‘Best Places to Work’ Awarded Virtually

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the cancellation of events and activities, the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber went virtual this year for the annual Best Places To Work Awards,

The event, presented by Synovus, was originally scheduled for April 15 in the Von Braun Center North Hall, but was postponed due to the pandemic.

The results are based on employee surveys. Results are tabulated by Quantum Workplace and were kept confidential prior to the event.

The winners are:

Micro Category (10-24 employees)
GOLD: Phased n Research, Inc.
SILVER: Cortina Solutions, LLC
BRONZE: River Tree Insurance Services, Inc.

Small Category (25-50 employees)
GOLD: KODA Technologies, Inc.
SILVER: Matt Curtis Real Estate, Inc.
BRONZE: Crossflow Technologies, Inc.

Medium Category (51-100 employees)
GOLD: Thompson Gray, Inc.
SILVER: Hill Technical Solutions, Inc.
BRONZE: Brockwell Technologies, Inc.

Large Category (101-250 employees)
GOLD: Avion Solutions
SILVER: IronMountain Solutions
BRONZE: Simulation Technologies, Inc.

X-Large Category (251-plus employees)
GOLD: Intuitive Research and Technology Corporation
SILVER: Modern Technology Solutions, Inc. (MTSI)
BRONZE: PeopleTec, Inc.

Independent Radio Voices Facing Budget Struggles to inform Listeners

If Wes Neighbors is reading the tea leaves correctly, independently owned local radio stations might have a bright future if the coronavirus doesn’t cause much more financial headache.

Neighbors, a financial consultant by trade, owns 97.7 The Zone that carries sports talk and live events such as Auburn football, UAH basketball, and high school games. He said the trend he sees is moving in favor of local content.

“I’m finding that people are ready to go back to the local shows,’’ said Neighbors, who also co-hosts The Drive with Steve Moulton weekdays from 5-7 p.m. “They want to hear their contemporaries on the air. I almost think it’s going in that direction.’’

In addition to 97.7 there are three other locally owned radio stations in Huntsville: Mix 96.9, owned by Penny Nielsen; WEUP-FM 103.1 and 1700-AM, owned by Hundley Batts Sr. and his wife Dr. Virginia Capers; and WTKI 105.3-FM and 1450-AM, owned by Fred Holland.

“It’s been a learning experience,’’ said Neighbors, a stockbroker by trade. “I thought I’d do a show two to three months and here I am.’’

Holland of WTKI is also an on-air personality and is the longest-serving talk show host in North Alabama with his first program airing on the station in 1992.

According to the station’s website, his 6-8 a.m. show “Talk Radio for Real Life’’ is “the evolution of talk radio from merely debating political theory to offering a vehicle for solutions to life challenges.’’

Holland had stints at other stations. He even did sales for two years.

But the urge to get back behind the microphone was too great and he took a show on WVNN. In 2010, he thought owning a station sounded good.

“I kept driving by this place (WTKI) and decided to make an offer,’’ he said. “They took it.’’

With three employees, including himself, and one part-timer, Holland said he’s a jack-of-all-trades at the station. But, he’s still going strong at 68 years old.

“I got the bug when I lived in Ottawa (Ontario),’’ he said. “The voice of the Rough Riders, Ernie Calcutt, he lived down the street. He gave me a tour of the station and I was hooked.’’

Holland said one of the biggest challenges of operating independently is his staffing budget. The station has just three employees, including himself, and one part-timer.

“Anything that needs to be done, like replacing the toilet paper roll, I’m the one who has to do it,’’ he said.

   Batts is the “Old Pro’’ among the local owners. He and his wife, Dr. Virginia Capers, bought WEUP — the state’s first black-owned station — in 1987. The couple has since added two more AM and one FM stations.

WEUP began broadcasting as a 100-watt AM station in 1958 from a trailer on the grounds of Syler Tabernacle Church with a mix of gospel, sermons, news, and rhythm and blues. It now broadcasts 25,000 watts from its building on Jordan Lane.

Batts, who also owns the Hundley Batts and Associates Insurance Agency, was inducted into the Alabama Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2019.

“I’m excited that someone would even put my name in as a candidate because I know the ABA does its research before they even give you a ‘hello,’ ’’ Hundley told the ABA at his induction. “So, I’m just tickled pink.’’

Neighbors said other than his relative lack of experience — he’s owned the station for just one year — budgeting is also a concern as it is for all independent stations. And not just during the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home order that recently was lifted.

