Entrepreneurship is a difficult path to walk. It can be lonely and is fraught with many obstacles on the way to success. Sometimes, entrepreneurs need a little “spark” to help them achieve their goals.
With the Spark! pre-accelerator program, the Venture Center and Little Rock Regional Chamber are helping to boost Arkansas startups and small businesses with a unique program that provides mentorship, subject matter expertise and face-to-face time to business leaders. Now in its second year, Spark! has transitioned to a virtual program due to the COVID-19 pandemic but still offers unprecedented access for small business owners.
Ashley Jones, managing director of community programs for the Venture Center, said the goal of the program is to provide opportunities, exposure and company growth for local entrepreneurs.
“We do this through mentorship, group sessions, and subject matter expert-led workshops. Entrepreneurship is hard and risky, so we want to provide as much support as we can to help them be successful,” she said.
Nine Arkansas startups are participating in the 2020 Spark! program, which started Sept. 15 and runs through Nov. 18. To participate in the program, individuals were required to be full-time startup founders or CEOs with companies that have annual revenue of $25,000 to $100,000. Each company must have been operating between one and five years.
During the program, the founders and CEOs learn a range of skills essential to business success, including pitching, media skills and more. These skills will come in handy when they have a chance to pitch at the Venture Center’s annual Pitch ‘N Pint event on Nov. 17.
Launched in 2019, Spark! underwent significant changes for its second edition due to unforeseeable circumstances. In the first program, each participant received office space at the Venture Center’s Little Rock Tech Park offices. This was rendered impractical in 2020, and the Venture Center and Little Rock Chamber quickly pivoted to a virtual format. While the startup founders have missed out on the face time, they still receive all the benefits of the training and instruction the program offers.
“While COVID-19 has done away with all of the ‘in-person’ aspects of this program, the value and benefits of the program remain the same. The addition of unlimited virtual mentorship with our online community of mentors has been of great value to this newest Spark! cohort,” Jones said. “Participants of the Spark! program receive unlimited mentorship via our mentorship platform, Union, weekly subject matter expert-led workshops, marketing assets, pitch help, the opportunity to participate in an upcoming pitch event and several other benefits.”
Jones sees Spark! as a flagship program for both the Venture Center and the Little Rock Chamber that has room to grow in the coming years.
“We want Spark! to be the program entrepreneurs think of when they need help reaching that next level of growth! We look forward to continuing our efforts and adapting this program to meet the needs of the entrepreneurs we serve,” she said.
Here’s a look at the 2020 Spark! Startups:
Educational Research and Consulting
Little Rock-based Educational Research and Consulting provides social science research, program evaluation and educational support services to nonprofits, federal and state agencies and private organizations. After graduating from Vanderbilt in 2007 with a doctorate in language and literacy studies, Cynthia Hansberry Williams wanted to pursue research in the Little Rock area and began consulting. She ended up creating her own job space when she founded Educational Research and Consulting in 2010, forming an LLC/PLLC in 2011.
“My small business provides opportunities for me to express my research creativity while creating a meaningful job in my community,” she said.
Hello Beautiful Mastectomy Boutique
Jamie Washington wants women to feel beautiful during a difficult time. She established Hello Beautiful Mastectomy Boutique in 2017 to provide breast prosthetics, including mastectomy bras, breast forms and other accessories to women following mastectomies, lumpectomies or breast reconstructions.
“Women go through a lot during their battle with breast cancer, and I wanted Hello Beautiful to be a place of refuge, a place where women can indulge in self-care and healing in an all-inclusive, relaxing and nonclinical environment.,” Washington said.
She plans to expand her business with lessons from Spark! by launching Sip ‘N Pretty, a juice bar with nutrition services for breast cancer patients and survivors.
House of Colby
House of Colby aims to rebrand high fashion in the South while exerting an influence on worldwide fashion. Colby C. Butler launched the company in 2015 as a way of providing an exclusive, tailor-made experience for customers. According to Butler, House of Colby offers something rare in fashion: products that are unique and high-quality while still affordable.
