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August 2021 Amber Grant Awarded to AIM Professional Engineers

Tuesday, September 21st, 2021

We’re delighted to announce the $10,000 August Amber Grant recipient. Congratulations to Donya Amiri, Founder of AIM Professional Engineers.

Donya is the ninth qualifier for the 2021 year-end Amber Grant ($25,000).

Recently, WomensNet Advisory Board member Marcia Layton Turner sat down with Donya for an exclusive interview. You can listen to their conversation and view the transcript below.

WomensNet: Welcome everyone to a chat with our latest Amber Grant winner. Today, we’re speaking with Donya Amiri, Founder of AIM Professional Engineers. She is our Amber Grant winner for August, 2021. I’m Marcia Layton Turner. And I’m on the Advisory Board for WomensNet, who gives the Amber Grant. So, Donya, let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your business, why you started it and the services you’re providing.

Donya: I’d like to first of all say thank you to WomensNet for this generous grant. And it’s so special because of its meaning and the legacy we’re trying to carry by using these funds to start up. So again, thank you so much. It’s such an honor to be here.

A little bit about AIM Professional Engineers. AIM is a startup actually, so it’s very, very beginning setup phase. My goal is to run a business that is giving back to the community through services of civil engineering and traffic engineering. AIM is named after my three children and order of birth. It just really symbolizes a lot of the goals that I have for the company, which is aiming for greatness in being straightforward and honest and transparent. Really, civil engineering is an ancient form of engineering. And it’s an honor to have the ability to serve our community through civil services.

Civil engineering typically works with government jurisdictions, municipalities, county, and state. And so civil engineering is everything, including our roads, our storm drain system, our sewer system, our transportation system, our communication network and bridges/dams, (etc.). So it’s really everything around us. We just don’t realize it until you’re in the industry and you’re working in it. We’re serving to improve it and to maintain the systems. My desire to open AIM is really deep rooted in me because I’m actually an immigrant from Afghanistan. I fled my country to safety during Soviet War.

I started second grade in the city of Fremont. When I earned my engineering degrees and licenses, it was an honor to serve the city of Fremont where I grew up. And so most of my career has been serving a community that I lived in. And I really believe in that philosophy that while maybe you feel like you can’t save the world, it’s a lot easier or more manageable if you just shrink it down to your own circle, your own community, your neighborhood. That was basically my reason for opening this business; that I love serving my community. I love giving back. I love that. I had the privilege to be educated and have the knowledge and the passion to want to continue to give. It’s just different because as a city employee, I had a lot of resources and great teams and great colleagues and mentors. And stepping back from that to run it as a small consulting firm seems a little challenging, but with amazing women like WomensNet and some of the other resources I’ll talk about later, that helped me get started. It’s incredible because the way I want to give back to my community, there are actually agencies and groups that want to help women or want to help startups. So it’s not impossible. And, honestly the pandemic had a lot to do with why I started the business. I am truly dedicated to serving the community.

So no matter what, and I love being a civil engineer and a traffic engineer, no matter what, it’s a part of me. And having three young children at home with distance learning… my husband was taking his calls. I was taking my calls. We’re all stuck in a small house. And I thought I was failing as a mom, and probably other things too. When your job has to do with safety and the public health, you just can’t compromise. So I basically was focusing very heavily on my work. I came to a point that a decision had to be made. And the best decision for me was to open a business where I can continue giving and doing what I love so much.

WomensNet: Let’s talk about what you’ve been doing to get started and understand that there’s a big shift in mindset when you go from employee to entrepreneur. I’m sure that’s part of the challenge, but what have you started to do to an official business?

Donya: For me, it was a lot of visualization. I’m a very visual person. I close my eyes and I think about something exactly to the finest detail. And I meditate around that. I could give you a story of how I actually started my degree as a business management student and went through almost the entire degree of my graduating semester. I thought, I don’t know how I can give back to the world as a business management person, but I know that I want to give back; I want a job that is fulfilling for me. But what can I do? I’m about to graduate. And it meant a lot to my family because I was the first person to be in college.

