Small Business Majority Blog

Small Business Matters

Catarah Coleman & Shoneji Robison, co-owners of Southern Girl Desserts

Any true Southerner will tell you that, when it comes to cooking, it’s all about the heart. There’s no need for those fancy, highfalutin culinary degrees when you’ve got decades of tradition and a little splash of love in the kitchen. That down-home, fuzzy-warm style of baking is exactly what Catarah Coleman and Shoneji Robison brought with them from the South to the mean streets of urban Los Angeles.

You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the Southern cravings out of the girl, and Los Angeles was a veritable wasteland when it came to finding the inimitable delicacies of the South. This prompted Coleman to take matters into her own hands with Southern Girl Desserts.

“Southern Girl Desserts started out of my home back in 2007 as a way to satisfy my craving for southern favorites such as banana pudding and sweet potato pie,” Coleman recalled.

In early 2008, Shoneji Robison joined Coleman as a business partner, bringing an extensive list of celebrity contacts in Los Angeles from her proven background in baking and decorating. Together, these two dubbed themselves the Dessert Divas.

As for the inspiration behind Southern Girl Desserts, Coleman points out three goals that define their business.

“The first was a way to build generational wealth for my children and grandchildren to come. The [second] was to give the West Coast a taste of true Southern baking, and the third was to offer Southern hospitality in a world where customer service, in my opinion, was lacking.”

Lending credibility to this Southern way of operating and the techniques they employ at their bakeshop is the fact that both Coleman and Robison come from families with strong backgrounds in baking and cooking.

“We always tell people we received our baking education from grandma’s kitchen and the experience we’ve gained from mistakes made over the course of the last eight years,” Robison said.

Starting out just as the cupcake craze was sweeping the nation, the market was fairly open for a Southern twist on desserts.

“We had a niche that only two Southern girls could satisfy,” Coleman said. “The fact that we were in Los Angeles baking unique Southern treats created a demand. We didn’t create a menu based off of trends, but based off of tradition.”

After all, what other Angelino baker would offer a handmade sweet potato cupcake on their menu? None, which is probably why it’s Southern Girl Desserts’ most popular treat. In fact, all of their menu items start from their favorite foods, and from there, they test the unsuspecting Los Angeles market with some baked Southern charm to decide what stays and what goes.

To pay homage to their families and to truly embrace their Southern roots and heritage, Coleman and Shoneji name all of their desserts after a family member or a popular Southern term.

“The freedom to be creative and share our story through our desserts,” Coleman said, is one of her favorite parts of owning a business like Southern Girl Desserts.

Bottom line: Hollywood needs to watch out, because the Dessert Divas are baking goods and taking names.

A business is only as good as the employees who work there. In order to staff their business with the cream of the crop, Jill and Craig Treadway took a unique approach to their hiring process that has paid off in spades.

JT Engineering, an engineering consulting firm based in Hobart, WI, was established in 2005 by Jill Treadway, the principal owner, and specializes in design, construction and program management services at the local, state and federal level.

Treadway previously worked for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WDOT) as an engineer, but saw an opportunity to start her own business by doing contract work for the WDOT and chose to seize it. Teaming up with some local firms, and her husband Craig, who serves as JT Engineering’s vice president, Treadway launched her own firm and started raking in contract work.

The work JT Engineering has accomplished earned them numerous construction and design awards, and the company itself has grown from its humble roots to a sturdy, well-oiled firm of 35 employees.

Behind JT Engineering’s irrefutable success is the story of how they came to acquire the talent that has played a large part of it.

“As a small business, each one of JT Engineering’s employees is a significant investment,” Craig Treadway said. “It’s especially important that entry-level employees are a good fit, given the amount of initial training they acquire.”

How can a business truly ensure they’re getting top-notch candidates through means other than posting a job description and hoping for the best? The Treadways decided to cultivate their own talent and hire them from within.

“To ensure a pipeline of prepared young people for new hires each year, JT Engineering has implemented a formal internship program that acts as a long-term interview process,” he said.