“I would think one difficulty is the economics of scale,’’ Neighbors said. “If you’re a major station, there are deals you can make. If you’re with Cumulus you can get Tennessee football through Learfield and Learfield also has Alabama football. They might not have to pay as much for one or the other.’’

Another hurdle independents have to jump is they get very little advertising outside of the city from where they broadcast.

“We get some sales out of Guntersville and some out of Scottsboro and of course we love having those people,’’ Neighbors said from his downtown office not far from WTKI’s studio. “But our majority of sales come from a probably 10-mile radius of where I’m sitting right now.’’

In the midst of the pandemic, his station has lost some sales and has seen an economic downturn that mirrors the market — 35 percent from mid-March until the re-opening. He also said the station was working with advertisers during the current financial crises, his staff brainstormed ideas so they “wouldn’t have to talk about the virus every day,’’ and that some sponsors have “stepped up.’’

While acknowledging it was “hard to make money when there are no sports’’ Neighbors said his staff put in the necessary work to keep things moving forward.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve done well,’’ he said, “but I’m pleasantly surprised.’’

 

 

 

RCP, gener8tor Announce Emergency Response Program for Artists, Musicians

RCP Companies, developer of MidCity District, and gener8tor have launched an initiative supporting Huntsville artists, musicians and others affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Under the Huntsville Emergency Response Program, artists, musicians and others in creative crafts will have access to a free, week-long webinar series designed to identify and leverage critical resources in order to weather this ongoing public health crisis.

As a part of the program, participants will be provided with daily webinars featuring experts in the following areas:

  • ​Employment law experts to help navigate unemployment applications and benefits;
  • CARES Act guidance and resources;
  • How to take your business online;
  • Navigating and utilizing TikTok;
  • Mental health and wellness resources for small business owners; and
  • A listening session with a national industry professional.

In addition to webinars, gener8tor will host dedicated, daily one-on-one consultations for small businesses to meet digitally with business advisors. The gener8tor team will be working one-on-one with companies to address the various issues small businesses are facing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Gener8tor will also work with community groups interested in providing pro bono resources to small businesses.

To register, visit  www.gener8tor.com/emergency-response-program/Huntsville. The deadline is Monday, May 4 at 10:59 a.m. CST.

The program runs from May 4-8 and all Huntsville-based businesses artists, musicians and creatives are welcome to apply.

“Understanding the myriad of resources available to our creative community is paramount to enabling our artists and musicians to continue working,” said Max Grelier, cofounder of RCP. “Having a step-by-step, tailored seminar allows the policy experts to provide guidance. We are incredibly appreciative of our friends at gener8tor and hope that our creative community can continue to create while utilizing this excellent resource.”

Joe Kigues, gener8tor cofounder, said, “We have seen firsthand the impact that entrepreneurs have on a community, and we hope to call on our network of mentors, investors and partners to support small business owners through this new Emergency Response Program.”

Area Coffee Shops Brew Up New Concepts to Stay in Business

In the looming shadow of COVID 19, local coffee establishments have been persevering; making “nip and tuck” adjustments, as necessary. Some have scaled back their hours along with their menus; some have reduced staffing hours or have furloughed staff.

Just Love Coffee just loves to make lunch and dinner, also.

Others have added online merchandise sales to help keep their businesses and their talented crew afloat. Most have applied a variety of strategies.

Thus far, whatever they’re doing seems to be working.

While business may not be as brisk as it was pre-March 30, several bean-centric establishments have been holding their own.

Behind Lowe Mill lies Gold Sprint Coffee, serving as a caffeinated oasis for the telecommuter. A relative newcomer, Gold Sprint has yet to celebrate its first year in business.

Although Gold Sprint’s quirky trophies-meet-stuffed-trash-panda-riding-a-trike interior remains closed for the duration, customers can easily order at the window or call ahead for curbside pickup.

Out of sheer necessity, Gold Sprint owner Victor Burlingame reduced the hours of operation, along with the menu offerings and staff hours.

“We’re 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 9 to 5 Sunday,” said Burlingame. “We scaled back on the number of people per shift. We had to cut hours back to make it work.”

Burlingame has also been promoting “Sprint Swag,” such as shirts and mugs, both for sale on-site and online. He says the merchandise has been a big hit.

“We’ve had people from Brazil, New York, and Colorado ordering,” said Burlingame. Which made him wonder, “Like, how do you know about us?”

Honest Coffee Roasters, the embedded gem of the Clinton Avenue parking garage was proactive in response to the April 4 mandate.

Managing partner Christy Graves posted a video on Facebook explaining the changes, providing audio-visual reinforcement for her customer base. To serve the community without allowing them inside, Honest adjusted its operations and product delivery; customers can now choose from curbside, pickup, or delivery.