They were very anxious to get me out and I was excited to come out and graduate and I would just sit outside the engineering building and stare at people. And I was amazed and I’m like, ‘oh my God, these are like the brilliant people on our campus.’ Look at them and our student union based engineering building. So just sit and just people watch. And I then just close my eyes and I said, ‘what would it feel like if I walked through those doors or I walked outside with a group of friends talking about a problem, or a homework assignment or something.  So visualizing that this is the kind of future you want for yourself. It’s very much a mental exercise. And you don’t need funds for that.

Maybe you need books to guide you through, but definitely visualizing what it is that you really want more specifically, the better. Because then you will be amazed about how things kind of fall into place, whether you intended it, or you didn’t intend for it to fall into place. I had my husband’s support and he’s like, ‘you should take a few months to just reset. This is a really big decision. Just see if you want a summer off with the kids, or do you want to look for another opportunity that’s closer to home and would have a better work-life balance.’ So I didn’t have the stress of working and thinking [about the future]. I did take a little bit of time just to kind of clear my mind. And honestly, it was a lot of research, just getting on and just starting again.

I believe in local. So I looked up things around my own city. I looked up what’s out there for small businesses. How does a woman start a business? What does an engineering company look like outside? And I was amazed. I was amazed about how many different companies or organizations are out there, government organizations and companies, groups like you guys that are not run by the government or agencies like Small Business Administration. There are people that are cheering you on the minute you’re ready. And that’s the biggest thing that I learned. You’re not alone and that there are a lot of amazing people out there that really thrive on helping you. The excitement and joy that I received from literally strangers in the last four or five months has been amazing. And I feel that way for what I do as a person and as a professional, but it’s been very fulfilling to see that in return.

So I signed up for a few classes, like Starting your Business one-on-one or How to Do Your Books, or What is Marketing/ Branding? And I mean, these are just 30 minutes lunch hour classes. So this isn’t giving you everything, but I just jotted down different things and I’m very much a person that likes to share. So the minute I learned something, I have a couple of friends who are exploring different things. I’m like, ‘you guys have to come right now. We’re all signing up for this class together. We’re all going to take it together.’

It’s just a bunch of checklists. You need to get your LLC or an Inc or a sole proprietorship. And then you need your EIN number. In my case, I’m working from home until hopefully I have the money, or I get projects enough where I could step away from the home and open an actual office. So don’t be overwhelmed, but there are things out there that will guide you in terms of just making a little checklist for the week or a day. And if anyone’s interested, I’m more than happy to talk to them, even offline. But honestly, it’s been a four month journey. So again, I’m so honored to be here because a lot of this just took place within the last four to five months for me.

WomensNet: You mentioned telling friends about the Amber Grant. How did you originally find out about it and what made you decide to apply?

Donya: I know that I had so many resources being a city employee. When you’re not there, it all belongs to the city. I have no resources besides the laptop and my phone. And to run an engineering firm, you need some basic technology, advanced engineering software, and there’s equipment for safety in the field. And there’s engineering-based basic necessities that I don’t own on my own. And so during a conversation with someone at the SBA who helps identify grants and funding opportunities, I scheduled a meeting and I asked her [about opportunities]. She pretty much said, there’s not a lot out there right now, because they’re focused on businesses that were impacted by COVID. But then she spoke so highly of the Amber Grant.

I said, oh, I’m an engineer company. I think maybe they like other types of services, like maybe baking, restaurants… and she said, no, you should just give it a shot. And I did, I just applied, as soon as they got off the call. I went on your website and I actually wrote from the heart and I pressed send. And then I was like, oh my God, I could have written that a little bit better… organized it better. Oh my God. But I was excited. And so I’m honored because I could see that you guys made it really easy to apply. I think you basically have two questions to ask, right? That was about your business and what would you do with the money.