In the short term, Butler looks to create a ready-to-wear line of clothing that can be mass produced, but his long-term ambition is to turn his Little Rock company into a global fashion brand.
K Scott Consults LLC
Companies must remain in compliance with a range of regulations and laws to reduce the likelihood of accidents, fatalities and governmental penalties. K Scott Consults LLC, a loss-control regulatory compliance consulting company, helps employers by providing expert compliance guidance.
Keneasha Scott founded the firm in 2014 after serving as a loss prevention and safety administrator for eight years; she became a consultant afterwards, starting her own company. Participating in Spark! is a way of learning strategies to grow her consulting business.
“Usually, being the compliance consultant, I am the one who is contacted for subject matter expert, so I am really excited and looking forward to being imparted into by those with more knowledge and experience,” she said.
My Water Buddy and Family Inc.
Promoting the benefits of drinking water and other healthy behaviors for children is the goal of My Water Buddy and Family Inc. This North Little Rock-based “edutainment” company seeks to entertain and educate children on the importance of water and its impact on their lives, the environment and beyond.
Michele R. Wright founded the company in 2018, looking to improve children’s health and well-being outcomes. The Spark! program, she said, is a critical part of this mission, providing critical lessons in creating a scalable and profitable business.
“This company was started with a purpose to bring global awareness of the importance of water to the extended family of all living species, the Earth and the environment to promote the health benefits of drinking the recommended daily intake of water. It has now involved into an ‘edutainment’ platform that focuses on health and education,” Wright said.
Not every company is equipped to deal with human resource matters. That’s where RampUp comes in. This Little Rock company, co-founded by Lisa Carver and Becky Parkerson, is a one-stop human resources firm.
“We founded RampUp because startups and small businesses often do not have dedicated human resource professionals. But they typically need assistance with HR basics, employee relations, legal compliance and organizational culture,” Carver said.
Carver and Parkerson are hoping to take RampUp to the next level with Spark! and become an established virtual human resources provider across Arkansas over the next year. The company’s goal is to expand regionally and nationally within the next three years.
Sisters and Suitcases
Founded in 2016, Sisters and Suitcases is a boutique travel company that provides a community for women of color and expands their horizons through travel. Tamaya Walker McClendon established the company, which is based in Little Rock, to empower women to travel and to support women-owned businesses through her company’s itineraries. She launched Sisters and Suitcases after a solo trip to Italy and realized that she was broadening her life with each activity and experience she had.
“Sisters and Suitcases was created as an effort to inspire and empower women through the essence of travel; from the journey to the curated experience that leads to self-discovery and new connections,” she said.
Staley House LLC
With FreeArm, Staley House LLC is providing a helping hand with tube feeding and IV infusions. Based in Helena, Staley House was founded in 2018 by Misti Staley. The FreeArm is capable of holding syringe gravity feeds, pump and bag feeds and IV infusions and features a clamp that can attach to flat and rounded surfaces. She was inspired to start the business by her son, Freeman. He needed tube feeding before passing away at almost 10 months in 2016.
FreeArm is a way of spreading Freeman’s “love to tubies around the world,” Staley said. With Spark!, Staley hopes to gain additional expertise to increase the impact that FreeArm can have.
“We have been in their shoes and want to take everything that we learned through our son Freeman to make medically complex lives easier,” she said.
Joel Pumphrey is planning to shake up the heat and air industry in Central Arkansas. He launched Pumpfreeze Heat-N-Air LLC, which installs, maintains and repairs HVAC equipment, to provide a new alternative for homeowners. One of the biggest issues, he said, facing homeowners is the cost of repairs or replacing old equipment. To help grow his business, he signed up for the Spark! program, “to get a better view of the opportunities I have in my profession, to get a spark of how to better grow my business successfully, to get ideas [and] to broaden my horizon.”