“We have shortened our hours just a little bit – to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week,” said Graves. “Curbside is available and is really easy to use. You can order online, full menu all day. We also have our partnership with GrubSouth and now we’ve added Door Dash as an additional delivery option.”

Just Love Coffee in Times Plaza on South Memorial Parkway was open less than a month when COVID 19 became its unfortunate reality. Despite the surprise setback, Just Love has maintained its operating hours and their menu is an all-day affair.

“We maintained our hours throughout this whole thing,” said Travis Duehring, owner. “We open at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., Monday through Friday; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

“We serve our full menu all day long. You can get ice cream at 6 a.m. or spinach salad at 6 a.m.”

Just Love has a staff of 22 part-time employees; all of whom are still on the payroll.

“Our team is wonderful,” said Duehring. “They all sacrificed for each other and everyone gave hours to those who needed it most.”

In addition to in-store takeout, curbside pickup, online ordering, and delivery, Just Love recently partnered with other area businesses for on-site prepared box lunches, all delivered straight to your door.

Offbeat Coffee Studio, the place where coffee pairs with recorded vinyl at Campus 805, reluctantly furloughed their crew, leaving owners Kyle and Anna Lee Husband to run the business themselves. They have also scaled back their operating hours to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week.

Offbeat is using the @cloosiv app and is open for take-out, curbside pick-up, and GrubSouth delivery. Additionally, Offbeat has added online merchandise sales to help sustain its business and support their crew.

Established in 1996, Olde Towne Coffee is for takeout only. Call-ahead and the staff will have the order ready upon arrival.

The long-established Five Points coffee go-to scaled back their hours to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week. Olde Towne is still offering a full menu; their bakery goods are astonishing, to say the least. Along with brewed coffee, espresso drinks, and assorted menu items, one can buy bulk coffee by the pound and select from one of the many bottles of flavoring syrups that are available for purchase.

There have been discernable shifts in peak customer traffic since March. Burlingame and Duehring have both observed new patterns in customer behavior.

Gold Sprint normally caters to the teleworking community. Since orders are now curbside pickups or at the window, there has been a shift to morning customers, coupled with a late afternoon “pick me up” crowd. The usual, midmorning rush of telecommuters is almost non-existent.

“Strangely enough, our crowd really was kind of late morning, around 9 or 10 a.m., and it was slammed,” said Burlingame. “And now, it’s like just the morning and in the afternoon. In the middle is kind of ‘there’.”

“Prior to this [COVID 19], we would have customers first thing when we opened,” said Duehring. “Our normal morning rush was 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for the lunch rush.” Although in the past, customers would be waiting at the door when they opened, “My peak times are now from 10 a.m. till about 1 p.m. and then we get another small rush about 3 p.m.”

Given the unique nature of the present circumstances, the future is cloudy for business owners, at least for the time being. Despite the uncertainties, there remains the undercurrent of resiliency and “can-do” spirit.

“We want to keep coffee in your hands, keep us in business, and still get to see the people we care about,” said Graves. “We appreciate you guys more than anything.”

Chamber Launches GetYourGiftOn.Org to Support Local Restaurants and Stores

If you were not hungry before, you will be after visiting the new GetYourGiftOn.org website (https://www.getyourgifton.org/), launched by the Huntsville-Madison Chamber of Commerce in support of local small businesses, especially restaurants and retail establishments.

The website features retail and dining establishments which can quickly and easily upload detailed information about their business, including any promotional offers and specials; new and limited business hours; whether or not they offer curbside or delivery options (even if they didn’t offer it before); and links to online gift cards that can be used to order food or goods, or that can be given to someone else as gift.

Searchable by neighborhood, it is easy for businesses to take part by clicking the “Submit a Business” link at the top of the site and filling out the information. That information goes to the Chamber to be verified and could go live within a couple of hours if not sooner.

There is no cost for businesses to be added and Chamber membership is not required to participate.

“Maybe your company never thought about offering gift cards or just hadn’t gotten around to it yet,” said Lucia Cape, Senior Vice President of Economic Development at the Chamber. “This makes it really easy, and that was our intent – to keep it really simple and make it very attractive.”

For businesses that do not offer gift cards, there are options available.

  • Instagift, an Alabama-based e-gift card service, is  waiving monthly fees for any Huntsville signups;
  • Gift Up is waiving its 3.49 percent fee on the first $5,000 of gift card sales.

For businesses with e-gift cards and using platforms such as Square, they can be easily and quickly linked.

The Chamber has been brainstorming ways to help support local businesses during this unprecedented shutdown and heard about a site called LocalDistancing.com in Birmingham.

Inspired by three childhood friends and entrepreneurs Vince Perez, Dylan Spencer, and Trey Oliver, the Chamber asked them for help in building a sister site in Huntsville based on the same premise.

According to Cape, it was a labor of love working with them to get the site up quickly, and to provide such an easy format so business owners can add themselves to the site and be up and running almost immediately.

“Please pass along the word about GetYourGiftOn.org and encourage every retail or restaurant owner you know to add their information to the site,” said Cape. “We expect to add a lot more vendors to the site in the coming days so if there is a business you haven’t been to lately; or if you know of a business or restaurant in your neighborhood that should be using the site, be sure and let them and the Chamber know so we can get them up as soon as possible.

“Remember that even though we may be losing track of dates these days, we have not canceled holidays and Mother’s Day is coming up May 10. Maybe you are checking in with your mom, but not able to visit. You can still send her a gift. Go to GetYourGiftOn.org and buy her an online gift card to somewhere to eat or to her favorite retail store.

Because the website is new, the Chamber is seeking feedback to provide improvements and updates.

 

The Catalyst Center Going Remote; Providing Updates for Small Businesses

A Statement from The Catalyst

Like all of you, we have been closely monitoring the updates and impacts of the COVID-19 virus. We wanted to let you know that we will be operating remotely in the upcoming weeks in hopes of reducing the spread of this virus. We have been preparing for this over the past week to ensure that our clients will continue to receive prompt services.
Small businesses are a vital part of the U.S. economy. With the recent news and concerns of the coronavirus (COVID-19), The Catalyst is sharing the latest business resources, assistance and guidance. Please read the following important update to The Catalyst operations now in effect.
  • Workshops. Our workshops may be postponed or held online. If you have registered for an event, you will be notified directly on whether the event is being postposed or if there is an online option. For any questions please contact us at info@catalystcenter.org.
  • Coaching Sessions. Coaches are available to participate in remote coaching sessions via phone, email and video. This slow-down may be the perfect opportunity for you to fit in some personal development or business coaching! Please contact us at 256 428-8190 or info@catalystcenter.org or if you would like to schedule a coaching session.
  • SBA Guidance & Assistance for Small Businesses. The Small Business Administration (SBA) has posted information regarding loan programs and guidance for businesses: Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  • CDC Guidance & Prevention Protocols for Businesses. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has issued COVID-19 guidance for businesses and is updating them as new developments occur.
Please refer to the following links for the most up-to-date information about COVID-19:
The health of small business owners, their employees and our network of volunteers remain our top priority.
The Catalyst is committed to providing the best services we can during this difficult time. We will keep you updated as resources and guidance become available.
Joanne Randolph
President & CEO

Avilution Breaks Ground on Avionics Facility

Avilution recently broke ground at Huntsville International Airport for its facility to produce groundbreaking avionics software.

“We are really excited to be here, celebrating Avilution – and the groundbreaking technology that will transform the aviation industry,” said Rick Tucker, CEO of the Port of Huntsville.

Avilution customers “are innovative pioneers who are building the next generation of general aviation aircraft.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

“Huntsville International Airport is proud to be home to Avilution,” said Tucker. “Being that we are an airport and the software being developed by Avilution is avionics framework, we couldn’t think of a better location for the facility. We are excited to see world-class software that is shaping our industry being developed right here in Huntsville.”

Founded by Mark Spencer, Avilution got its start in 2010 and has been focused on the avionics industry since 2015.

Spencer said Avilution approaches avionics as a software problem rather than as a hardware problem, which gives them a lot of flexibility and allows them to bring products to market more quickly than a more traditional approach.

“Our customers are innovative pioneers who are building the next generation of general aviation aircraft,” said Spencer.” “We are working to provide customized solutions that fit the aircraft’s mission and unique requirements.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong were also on hand to celebrate the groundbreaking.

Battle spoke of the importance of having entrepreneurs – serial entrepreneurs, in particular, “that drive the local economy by starting business after business. Spencer is that kind of entrepreneur,” said Battle.

“Mark not only has a bright mind, but makes an effort to help people,” said Strong.

The avionics framework developed by Avilution is called eXtensible Flight System (XFS). This framework allows for the rapid development of robust and future-proof avionics that free the consumer from vendor lock-in and obsolescence.

Avilution’s first packaged commercial offering, the Unpanel, is an avionics package tailor-made for VFR pilots. The new facility will house up to 24 employees and the facility is slated to be completed in late October.

“Mark is going to change the industry by transforming the world of avionics,” said Tucker.

Strong Coffee, Strong Women Series: Sonia Robinson Shares her Journey

“Strong Coffee, Strong Women,” The Catalyst’s widely popular breakfast and networking event, features inspirational stories from successful businesswomen that focus on professional growth and successfully overcoming challenges along the way.

Sonia Robinson: “The most selfless decision you can make is to put yourself first. Try it. It will change you.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

This particular event was no exception as Sonia Robinson, a breast cancer survivor and the executive director at BIO Alabama, spoke to a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd.

Robinson was very candid about sharing her breast cancer survivor journey.

“I do not miss a chance to talk about my boobs,” she said.

In 2017, Robinson was at the peak of her high-intensity career: 36 years old, divorced and raising two boys, then 4 and 8. To Robinson, going for her routine gynecological exam was just that, routine; another self-care box to check off between meetings and an otherwise busy workday.

As the nurse did the manual breast exam, she suggested that Robinson get a baseline mammogram.

Robinson initially declined, thinking to herself, “My career was on fire. I was 36 years old and never had had a baseline mammogram. I don’t have time; I’ll do it when I’m 40. Had I waited until I was 40, my story would have been very very different.”

The nurse practitioner felt a palpable lump in Robinson’s breast and asked her, “Have you ever felt this?”

For Robinson, monthly self-exams were not on her radar, so the answer was “no.”

Even after the nurse practitioner sent her for a diagnostic mammogram, Robinson saw it as another item to check off the to-do list. She assumed that the lump would be benign and she would be back to work without skipping a beat.

When the mammogram was complete, the technician told Robinson the radiologist wanted to speak with her on her way out.

“I thought my radiologist just had really good bedside manner and stopped to chat with all the patients afterwards; she’s good, but not THAT good,” said Robinson.

The radiologist told Robinson, “It looks suspicious. I’ve already spoken with your gynecologist.”

The next step was a surgical biopsy. When her surgeon called Robinson to discuss the results, he said the words she never expected to hear: “Sonia, we have a little cancer.”

As she processed the news and discussed the treatment options, Robinson slowly walked to her bedroom and lay down on the bed.

Sensing the news was bad, her mother lay down beside her as the conversation with the surgeon continued.

The cancer was likely Stage 1. A double mastectomy or a lumpectomy with radiation would be the options given.

Before making a decision, Robinson wanted a better understanding of what she was dealing with. Her surgeon gave her four weeks to research, gathering as much information she could.

A sold-out, standing-room-only crowd hears Sonia Robinson share her incredible journey. (Photo/Steve Rabin)

“What does life look like on the other side of this?” Robinson wanted to know.

Robinson opted for a double mastectomy. During surgery, it was discovered the cancer had spread to one of the lymph nodes, which immediately put her into Stage 2, which became a game-changer.

When the oncologist told Robinson that chemotherapy was to be scheduled, “I told him, “No,” said Robinson.

She advised the audience, “We are to question; we are to ask, to research. Y’all have to fight for your health.”

Robinson still believed that everything would be ok without chemotherapy.

“I felt that maybe I should have Dr. Harriman just ‘clear the margin’ and I do nothing, no chemo,” said Robinson. “As the words left my mouth, I thought how irresponsible that was.

“I had an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. I wanted to be their mommy for a long time. When you’re given a diagnosis like this, it’s not just you, it’s we.”

After four weeks of research and consulting the medical community and breast cancer survivors, “I was told, ‘Sonia, you’re in a gray area’,” said Robinson. “You have to be happy with the decision that you make. Ultimately, I made the decision to move forward with chemo.”

Once the decision was made, Robinson threw a “Shave Party,” inviting forty of her closest friends and family members. The event included a champagne toast and a bouncy house for the kids.

After her head was shaved, she reveled in the new look.

“Try it, shave your head,” said Robinson. “It changed my life.”

Then, there were reconstruction decisions, such whether to keep one’s nipples or get tattoos. Robinson decided to keep hers. “Nipple tattoos, it’s a real thing, y’all,” said Robinson. “I want y’all to look at these,” as she sent images to friends, male and female, to get honest feedback. “Our boobs are so important to us as women,” said Robinson. “I really needed that feedback. I was 36 years old and single.

“Had I been older, I may not have made the same decision.”

Robinson’s fourth and final round of chemo came just 6 days after her 37th birthday. That came with the expectation that life would return to what it was, pre-cancer.

“Chemo is over, Sonia is well,” said Robinson. “That’s when the real work started.

“In order to be your ultimate self, guess what you have to do? Put yourself first. The most selfless decision you can make is to put yourself first. Try it. It will change you.”

 

 

 

Joanne Randolph Cited as Champion at Annual Entrepreneur Awards

Joanne Randolph has been known to champion entrepreneurs in this area.

Joanne Randolph is honored with Champion Award now named after her. (Photo/Steve Babin)

Now, she can officially be known as the champion after receiving the Entrepreneur Champion of the Year Award at the fifth annual Entrepreneur Awards ceremony and luncheon.

Randolph, the founder and CEO of The Catalyst Center, has been at the forefront of entrepreneurship and small business ownership while leading the Women’s Business Center of North Alabama and The Catalyst Center.

“I have loved working with entrepreneurs over the last 25 or so years,” said Randolph. “Many of you are in this room. I’ve celebrated with you when good things happened and I was saddened when they didn’t.

“We learn so much more from our failures; which is why many very successful entrepreneurs have a failure or two under their belt.”

Randolph planned to retire in 2019 but The Catalyst board appealed to her to stay on, for just one more year.

“Joanne has been with The Catalyst, formerly the Women’s Business Center of North Alabama, when we were just an idea,” said Leigh Christian, project manager for TechRich at the Catalyst. “She has led our organization for 20 years and has coached, counseled, and championed hundreds – maybe thousands – of entrepreneurs through the years. The Catalyst staff and Board of Directors chose this year to honor Joanne as not only the Entrepreneur Champion of the Year for 2020, but of all time.

“In honor of this, we are renaming the award the Joanne Randolph Entrepreneur Champion Award.”

The award was the grand finale to the event at The Stone Center and wrapped up this year’s Innovate Huntsville Week.

Kevin Hoey, Chairman of the Board of the Catalyst, provided opening remarks and Kenny Anderson, the Multicultural Affairs Officer for the City of Huntsville, served as the emcee.

Here are the 2020 winners of the Entrepreneurial Awards:

YOUTH ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Caleb Wortham, owner of Caleb’s Cookie Cutters.

This award is given to a school-aged entrepreneur who started their entrepreneurial journey at a young age and is working toward their dream.

When Caleb was in the first grade, he became fascinated with design and technology after listening to a TED Talk on 3-D printing. He was so inspired, he asked his parents for a 3-D printer for Christmas, along with saving up his own money to help them purchase the printer. Enrolling in Mindgear Lab and Endeavor Learning Lab, Caleb learned everything he could about 3-D printing technology.

Caleb’s older brother Joshua started Peaceful Pastries when Caleb was 10. Helping out with the bakery, Caleb soon realized that cookie cutters can be costly. Additionally, Joshua often received unique cookie orders that often required special shapes. To meet the needs of his brother’s successful business venture, Caleb collaborated with Joshua to become Peaceful Pastries and Sweets Bakery largest custom cookie cutter supplier.

EMERGING ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Chanda Davis, founder and owner of Chanda Davis Real Estate and Superior School of Real Estate by Chanda.

The Catalyst Entrepreneurs of the Year. (Photo/Steve Babin)

This award is given to an entrepreneur that’s been in business for less than 3 years and has a proven track record for sustainability with room for growth.

After leaving a successful career as an educator, Davis entered the world of real estate. After 3 years of being a full-time agent and two years of teaching real estate classes, Davis decided to establish her own company. Along with Chanda Davis Real Estate, a flourishing real estate company with over 60 agents, Davis’ Superior School of Real Estate by Chanda boasts one of the highest passing rates in the state.

CREATIVE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Lady Vowell Smith, owner and founder of The Snail on the Wall bookstore.

This award goes to an entrepreneurial venture that focuses on the retail, arts, entertainment, or culinary industry and has a proven track record for sustainability.

As a book aficionado with a Ph.D. in literature, Smith is no stranger to books. Smith felt there was a lack of small independent bookstores North Alabama —a place where readers and authors could meet and share ideas.

Beginning with a pop-up store at Randolph’s Under the Christmas Tree market in 2017, she has formed a large, loyal customer base by recommending books through social media. Her store has hosted pop-up bookstores at local businesses and has brought bestselling authors to Huntsville for events. Says Smith, “The spirit of entrepreneurship is embracing experiments and new ideas, and when local businesses brainstorm together, it benefits the community as a whole.”

NONPROFIT ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Anne Caldwell, CEO of Greater Huntsville Humane Society.

The Nonprofit Entrepreneur of the year is a new category for 2020. Although different than for-profit ventures, nonprofit leaders still require an entrepreneurial spirit to grow and develop their organizations.

Caldwell’s life and career path changed forever six years ago, when she adopted Randy, a terrified little Chihuahua from Huntsville Animal Services. Caldwell said she was astonished by the problem of overcrowding at the shelters and became involved with several animal welfare organizations before taking on her role as CEO at the Greater Huntsville Humane Society last year.

Through a variety of innovative programming, Caldwell has increased the number of adoptions, lowered length of stays and return rates, in addition to cutting costs and raising donations.

FEMALE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Amber Yerkey James, founder and CEO of New Beginnings Family Law.

This award is given to an outstanding female entrepreneur in the North Alabama Region. The winner of this award will be submitted to the Small Business Administration’s Small Business of the Year Award National Award by the Women’s Business Center.

In 2012, almost six years after starting her own law practice James realized that she wanted to do something more than just process divorce and custody cases, she wanted to make a difference in the lives of her clients and in her community.

New Beginnings Family Law works with clients  to plan for life following divorce and other family law situations. The goal is for clients to have the knowledge, skills, and insight to truly have a new beginning.

VETERAN ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Kris McGuire, founder and CEO of Victory Solutions.

This award is given to an outstanding military-veteran entrepreneur in the North Alabama Region.

A packed house at the Stone Center was on hand for the fifth annual Entrepreneur Awards. (Photo/Steve Babin)

As one of the first women assigned to the Air Force Special Weapons Center’s maintenance squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base during the Vietnam War, McGuire understood the importance of supplying the military with effective systems and supplying troops with the right tools. In 2006, with this experience in mind, McGuire started Victory Solutions to help save the lives of soldiers.

McGuire’s success has resulted in having some 130 employees and subcontractors working on projects ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles to missile defense to missions to the moon. She attributes this success to a continued focus on supporting fellow veterans, women, and other small businesses.

ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Sandra Brazelton, president and CEO of Advanced Innovative Management Solutions

Awarded to an entrepreneur who has been in business for over three years and has a proven track record for sustainability, strategic direction, future growth and community involvement.

Brazelton’s journey has been one of overcoming obstacles, including gender and racial barriers. While working as an engineer, Brazelton started a real estate business. When buying her first two houses, she was steered to low-income areas. This experience fueled her mission to build a business that would educate, empower, and help others while building generational wealth.

Her goal is to leave a legacy in business and in character that would make her children proud. Her daughter, Alex, is also her business partner, helping to create a legacy.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Jerry “JD” White, owner and president of JD Productions, Inc.

Al.com hosted a link on social media for this award. The winner was selected by voters.

After reading books on the topic, coupled with hands-on experience by working the audio/visuals at a variety of events, White finely honed his skills. White said collaboration has been lost in the entertainment industry; he believes that JD Productions will revitalize the entertainment industry, making it a better place to do business.

Coming from a variety of backgrounds and business ventures, there were 68 finalists competing for the nine categories. These entrepreneurs represented 11 communities and 21 ZIP codes in North Alabama. 46 were women, 22 were men.

Combined, they provide jobs for 2,269 employees; in 2019, they accounted for more than $270 million in economic development dollars across North Alabama.

Sitdown with Success: Lisa Williams – Know if You Will Need a Pair of Cushy Shoes, or a Parachute

This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features Lisa Williams. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures, with tips for upcoming business owners.

 

The business world is her passion, driven by a need to honor the American soldier and veterans who have and still are, fighting in many unsavory parts of the world. Lisa Williams’ business consulting company, the Soldier 1 Corporation, is all about paying tribute to veterans, and especially to her late father, who brought her and her mother to the United States after the Vietnam War.

Lisa Williams: True entrepreneurs take calculated risks. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“I vowed never to squander the unique opportunities I have as a result of my father, who was my hero, making the sacrifices he and so many others make, so I can live free and be successful,” she said.

Lisa and her husband, former State Rep. Phil Williams, started 3D Research, a defense engineering company during the mid-1990s from the back bedroom of their home. They sold it 10 years later so Lisa could spend more time with their son.

But because business is in her DNA, she still wanted to stay in the game, and today she is helping to build a culture where she can work with veterans to help them build their businesses, so they can hire more veterans within their company.

Tell us about Soldier 1 and your current consulting work.

I am a kind of CEO/president-for-hire. When companies face hard issues like whether to expand, whether to sell, whether to buy or merge with another business; or if they face unforeseen problems like suddenly losing their CEO with no succession plan; those companies can bring in someone like me who has the mentality of what a president or CEO should be doing in terms of running the company.

The president is the face of the company and sometimes while they are out there shaking hands, kissing babies, planning and strategizing for future growth, someone still needs to run the company.

I have built a business from the beginning when there are only one or two people doing everything. I have worked 24/7 to grow it into a lucrative business. And I have been there in the later stage of a business where I had to make decisions about selling, and about what comes after that.

I know how hard it is to run a company; what kind of sacrifices business owners make: the financial risks; the family risks; the health risks. If I see that an entrepreneur has what it takes to be successful, but they need some guidance along the way, I can help because I am somebody who has been there and done that through the entire lifecycle of a company.

What does it take to be an entrepreneur? Do successful entrepreneurs have a set of innate traits or qualities?

It’s always risky to start a business but true entrepreneurs take calculated risks. Meaning if you are going to jump off a cliff, you need to know whether the drop is five feet and you will need a good new pair of cushiony shoes, or is the drop five miles and you’re going to need a parachute.

In working with entrepreneurs, I find that the successful ones know what needs to be done, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it because they haven’t done it.

An entrepreneur knows they must save money. They know they must have funding, but they don’t know how to get it. They know they need a business plan, but they aren’t sure what should be in it. They know they must go out and get business, but they aren’t sure how to get out there and go after it.

Entrepreneurs risk everything, but they prepare. They know they need a business plan. They usually know their own strengths and weaknesses, but in writing the business plan, everywhere they leave it blank, that’s where their weaknesses lie, and they aren’t always sure how to turn those weaknesses into strengths.

An innate entrepreneur will sense they need to do certain things, for instance they know they need to lease a building or office space, but they don’t know what to look for in a contract.

When I mentor businesses, I am very blunt. I will hurt your feelings, I will call your baby ugly, but the important thing is you aren’t going to have time to try something just to see what happens.

You have to feel so strongly about what you are doing that you are either open to advice from someone who has been there, or know with all your body, your heart, your soul and your mind that what you are doing is right.

And entrepreneurs surround themselves with honest people who will pick them up if they fall.

What do you need to start a small business?

You need to do your research. I was a test engineer and knew I wanted to own my own business right out of UAH, but I had to uncover what it was I was going to sell. I spent two years just researching.

Know what kind of financing you will need.

Understand that you will need an accountant and a lawyer. These are mistakes people make because they think, like I did, accounting makes me want to slash my wrists – right, but that’s even more reason why I needed one.

I thought, why do I need a lawyer? I’m going to do business the right way, I won’t get sued. But in business, you can and will get sued, so you need lawyers.

Here in Huntsville, you may need security clearances, and even if you have a personal clearance, you have to get one for your company and that requires a company sponsor, and that takes time.

What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?

Build up a reserve of money to live on before you start your own business. It would be great if you can save a year’s salary, or if you can’t do that, have enough for the rent, a car payment and food several months in advance.

Keep your overhead as low as possible. If you are pursuing a service business, you are selling brain power, so you don’t need a luxurious office to show off. Take your brains to their office and work out of your home for as long as you can until you hire enough people to need and can afford an office.

If you are starting up a product-based company building a widget, then you will need money up front and may need a line of credit. Many commercial companies bring in investors, which is whole other process.

Look for opportunities to team up with other companies. It’s safer when you are getting started. It’s important to be on a growth trajectory but you don’t want to go into debt and partnerships can help with that.

Do you recommend collaborative workspace, which is less expensive than office space and usually more flexible?

I would love to see the numbers on how many successful companies really come out of a collaborative work environment.

An entrepreneur is going to make it whether they are in a collaborative environment or whether they are in their garage because it’s all about the persistence, the passion, the perspiration, and how badly do you want it.

It’s nice to have a collaborative environment, but at the end of the day, you have a plan in place; you still have to make those phone calls to potential clients; you still have to get out there and meet the people you need to meet. I always say, it is not really as much about who you know, but about who knows you.

And you have to do all of those things no matter where you are.

What is the one piece of advice you would give a young entrepreneur opening a small business?

It’s a simple, but tough question – how will you make money? You need a very clear plan and full understanding of how you will make money.

If you are going to build and sell widgets, how will you make money selling them?

People say, “I want to do this because I feel strongly about it. I want to help kids or help people.”

And I say, “Okay. We all want to help people and fill a need, but if you don’t have a plan for making money, you will go out of business.”

At the same time, if you want to open a coffee shop that sells pastries – okay. But if there are 15 pastry shops in the area, how will you be different enough from the others to make money selling coffee and pastries?

I don’t mean making money is the only thing in life, but money is what drives a business and, if you fail, you can lose everything.