WomensNet: Now that you won, what are your plans for spending the $10,000?

Donya: Engineering software that our licenses [require]… it’s just really advanced engineering software technology. And like I mentioned earlier, just safety equipment and gear to provide the basic services. So for traffic engineering, there’s a suite of things needed for the field, like count traffic counting. And then for drafting and plotting purposes, there’s things, at a minimum, very minimum, that an office should have of providing solution services. So the initial investment will go through getting me the equipment I need to do the work.

As you noticed, I didn’t have a website set-up, so I’d like to do that as well.

WomensNet: Where do you see yourself in say three to five years? What are your plans for growth?

Donya: Yeah, I am very excited. Because the way I see the company, there’s definitely a need for civil and traffic engineers. I think all of us, the minute you get in your car, I think all of us, they were dropping engineers. A few of us are actually traffic engineers, but you notice and recognize the need for efficiency, for safety, for visibility, for things to fall into place where you’re just like, well, I’m getting my timing correct. Or what sidewalk is the right size for me, or I’m able to see the street when I’m riding my bike at night, or I have a lane for myself. So the demand, especially in California, I think around the world is great. So that’s exciting. I have really, really big dreams.

My future plans is to expand and get help, for starters. Hire some passionate, excited engineers who are really service driven, because I imagine our clientele being cities and counties from the state of California. But also private developers who were just really trying to expedite affordable housing in California, and housing for the unsheltered. There’s such a huge demand and need for improvements to our infrastructure.

Besides hiring great help, it would be getting an office space to put people in, and definitely at least, some trucks, some equipment to go to the field construction zone.

WomensNet: Do you have any advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?

Donya: Definitely. Success is really a mindset, and how we measure success and what we think of our abilities literally lives in our head. My advice to women entrepreneurs would be — like I mentioned before — to first visualize success, Secondly, for me definitely, it’s taken an entire village for almost 40 years to get me here. And my success is not even mine alone. It’s not even a secret. Everyone that has helped me get to this point. It is their success as well. Everyone, starting with where I came from and that drive to give back to my community and helping a war torn country like Afghanistan and my mom and her hard days as a single mom. Then just all my friends and my teachers, elementary school teachers, college professors, mentors, whether they knew it or they didn’t. I’ve embraced everyone around me.

And I’m always eyes and ears because we’re all growing and nobody’s perfect. And if you have a tip like ‘everyone go and apply for Amber Grant.’ It’s because the more you give the more you’ll get back as well. And it’s just a very natural cycle for me. And so my tip would be to believe in yourself, and be patient. I didn’t finish the story about how I started as a business student because I knew one day I wanted to open a business. I was almost about to graduate only to realize that I don’t know what I’m going to do with the business degree. I never imagined being a civil engineer or an engineering student. I thought it was very intimidating. I thought I was not good at math and physics or calculus.

I actually did it faster than I expected to do it. I managed to get through the degrees, but also worked 15 years that I did not think I was going to do to now at this stage of my life, be ready to bring that desire. And at the time when it’s right for me. So it’s just like it manifested itself. The COVID pandemic had a lot to do with it, definitely becoming a mom or having three young children. But, it’s not done overnight. And that’s what I just wanted to emphasize… that I have counted on my entire village, their words of motivation, their encouragement, believing in me, including you guys at WomensNet. If you have some setbacks, just embrace it and definitely surround yourself with people that make you feel amazing.

Anyone else who doesn’t, it’s okay. You know, maybe you can help them, but when you need that juice to kind of push you forward, and if you have nobody, then find books, find audio books. That’s been my go-to. That’s my spot. I just find amazing authors who can talk to me. Like you have Marcia, actually. So it’s a great world. There’s a lot of people out there to help you and just take one step and go to the next. Don’t be overwhelmed by the entire process.

July 2021 Amber Grant Awarded to 212 Junk Removal

Monday, August 23rd, 2021

We’re delighted to announce the $10,000 July Amber Grant recipient. Congratulations to Danell Eklund, Owner of 212 Junk Removal.

Danell is the eighth qualifier for the 2021 year-end Amber Grant ($25,000).

Recently, WomensNet Advisory Board member Marcia Layton Turner sat down with Danell for an exclusive interview. You can listen to their conversation and view the transcript below.

WomensNet: Welcome everyone to a chat with our latest Amber Grant winner. Today, we’re speaking with Danell Eklund, President of 212 Junk Removal Services, who is the Amber Grant winner for July, 2021.

I’m Marcia Layton Turner. And I’m on the Advisory Board for WomensNet.

So Danell, let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about your business, why you started it and what kind of services you provide.

Danell: Sure. Well, first, before we get into all that, I just want to say thanks to WomensNet. This is going to be a game changer, not only for my business, but for my family. There’s not enough words to express the gratitude that I’m feeling. So thank you, WomensNet.

On to 212 Junk Removal Services… This business was originally started when I had lost my husband in an accident. That was where it kind of all began for me. At that point in time, I didn’t have any type of formal education. I had a GED. I had very little professional experience in the job field. I had three mounds to feed at that time. I really didn’t know where I was going to go or what I was going to do.

How are we going to survive? How are we going to pay our bills? And we needed to formulate a plan to sustain ourselves. So what I ended up doing was enrolling in school. I took on a job where I worked at a senior living home and took classes on the side. And I worked my way all through a master’s degree.

So I received my MBA. It was hard work. It was fun. We learned a lot as a family. We actually grew so much — it was really chaotic in the beginning trying to get all the schedules and the flow and everything like that. But once we got it ironed out, it was so neat. We really were like with this finely oiled machine.

So we moved on from that MBA. And I knew that I wanted to start a business. Every business I looked at starting, really there was so much cost involved in starting these businesses and it was money I didn’t have. And it was money that I certainly didn’t want to put myself in the red on. I didn’t want to take out loans for it. It was certainly an option. But it wasn’t something that I wanted to do.

WomensNet: I think it’s so interesting that you decided you wanted to start a business. Why did you to do that versus being an employee? What was the thought process there?

Danell: I was single parenting with three kids. One of them being a special needs child. She does have autism. There were a lot of meetings, a lot of appointments, a lot of sports events — things like that. A traditional nine to five job did not fit into that at all. I couldn’t be in all of these places at one time.

So it was almost pertinent for me to find something that I could fit into that lifestyle for us. And the only thing that I could think of to make that work would be to start my own business — to have my own flow of income and to dictate my own schedule. So I continued to work with the senior living home as I investigated different options. And again, I had really evaluated different scenarios and found that the businesses that I thought I could start would be taking so much of a financial strain on my family. It just was not possible. And one day I had just been sitting there and I had seen one of those large trucks come by; they say 1-800-GOT-JUNK on them. They’re really big.

And I thought, well, most businesses have a smaller-type business associated with them. I thought there’s gotta be something out there with these businesses. And it was more just entertainment for me as I was on my break, starting to scroll about junk hauling. And I had stumbled upon the facts that there are independent haulers across the United States, not just a few, but thousands of them across the states. And, as I got into it a little bit more, I had realized that the field is dominated by males. It’s hard work, it’s dirty work. So it’s not easy, but it’s fun at the same time, so don’t get me wrong there.

My first reaction to that and to finding all of that information was: is this something I could really do, physically? Well, I did grow up on a farm as a kid and I’ve thrown a lot of hay bales and I picked a lot of rocks out of fields and I had always been quite a physically strong person. And so I thought, you know what? I think that there’s a good possibility I could. I could take that on. And what I did realize with more investigation was that most of these hollers had started with such minimal equipment. In fact I had a utility trailer and an SUV with a hitch to hook it up to, and I already had these things in my possession, which meant that I did not have to take out any loans.

