So you want to start your own business? Everyday Entrepreneurs can help

The LAB Theater Project in Tampa had secured a $5,000 grant and was planning to hold its first production in its new venue on East Henderson Avenue in April 2020. 

But the COVID outbreak caused the theater dedicated to new works and new artists to reconsider and become more innovative. They opened with reduced seating, offering another play that could be acted out with social distancing.

They later added livestream and on-demand theater, drawing patrons from far away places like India, China, Ireland, and South Africa.

“We held on and got through the rough patch,” says Owen Robertson, who runs the theater company with his wife Beth, five part-timers, and a seven-person board.

Similarly, the timing could have been better for fayVen, a Tampa area-based company that sets up venues for pop-up shops. With help from mentor Dr. Andrew Gold, co-founder of Hillsborough Community College’s InLab, fayVen pivoted temporarily to a virtual small business showcase.

“The gist of fayVen is live events in public places. He helped us do this virtual pivot,” says April Caldwell, who runs fayVen with her husband Aaron. “We got to showcase small businesses from all over the country, not just in Tampa.” 

Sonera Design, which offers sustainable eco-friendly fashion designs for petite women, opened online in early 2020 only to learn what people wanted in March 2020 were masks. 

“Almost all of my sales were masks from March to August 2020. I now have my own website and I do offer facemasks, but when disposable masks became available at most local stores, my sales stopped,” says Founder Marisol Sonera-Adkins. “I am now focusing on promoting the clothing side of my business.”

All three are among 26 student businesses chosen to participate in the Everyday Entrepreneur Venture Fund through HCC’s InLab. The businesses have been succeeding at a time when others aren’t, generating an estimated $2.7 million total for the 2021 year while creating at least 15 jobs.

Sonera-Adkins credits the $4,700 in venture funding with her ability to survive for the last year and a half.

“I don't think I wouldn't have gotten through the past 18 months if it wasn't for the funding. I currently do everything myself (design, sewing, pattern-making, etc.) and without the proper equipment like the industrial sewing machine it would have been very difficult to keep up with orders/demand,” she says.

“There is an enormous amount of time spent on their financials,” explains Beth Kerly, co-founder of HCC’s InLab, which oversees these Everyday Entrepreneur student businesses. “Because we mentor by the numbers, all of our businesses remained solvent through COVID.” 

HCC was one of four colleges awarded $250,000 in 2018 to bolster student businesses. Today the venture fund initiated by philanthropists Chip and Stuart Weismiller is expanding, in partnership with the Cary, N.C.-based National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, with the goal of supporting local economies through entrepreneurship nationwide.

“It’s these everyday entrepreneurs that are really keeping the economy afloat,” asserts Kerly, who has authored Impact ED, How Community College Entrepreneurship Creates Equity and Prosperity, with Gold and Rebecca A. Corbin.

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity,” adds Lee Lowry of the HCC Foundation, the fund’s fiscal agent. “They’re making a huge impact, changing their families’ lives.”

Here’s a closer look at the Everyday Entrepreneur companies funded through HCC’s InLab.

LAB Theater Project

LAB Theater Project is and was different, even before the COVID innovations.

“We are the only professional company in the United States that is dedicated to new work. Everything we do is original,” Robertson explains. “We provide a pathway for new playwrights and new theater artists.”

They’ve featured Hector Melendez-Figueroa, who wrote The Wendy House, produced May 6 though 23, and Peter Balaskas, who wrote Out of the Mouths of Poets, which aired Feb. 8 through 24, 2019. From October 28 through November 14, the theater produced  Skin Hungry by Erin Mallon, a May-December romantic comedy. A fundraising comedy show directed by Caroline Jett and Gigi Jennewein will take place Jan. 20-23, 2022. 

The idea for the theater company came when Robertson was working on his master’s degree in Fine Arts. Today, he teaches at HCC and works at the nonprofit, grassroots theater company which seats 45 at 812 E. Henderson Ave. in Tampa.

Being in the STRIVE program at HCC qualified the Army veteran to pitch for the Everyday Entrepreneur venture funding.

“They literally got us started in being able to pursue a bigger space, increase the quality of work,” he says. 

Despite struggles, the LAB Theater Project has been able “to stay ahead of” expenses, he says. 

“I’m the cheapest theater,” he says of the company offering $28 general seating. “There’s no bad seating.”

The original concept behind fayVen developed out of April and Aaron Caldwell’s gourmet popcorn business, the Princess and the Popper. April realized through that experience that there was an even greater need for a company that connected mobile and home-based businesses and artisans with businesses willing to rent space in or outside their shops.

