa. I took WIBO in 2001, so it’s been about 12 years. My business was already up and running for two years before I took the class. But after taking the class I realized some mistakes I had made, and I took the time to shut the business down, regroup and start over, and it made a big difference.”

WIBO runs two sixteen week intensive programs each year aimed at covering all aspects of running a small business. Cynthia Maignon works for FSW, the social services agency that hosts WIBO in Bridgeport. The workshop launched in this city in 2001.

“There was a groundswell around helping people develop economic assets, and so developing a small business was something we were interested in.”

The WIBO program was pioneered in Harlem, where it’s been operating continuously since the 1960s, and it has boosted economic assets. When Dartmouth College conducted a study of WIBO, more than three quarters of graduates reported that their income rose after taking the classes. Maignon says the course is intensely practical, focusing on taxes, business registration, marketing, pricing, production and inventory. And she says it helps participants think practically about their business idea.

“Some folks will say, you know what, I didn’t realize how difficult this might be, or that I’m not ready to take on that kind of a challenge. But you need to be a highly motivated independent thinker with a lot of creativity and a lot of energy in order to make your business be successful.”

Successful as in…

“Sandy’s Sweet Success.”

That’s the baking business owned by Sandra Carmichael, a WIBO graduate in 2010.

“My business actually started a hobby, back in 1995. My husband bought by first KitchenAid, which I still use today. I just perfected my craft, took my mother’s and my grandmother’s recipes and just perfected them.”

Carmichael says she was forced to think more strategically about her business when she was laid off from her job as a financial analyst. She came to WIBO with a great deal of caution.

“So it just so happened that my group that I ended up being paired with, we were all strong individuals. I had an attorney in my group, a few other people who were all professionals. So we all came in, in the back of our mind thinking, what can we learn from this? But then we dropped that ego and we just sat there and went with the flow and was actually able to learn a whole lot from the program.”

Carmichael is now a mentor for others coming through the WIBO program, and an active member of the alumni association. At the alumni meeting, talk turns to surviving the economic downturn that’s still a reality in depressed Bridgeport. Spa owner Vyola Parker.

“Unfortunately with me I’m the first person that people eliminate when their money gets tight, not realizing I’m the first person they really need to keep them cool, calm and collected.”

Eric Spearman was class president of WIBO in 2010. He says in tough times, the support of his peers has meant a lot.

“There’s a lot of wisdom that’s involved in WIBO from the directors to the table leaders to each and every person that’s the alumni association – sharing those experience of other people who have more experience so you don’t get discouraged and quit.”

Spearman is one of 550 people who have graduated through Bridgeport’s WIBO program in the last 12 years. The program organizers estimate forty percent of graduates are still actively operating a small business. WIBO now wants to take its support of small businesses to the next level with a microlending program.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.