I didn’t need to invest money into that equipment. And I thought, I know I’m strong and I’m tenacious. I ended up doing a little bit of market research in my area to see if there was a need for the business. First of all. And what I ended up doing was placing some ads on [Facebook] Marketplace to see if there was any bites for it initially. And there were quite a few in my area.

I’m the only person that does it.

I realized an interesting trend with that research. And that was that about 76% of the folks that contacted me were women. And it made sense. It made sense that that’s the demographic that would probably need these services the most. And so I kind of knew from there.

What I’m finding out with this, with this is that women happen to be in charge of the households. And so they are the ones that are predominantly making these calls and getting rid of this stuff. It seems as though I get a lot of calls saying, ‘you know, they just want to go of it, my husband, or my significant other, they just won’t let go of it. And so I’m just going to need to get rid of it.’ And so I’m finding that a lot of the people that I deal with are women. And so making those final calls and cutting those strings is what they’re doing. So that’s fun. I’m always obliged to help that. I was able to spot market trends easily, by doing just that minimal research. And so ultimately I did end up start starting to place several free ads on marketplace and began getting calls. So that is pretty much how 212 Junk Removal was born here in Minnesota.

WomensNet: And how long ago did you start the business?

Danell: The research was started last fall. The business started this spring. I felt pretty prepared when I started this spring and the reason for the spring was, you know, Minnesota does that Minnesota cool. And we get pretty cold; people kind of go dormant a little bit during that time. And that was not the time that I wanted to launch the business. I knew I would have more success launching it in the spring and then going into the following winter, which we’re coming upon, you know, being able to sustain the business through that winter, having been through the spring already and the summer and the fall.

WomensNet: I think it’s so amazing that you were able to get started without any investment in new equipment and then using a marketing technique that is essentially free. So, from the start financially, I think you really set yourself up really well. So let’s talk about what’s happened in the last few months. What kind of results are you seeing already and how has the business grown?

Danell: Well, I think one of the neatest things that I’m starting to see is repeat customers. In my mind, that’s a sign of success. That is so neat. I’m really liking that. I’m starting to see a lot of recommendations come through from customers. So that’s also, in my mind, a point of success. I also gauge success a little bit differently. It’s not always monetary to me. We’ve had a lot of success as far as recycling. So I consider that a success as well. For example, in July, we recycled over two tons of metal. We recycled about 200 pounds of cardboard. So that was another big win. And for the month, we donated hundreds of pounds worth of home goods to different organizations. We recycled 55 tires, and tires are actually a big one that we find in Minnesota.

They’re a big source of illegal dumping. People will throw them in the ditches, they’ll throw them in the waterways. And that’s a little bit discouraging. They do foster illness here in Minnesota. They are a breeding ground for rodents and insects like mosquitoes. So we donate the tires to a recycling center where they use them in the making of asphalt, or in playground material, things like that. So that’s pretty cool. I consider those successes along with the repeat business. That is one of the reasons that I do this; to make sure that we’re creating a sustainable future for everybody, including, and hopefully, my grandchildren one day.

WomensNet: What do you think has been the secret to getting this repeat business? Because clearly you’re doing something right if your clients are referring other people. So, what’s the secret there?

Danell: I like to use the golden rule, in my personal life and my professional life. Do unto others as you would like them to do onto you. I’ve always incorporated that into most things that I do and it’s never failed me. It literally has never failed me. And I know that sounds so simple and so easy for it to work perfectly, but that is literally what I do, literally what I do.

WomensNet: So how did you originally hear about the Amber Grant, and what made you decide to apply?