In an effort to promote the popcorn business, they approached other businesses about setting up a table in their stores. They were received warmly because they were a part of the community, but she wondered what would have happened if they weren’t. She wondered if there was a website that would let you set up a profile and apply to different vendor events like art festivals. 

“It didn’t exist,” recalls the Air Force veteran. “I thought, well then, if it doesn’t exist, I’ll just create a website.”

The process was a bit more involved than she thought, but the wheels were spinning. After relocating from Texas to the Tampa area, and entering the STRIDE program in late 2019, Caldwell was approved for a $6,000 Everyday Entrepreneurs Venture Fund grant in January.

The COVID outbreak has made people more receptive to the idea of fayVen, Caldwell asserts, because some facing financial hardships could find new venues or beef up revenue by sharing space.

“We actually go out and find the vendors that are complimentary to the space,” she explains. “We’re always on the lookout for new venues that are willing to open up to us.”

favVen is working with Lab Theater Project, Waterleaf in Riverview, and Green Bench Brewing Co. in St. Petersburg, among others.

Through it all, she hasn’t forgotten that dream of a website facilitating bookings for small businesses. With help from Florida Polytechnic University coding students, she hopes it will be accomplished by spring 2022.

Sonera Design

Sonera-Adkins, who graduated from HCC in May 2019 with an associate of science degree, learned from a friend that Lifepath Hospice was looking for volunteers to make masks. She ended up making about 300 in three months, using strips of material from T-shirts because there was no elastic. When demand waned, she again focused her attention on her core business: clothing for petite women.

“Petite women are 5’4” and under, but they come in so many shapes or sizes,” she explains, adding they are not necessarily tiny or skinny with a small bone structure. “These women can run anywhere from size 0 to size 34.”

She designs clothing, creates the pattern, makes a test garment, and grades the pattern to fit sizes from 0 to 18. Clothing is made to order.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to cost more,” she acknowledges. “When you have something longer, and you get so much wear out of it, it’s worth it.”

She plans to add alternations and custom work when she can hire at least one person, hopefully in a year, she adds.

Sonera-Adkins, who learned to sew at age 7 from her mother Juanita, gravitates toward professional business clothing.

“I love jackets. That’s kind of like the base of my style aesthetic,” she says. “I really like things that are tailored. It’s edgy but with some femininity in it.”

She’s developed her sewing and pattern-making skills through a high school vocational diploma in clothing and arts design, private instruction, the University of Fashion, and textbooks.

At 4’ 11”, she began making professional work clothes when she could no longer find what she wanted in the girl’s clothing section. Other petites began asking her where she bought the clothes that fit her so well. So she began sewing for others.

“I’m very creative. I love the creative side of the business,” she says.

Aa an introvert, she says, she’s struggled with the marketing and branding side of Sonera Design. But she decided that had to change if she was going to be in business.

She has kept in contact with Gold and Kerly, who continue to mentor her. 

“They really really do connect you,” she adds.

How to get involved

The Everyday Entrepreneur program at HCC is running on the $250,000 initial grant, plus an additional $200,000 raised locally, says Lee Lowry, Director of Development for the HCC Foundation. Some $278,000 has been awarded to businesses; $165,000 is in secured loans offered in partnership with Suncoast Credit Union.

To be eligible for the program, an HCC student must earn a certificate in entrepreneurship, which means completing four eligible classes. That can be accomplished in 16 weeks.

“The purpose of the fund is to be able to get every entrepreneur up and running, explains Kerly. 

Alternatively a veteran, active duty, Reserve/Guard, and their spouses may become eligible through the college’s STRIVE program, a rigorous six-week program for those who want to develop a business idea or are in the early stages of their businesses. 

The funding committee meets in January and June to consider applications. To be considered for funding in June, those who aren’t students can register for spring term starting in January, while existing veterans can enroll in STRIVE’s spring cohort, Kerly says. Existing students can enroll in the entrepreneurship classes. 

Fund disbursement is usually within a month of approval.

The application process is rigorous involving the companies’ business plans, application review, and a question-and-answer session with the funding committee. For more information, visit InLab@HCC.

Grants are available for up to $8,000, with interest free loans awarded for up to $35,000. Up to $100,000 is available in below market interest-bearing loans. Funding is capped at $25,000 for veteran (non-credit) applicants.

Some decisions are “slam dunks,” Lowry says. Others may require more legwork before approval.

Who’s a good fit? Maybe mom and pop bakers, clothing stores and shoe designers. Companies that otherwise might not be able to get a loan. They may be minority-owned or under-resourced. 

Most of the businesses have been interested in grants.

To learn more or support the project, visit the HCC Foundation.

Other businesses funded
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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune