New Season of Business Accelerator Program Launched
By Carole Brodsky
Published in the Ukiah Daily Journal, October 6, 2021
In 2017, when Mary Anne Petrillo came on board as the CEO of the West Business Development Center, one of her first directives was to discover how to spark entrepreneurship in Mendocino Countyâ€™s rural environment.
â€œWe were keen to get business owners to pitch their ideas. With that, in 2019, we developed StartUp Mendocino â€” a business competition program that would bring individuals to us. They were trained, not only in the basics of business practices, â€œThis is not a unique concept, but it was the first time that it was offered in Mendocino County.â€
Applications for the 2022 program will be accepted until Oct. 25. The program will commence on Jan. 10, 2022 and conclude in June of 2022.
One of the most important aspects of the program is engaging the larger community. â€œWith resources so scarce, it was crucial for us to secure local investment of people, products and services â€” to get the community involved and address our communityâ€™s global needs so that participants received local support for their ideas,â€ she continues.
StartUp Mendocino is supported by a combination of businesses large and small, including the Community Foundation of Mendocino County, the Savings Bank of Mendocino County, the John and Sandra Mayfield Economic Development Fund, Adventist Health, Tri-Counties Bank, LP Financial LLC (aka Charlie Kelly) The Madrones, CafÃ© Beaujolais, and Lia Patterson at Luxe Places International Realty. The free program is also supported by the Small Business Administration and State Go-Biz funding.
â€œOur sponsors not only bring funding to the program, but really contribute knowledge and expertise. The Community Foundation launched us, and weâ€™re supported by business owners who know how hard it is to start up and wished they had the knowledge that weâ€™re providing,â€ says Petrillo.
â€œStartUp Mendocino provides a way for those with a good idea to pitch a solid business plan that could lead to some financial backing to get it started. Perhaps one of these businesses will one day become a major employer in Mendocino County,â€ notes Jim Mayfield, sponsor and owner of Rainbow, Americaâ€™s Country Store.
â€œOne of the things weâ€™ve built into the program is a third-party analysis from sponsors and through community feedback. Weâ€™ve enhanced the development of the entire project due to their insights,â€ says Laura Brooks, Director of Strategic Programs and the Program Director for StartUp Mendocino.
â€œWeâ€™ve taken that feedback and built it into the new program, which is longer and contains more support. Because of Covid, we decided to make most of the program virtual. Weâ€™ll have a safe orientation in the beginning and a celebration at the end where people get to show off their businesses,â€ Brooks explains. This program, according to Brooks, will provide more in-depth training to participants.
â€œOur first round in 2019 received 82 applications, which we narrowed down to 12 cohorts who went through the formal program,â€ says Petrillo. Five finalists presented a â€œpitchâ€ competition with the winners receiving $20,000 in prizes.
â€œOver 200 people came out for the awards event. Our keynote speaker, Isabel Guzman, was the director of GoBiz, and is now the head of the SBA,â€ says Petrillo. â€œWe were honored to have her.â€
Lama Nasser-Gammett was the winner of the 2019 StartUp competition. Her business, The Forest People, grows and sells oyster mushrooms at county farmerâ€™s markets, culinary outlets and grocers. Nasser-Gammettâ€™s business presentation for mushroom jerky resulted in a StartUp $10,000 award. Since that time, she has continued to hone her business model, and regularly sells her offerings of oyster mushrooms at the Ukiah and Boonville Farmerâ€™s Markets.
â€œIâ€™ve always had an interest in gardening and homesteading. About 10 years ago, I started learning about the role of mushrooms in our ecosystem, and decided to become friends with them,â€ she smiles. â€œWhen I met my husband, who is a farmer, we built our first mushroom house in Boise, Idaho. We moved to Mendocino County seven years ago and started our mushroom business.
At the Farmerâ€™s Market, a steady stream of regular customers and â€œnewbiesâ€ stop by to purchase Nassar-Gammettâ€™s mushrooms and microgreens, as well as shitakes and the exotic Lionâ€™s Mane mushrooms grown by her neighbor. She credits StartUp Mendocino with her ability to grow and maintain her business in a way that is manageable and profitable.
â€œStartUp Mendocino helped me hone my business branding and enhance the way I represent myself and my product,â€ she explains. â€œI knew I had a valuable idea, and the program helped to enhance my self-confidence and build viability into my long-range business model.â€ She hopes that in the future, state law will allow her to prepare her mushroom jerky without the prohibitive expense of renting or building a commercial kitchen.
The 12 selected entrepreneurs will be divided into three groups and will receive 36 hours of instructor-led training in five modules, with support and access to both city and county departments and assets as well as free publicity and community outreach for their business.
â€œWeâ€™re creating a cohort of businesses that will go through this yearâ€™s program together,â€ says Brooks. Program leaders will attend the program with the participants, and streamlined, 2-hour weekly courses will help accommodate the schedule of those working fulltime. â€œCovid taught us that if you donâ€™t have foundational elements and support of your community, itâ€™s hard to survive. Thatâ€™s what we want to bring to this yearâ€™s startup.â€
â€œThe differences in the way people have to do business in todayâ€™s world has been built into the program. There will be a focus on online outreach. Locally, our small businesses have lagged behind, and we all understand that online marketing makes it possible to do business in many new ways,â€ Brooks continues.
â€œWeâ€™re in a new, technological age in the era of Covid. You can have a storefront and have your community engaged in your product, and you can also do global marketing. Itâ€™s the combination of local and global that can make your business thrive,â€ says Petrillo. To become a StartUp Mendocino pa rticipant, applicants must be located in Mendocino County and must have one to three years working in their business. â€œApplicants have to have a license or have an employee and be able to demonstrate that they know the basics,â€ says Petrillo. â€œThis program is not for folks who have a good idea or are developing a concept. Itâ€™s open to all industries in early stage but not pre-venture, and unfortunately, because of federal funding, we are not able to serve the cannabis industry at this time.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve had a diversity of cohorts: distilleries, retailers, cybersecurity businesses, shoemakers and mushroom producers like Lama. Weâ€™re looking for age and experience in our cohorts, and we want to foster that diversity,â€ says Brooks.
Petrillo is excited about the growing opportunities for entrepreneurship that have arisen from the challenges of the pandemic.
â€œWeâ€™re seeing people who are reevaluating their lives post-Covid,â€ says Petrillo. â€œFolks are saying, â€˜I know enough now to go in another directionâ€™ and need to learn a whole new way of doing business. Weâ€™re seeing a lot of people over 50 who are deciding to work for themselves, and people who have opportunities because of the ability to operate businesses without a storefront. The importance of the entrepreneurial spirit to our local economy canâ€™t be underestimated,â€ she concludes
To apply for the program, visit the West Center application page at https://ww w.westcenter. org/startup-mendo. For questions, email Brooks at email@example.com or phone (707) 964-7571.