The East Room at the Clarkston Community Center was crowded with Clarkston community leaders seated at eleven tables, each with yellow cards displaying their names and the organization they represented. Their excitement and eagerness to help was palpable.
A group of local entrepreneurs gathered together at two tables of their own. The entrepreneurs were encouraged to sign up for any one of four fifteen-minute timeslots allotted each of the organizations present. In the hour that followed, these aspiring business owners would circulate and question the very people whose knowledge would help their business succeed.
These fifteen promising local entrepreneurs had been selected to take part in the VilCap Start Business Accelerator, which kicked off this month. Now, and every Wednesday evening for fourteen weeks, the entrepreneurs will attend sessions designed to connect them with the people and information they need to make their businesses successful.
The entrepreneurs were the guests of honor at tonight’s event, called Getting to Know Clarkston. Held on Wednesday, Feb. 13, it was the third session in a series of fourteen, culminating with the selection of three businesses to receive $10,000 low-interest capital loans. Available at this session were representatives of the city, local financial institutions and organizations, and fellow Clarkston business owners.
Debi Taylor, a manager at the Georgia United Credit Union, was one of those who helped select these fifteen entrepreneurs. She said that VilCap Start had narrowed down from a field of 64 initial applicants, and that they chose these entrepreneurs by determining which businesses would ultimately help build a thriving community in Clarkston. “We tried to select businesses that there was a need for,” she said.
Financial institutions were represented, including Georgia United, Hope Credit Counseling, Atlanta Prosperity, and Kozak Consulting. Established local business owners attended as well, including the managers of the Global Pharmacy and Shewit Eritrean Restaurant. Five City of Clarkston staff members attended, as did Mayor Emanuel Ransom. Local organizations including Refugee Family Services, the Refugee Women’s Network, the Clarkston Community Center, and CDF were also represented.
The entrepreneurs selected for the program represent a number of different kinds of businesses. One is a basket-making business called Bhutan Baskets, another is a language interpretation service called International Culture and Language Service. Among others, there is also a jewelry-maker, a mobile spa and beauty salon, a security consultancy service, and a flower business.
Tila Dulal and Andy Park assist with the Bhutan Basket business, selling woven baskets made from kudzu, an invasive plant species found in the area. With the advantage of no overhead costs, they said that the business is growing and they are reaching more and more customers.
They said they hoped to create more structure for their organization through participation in the business accelerator program and pass leadership along to the Bhutanese refugees who make the baskets.
“Our only goal is to meet people who are successful themselves and take a lesson from them,” said Dulal.
Ellen Williams, from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, helped organize the Getting to Know Clarkston session. She said that what was most remarkable about the event was the amount of support these aspiring business owners were receiving.
“In that room, the entrepreneurs are outnumbered 3 to 1,” she said. “That’s what’s so special. In here, everyone has a vested interest in their success.”
Each of the 14 sessions will have a different theme. The next session, on Wednesday, Feb. 20th, will include customer focus groups. The business owners will display their goods and ask customers for reactions and feedback.
The VilCap Start program is a collaboration among Clarkston Development Foundation (CDF) and Social Enterprise @ Goizueta (Emory University School of Business), Village Capital, Refugee Women’s Network, and the Clarkston Community Center.