By David M. Fitzpatrick
OF THE WEEKLY STAFF
February is Entrepreneurship Month, so it’s a good time to consider that small business you’ve always wanted to start. There are many great resources for Maine people who aren’t sure where to start with their small-business dreams; one of those is Women, Work, & Community. Serving both men and women, this organization has helped people learn about getting into business for themselves for 36 years.
Statewide, WWC, which has a Bangor office, serves hundreds of clients every year. Here are two of them who benefited from WWC’s programs and now serve as WWC Ambassadors.
JoAnn Brown, Maine Traveling Chef
JoAnn Brown underwent some life changes in 2010 that spurred her into action. In one month, she was laid off from her job of five years, got divorced, and moved out of her house. Brown had grown up in a family that had owned a restaurant, and her parents and grandparents had been bakers, so she’d always had ideas about going into business as a chef.
“I had all this change going on,” Brown said. “And I said, ‘If I’m going to try this business idea, now is the time.’”
She took her first WWC class in January 2011. While selling her goods weekly at a farmer’s market, and landing her first jobs, she continued learning through WWC groups. Of key importance was doing a business plan; she’d never done one, not even at another small-business course she’d taken. Despite having degrees in business and education, it was new territory for her.
“Even with all that background, the class was still very helpful,” Brown said.
Her business, Maine Traveling Chef, is gaining steam. Her first big job was catering the Bangor Symphony Orchestra dinner at the Collins Center for the Arts, which she’s now done twice. Joining the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce helped her network with the business community.
She also cooks at Avalon Village retirement community in Hampden, which gives her the use of a commercial kitchen. And after attending Weight Watchers, she came up with the idea to make meals, portioned into servings with Weight Watchers points, for fellow members.
Brown still attends WWC classes, and she loves the networking and sharing she gets there — because, she says, it can be lonely out there as a small-business owner.
“It’s really helpful just to have that time every week where you have people that you’re checking in with and you’re commiserating as well as giving people ideas, brainstorming,” she said.
Stephanie Harp, HarpWorks Writing Services
Stephanie Harp had a similar situation, with a divorce and life changes, and with family obligations that meant she needed a flexible schedule. With a 25-year background in journalism, public relations, arts administration, history, and education, she knew there was a self-employment opportunity there.
“I’ve always written in some portion of every job I’ve had,” Harp said. “I felt, ‘Well, this is a skill that I have, so what can I do with this?’”
She got her first job writing grant proposals for the UMaine School of Economics for about six months. She did writing and editing jobs here and there, but in 2009, she knew she had to get serious.
“I needed to do some real outreach efforts,” she said. “Even though I’d lived here a long time, I had not been in the business community at all.”
She signed up for the WWC New Ventures class in 2010, and the experience was just what she needed.
“It was perfect timing,” Harp said. “It made me realize, ‘Okay, this really is a business. I’m not just doing this some; I can do this is as a business, I can focus on what I want.’”
She came out of the course with a clearer understanding of her business, called HarpWorks Writing Services — complete with her elevator speech and all the marketing materials she needed. Better yet, she had a key “Aha!” moment: She’d priced her rates typical of someone just starting out, but realized that wasn’t the case.
“I suddenly said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not just starting out — I have 25 years of experience. I’ve been writing professionally since I graduated from college,’” she said.
She increased her rates, and nobody blinked. It seemed to affect how the business community perceived her.
“If you don’t take yourself seriously, other people won’t take you seriously,” she said.
Women, Work, & Community
Women, Work, & Community’s nine centers and eight outreach sites statewide work towards “Helping Maine people achieve success in their workplace, business, and community,” according to its mission statement. The nonprofit, founded in 1978 originally to help displaced homemakers, offers free classes, workshops, and guidance in career building, starting a business, managing money, and becoming a leader.
“All the services are free, and it offers a lot to the community — and not just for women,” Brown said.
“It’s an extremely supportive environment,” said Harp. “Everybody, from the director on down, are extremely supportive of whoever you are; they can help you wherever you are, at whatever point in your life, in your business.”
Some WWC alumni, like Brown and Harp, return the favors they received by serving as WWC Ambassadors to help promote the program. And Harp also serves on WWC’s statewide Advisory Council, appointed to that post by the governor.
“We really wanted to bring some of our graduates into the fold to give us feedback, to represent us, to advocate for Women, Work, & Community, [and] to help us with fundraising,” said WWC Regional Manager Jane Searles, who works out of the Bangor office. “In every class, I [identify] who has leadership skills… I pick the best.”
Ambassadors advocate for WWC by writing letters to editors, state government, and legislators, and talking about the program to anyone who will listen.
“[Our Ambassadors are] women who represent our program in a way that we find very helpful, and they’re already leaders,” Searles said. “We’re hoping that this process allows them to expand even more with their leadership skills. Part of our mission is to help people become leaders in their community, because that’s a way in which we make change.”