ECHO of Brandon selected for prestigious training opportunity

When Eleanor Saunders learned she’d been nominated for the prestigious Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, she thought there had been a mistake.

She was the executive director for a nonprofit, not a small business owner, she explained to them in an email. Her nomination must have been an error. Their response?

“They said I should go ahead with my application,” recalls Saunders, whose nonprofit, ECHO of Brandon, connects southeastern Hillsborough County residents with the resources they need to get back on their feet.

She took their advice. In January, she was notified that ECHO was one of only two nonprofits selected to participate in the program, which helps entrepreneurs create jobs and economic opportunities by providing them with access to education, financial capital, and business support services.

Or, as Saunders describes it, “it’s like a mini MBA.”

“It’s pretty intense,” she says.

Through a combination of online training and in-person classes at Babson College in Massachusetts, Saunders is learning everything from how to create financial statements to best practices for forecasting future growth -- essentially, all the tools a small business needs to survive and thrive. She’ll complete the program in May.

Running a nonprofit like a business is a concept that resonates with Saunders. In 2017, ECHO took the $25,000 grand prize in Social Venture Partners’ Fast Pitch competition for social entrepreneurship in the Tampa Bay area. She credits ECHO’s venture into this area as one of the main reasons she was accepted into the program.

“What I’m learning is invaluable as we begin to scale our social enterprise,” she says, referring to ECHO Handmade, which serves as a back-to-work program for the nonprofit and has been in operation since 2016. “It forces you to flesh out your ideas in minute detail.”

Through ECHO Handmade, artisans are trained to create sellable products out of donated goods. The proceeds go back into ECHO’s operating budget, making them more financially independent. Their offerings range from leather cuffs to cross body bags, and Saunders notes that the new bestselling items are their tote bags made from recycled leather jackets. They’re also working with an area retailer who is interested in having ECHO’s artisans create reusable shopping bags.

Being part of the 10,000 Small Businesses program is helping Saunders prepare to navigate other new opportunities coming her way. In late May, ECHO Handmade will move into its first brick-and-mortar location on Highway 60 in Brandon. The 1,800-square-foot storefront, which was gifted to ECHO for two years, will be open Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

“Right now, our artisans and volunteers can only work a few days a week because we share one room with all of our other programs,” Saunders explains. “This is going to open up a lot of options for us.”

In addition to selling ECHO Handmade goods, the storefront will also stock donated professional women’s clothing that can be purchased by the public. Graduates of ECHO’s GED and back-to-work programs will be able to shop at the store using gift cards.

Saunders is also excited that ECHO has been approached by nonprofits in Phoenix and Miami who are interested in franchising ECHO Handmade, and she’s using some of her time at her training to work on specific plans for what that will look like.

With all the new growth at ECHO, being chosen for the 10,000 Small Businesses program couldn’t have come at a better time. And while she still doesn’t know who nominated her, she’s thrilled that they did.

“I feel so fortunate,” she says. “What a gift this has been.”

To learn more about ECHO Handmade, including how to make donations and how to commission custom pieces, visit their website by clicking here.

Read more articles by Jaymi Butler.

Jaymi Butler is a writer and editor who enjoys telling the stories of growth and innovation in the Tampa Bay Area, which she has called home since 2003. A former reporter for the Savannah Morning News, The State, and The Tampa Tribune, she has covered a variety of topics ranging from business to features to public health -- and she even got to sit in on an American Idol audition just feet away from Simon Cowell!