Many of the company’s entry-level hires are graduates of this internship program, which has been in place for seven years and has hired all but one of the students afterwards – an impressive rate of return.

Six of JT Engineering’s current employees are alumnus of the program, where they worked side by side with staff helping out with projects, paperwork and assisting designers by learning software and dabbling in drafting and construction work.

Not only does it enable the company to get a feel for the potential of each prospective employee, it gives the interns access to crucial, hands-on training. The company also works with local universities to increase access to and awareness of the program.

“We’re proud that clients love working with our people,” Jill Treadway said. “Any organization is only as good as the people it has, and we have great people.”

By putting as much care and attention into the employees that make up their firm as the company itself, the Treadways have fostered an extremely competent, tight-knit workforce, and are trailblazers of a hiring model that many other small businesses should consider as well.

In today’s digital age, it’s nearly unheard of to not have some sort of online presence, especially for businesses that frequently utilize the Internet to market to their customer base and sell their product.  And yet, a vast 52% of small businesses do not have a website.

While that statistic may seem shocking, it makes sense that more than half of small businesses don’t have a website – they don’t come cheap! Typically, the price tag for a good website can cost anywhere from $2,000-$6,000, a whopping expense many small businesses just can’t swing.

To help alleviate this problem, Small Business Majority is announcing a new partnership with Hack the Hood, an Oakland-based, award-winning non-profit that introduces low-income youth of color to careers in tech by hiring and training them to build websites for small businesses in their local communities.

As part of the technology umbrella under our own Entrepreneurship Program, Small Business Majority is dedicated to connecting entrepreneurs and small business owners in need with Hack the Hood in order to get websites built for them.

Advancements in technology are providing entrepreneurs with unprecedented freedom to work on their own terms while cultivating a culture of innovation in the business world. This partnership is another means of educating small business owners on emerging technologies and providing an avenue of access for services they need to thrive in today’s digital landscape.

To that effect, we have created a new website, Webz for Small Biz, to connect small business owners in the Greater Bay Area with Hack the Hood to help them get the website of their dreams, or to seriously overhaul their existing website to better suit their business needs.

Here’s the best part – Hack the Hood’s website building program is absolutely free.

Without the hefty price tag, small business owners can receive a website that will put their business on the online map, and take pride in knowing they are a part of Hack the Hood’s mission to train and mentor today’s youth in tech and entrepreneurship skills they can use to secure future jobs. It’s truly a win-win situation for all involved.

If you’re a small business in the Greater Bay Area in need of a website or a revamp of your current one, check out Webz for Small Biz today at www.webz4smallbiz.com. Join our #Webz4SmallBiz movement and let’s get digital!

Veronica Davis and Chancee Lundy, co-owners of Nspiregreen

What started as a chance encounter between two community-minded engineers at a conference blossomed into a lasting partnership and an innovative small business focused on public engagement and environmental planning.

Nspiregreen, the brainchild of business partners Veronica Davis and Chancee Lundy, is a Washington, D.C.-based environmental and urban planning consulting firm.

In 2002, Davis and Lundy met at a leadership conference for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and began discussing their common interests, including a commitment to social justice.

“Two phrases of the NSBE mission spoke to us: ‘culturally responsible black engineers’ and ‘positively impact the community,’” Davis recalled. Within 20 minutes, “we decided that one day we would start a business.”

Davis and Lundy realized that the technical expertise and community contributions they wished to provide would only prove fruitful if they were to create the kind of company that would allow them to do so. In 2010, the two quit their jobs and fully devoted themselves to Nspiregreen.

Initially, Nspiregreen took on environmental grant writing projects, as well as providing technical advice to non-profits. The business really began to bloom after receiving a government contract from the District of Columbia.

“It allowed us to build up a past performance and reputation as a company,” Lundy said. “As they say, the rest is herstory.”

Nspiregreen focuses on three business units: environmental solutions, urban planning and public engagement. Under the environmental solutions umbrella, they take on projects that analyze how to reduce pollutants, and estimate the District’s energy needs. Their urban planning projects examine how to reduce environmental impacts by improving transportation infrastructure.

But it’s the public engagement part that truly separates Nspiregreen from other similar firms, such as Davis’s efforts to expand the Black Women Bike DC’s membership, ensuring that women of color have a voice at the table with District lawmakers as they weigh bikers in the city’s overall infrastructure plan.

“Our public engagement supports our other business units,” Davis said. “Our projects impact people. We believe it is important to hear from the people who are impacted by the projects we work on.”

As a smaller, more niche engineering firm, Nspiregreen uses its budding size to its advantage. “We are more nimble to change and willing to be more creative than the larger firms,” Davis said.

That creativity is a major aspect of the type of company Davis and Lundy envisioned when they set out to build Nspiregreen.

“We have a culture of innovation,” Lundy said. “We believe in trying new techniques and ideas to provide quality services to our clients. Our favorite part about owning a business is being able to create a company culture that reflects a place where we wished to work.”

After successfully harvesting their dream company and impacting their local D.C. community, Davis and Lundy have set their sights beyond the District.

“Our five-year plan is to expand our environmental and urban planning services to other cities in the U.S., and work with large U.S.-based companies and foundations on projects for Latin America and the Caribbean.”

If their efforts in D.C. are any indication, communities across the country, and the world, will reap great benefits from Davis and Lundy breaking new ground with Nspiregreen.

Olivia Ashjian James, owner of KEZI

The best pieces of art are often transformative. What starts out as one thing can take on a new shape, meaning or purpose for someone else. It’s the out-of-box creativity and perception of an artist that can take one piece and make it something wholly different and unique – an artist like Olivia Ashjian James, for example.

A studio art major at Clark University, James worked primarily in line drawings, but by her junior year, she was itching to be more active with her hands and turned to sculpture. One night, she was working on a sculpture of a bull that would end up informing her own handcrafted, intricate line of jewelry.

“I had just finished the [bull’s] leg, not yet attached, when I held it up and said to myself, ‘This looks like a necklace pendant,’” James recalled. “I proceeded to make four other shapes like it and created my first necklace.”

Taking inspiration from nature and ancient designs, James began experimenting in jewelry design, crafting original pieces for herself. “I noticed that whenever I wore a necklace I made, someone would stop me on the street and comment on it. That’s when I knew I had something to share with the world.”

In 2013, James founded her business, KEZI LLC, in Boston and developed an intricate, aesthetically divergent line of jewelry with more than 130 different designs. The name KEZI, derived from James’s Armenian background, means “for you” in the language. The tagline for her business – “For You. Be You.” – conveys embracing who you are so you can be the best you, according to James.

“KEZI designs give voice to beauty and strength that lies within. It is jewelry that embraces individuality and confidence, captured in my adornments for the body,” she said.

The meticulous craft and expertise behind James’s designs make her pieces eye-catching, but time-intensive. It can take her up to eight hours to make a necklace, and 14 to create a headpiece. But for a truly unique piece of jewelry, the special nature of each piece outweighs the time it takes to create them.

The Harvest Necklace, KEZI's most popular necklace sold

A sticking point of KEZI jewelry isn’t just to adorn oneself with exquisite jewelry to elicit the feeling and appearance of beauty, but to wear a statement piece that brings out the inner beauty of the person wearing it.

“I see that people are drawn to the idea driving my business: a desire for people to truly embrace themselves and feel beautiful. My designs speak to people in a unique way because when someone finds a piece they like, it has captured something about them in the lines of the design.”

With 50 designs ready to be added to her collection and plans to start a men’s line in the near future, James is expanding on the name and promise of KEZI to be for all of us.

“KEZI is my lifelong project. I see KEZI as a way of embracing beauty and uniqueness within you through adornment of the body. My jewelry is a way to show off individuality, and love the self.”

James clearly knows that when you look good and feel good, anyone can have the confidence, strength and ease to be themselves. Sometimes, all it takes is a pendant.