Danell: I had been Googling different sorts of grants. I hadn’t been set on the fact that I was going to apply for any type of grant. I had been able to start my business with a relatively low investment for myself. I set up a website, business cards and things like that that. But outside of that, you know, it was a very low cost startup. And I wasn’t exactly sure if I was going to apply for the grant. I knew I wanted to expand the business a little bit and I had come across the Amber Grant and I thought this is really such a neat organization. And I held onto the information about a month as I kind of toddled around with it and thought, you know, I think I will apply. So I had looked at it in June and then at the end of July, I thought I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it. I’m gonna apply for it. I was really reluctant to apply for it. I had watched the videos and there are doctors who have received the grants and there are bakers that have received the grants… and I’m a junk hauler. I get dirty every day. I’m a simple person and I thought there’s no way. And lo and behold, here I am.

WomensNet: What are your plans for how you’re gonna use the $10,000 to grow the business? Are there some things that you’re planning on investing in right away?

Danell: Yes, absolutely. I will be upgrading my equipment. The equipment that I have now requires me to handle the waste multiple times in order to get it to where it’s going. The equipment that I will be able to purchase now will allow me to actually dump the equipment once I get to the waste transfer fulfillment facility, which is great. It’s so much more efficient.

Not only that, [but] it’s going to be bigger, meaning I can take on more. You know, it’s such a limiting thing when you can only take so much out at a time. And so this is huge. This is huge for the business. It’s amazing.

Another investment will be into additional advertisement, which thus far has been primarily low cost. This is going to enable me to put a little bit more money towards advertising and SEO. So, I’ll be able to drive more people towards my website. All around this money is going to be utilized to just really make the business boom, and I am so excited for it. It’s such a great opportunity.

WomensNet: What are some future plans that you might have for the company? Are you going to expand geographically?

Danell: Yes, absolutely. Ideally I would love to get nationwide one day. Ideally I would love to be there in the next five years. I will settle for adding to the fleet and adding teams into the fleet. And so having employees, and what that would mean for me is probably a little bit different of a role for the business. It would take me mostly out of the field and put me in the capacity of an office worker, which, a few years down the road after doing this, perhaps I’ll be ready for that transition. I’ll probably be behind a desk at that point, but it’ll be more lucrative with multiple teams running at that point. So that’s my five-year plan — to have at least three teams going by that time.

WomensNet: Based on your success so far, do you have any advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs? The WomensNet community is full of both aspiring and current entrepreneurs, so any tips or advice you’d offer them?

Danell: Don’t box yourself into one idea. And don’t ever forget to celebrate the good times; celebrate the triumphs and don’t hold onto the tribulations when they happen. When they do happen, just keep your head up.

June 2021 Amber Grant Awarded to Revival Direct Primary Care

Monday, July 19th, 2021

We’re thrilled to announce the $10,000 June Amber Grant recipient. Congratulations to Christina Doll, Founder of Revival Direct Primary Care.

Christina is the seventh qualifier for the 2021 year-end Amber Grant ($25,000).

Recently, WomensNet Advisory Board member Marcia Layton Turner sat down with Christina for an exclusive interview. You can listen to their conversation and view the transcript below.

WomensNet: Welcome, everyone, to a chat with our latest Amber Grant winner. Today, we’re speaking with Dr. Christina Doll of Revival Direct Primary Care, who’s the Amber Grant winner for June, 2021. I’m Marcia Layton Turner. And I’m on the Advisory Board for WomensNet. So Christina, why don’t we start by just having you tell us about your business and why you started it.

Christina: Before I even do that, I just want to take a minute to really say thank you for this really incredible opportunity. I was so thrilled when I found out I was the June recipient of the Amber Grant. My heart leapt out of my chest when I got the news. I’m just so grateful for what this program is doing for women like me. So thank you, first and foremost.

My journey to becoming an entrepreneur and building this practice really began back in early 2020. I was at that time preparing to return to work after maternity leave. I had, unfortunately, a really complicated pregnancy and was quite ill. I ended up needing to be on an IV for fluids and medicine for 30 weeks straight. So I was much too sick to see patients and had taken some time away from work. But I had finally had my baby…a beautiful baby girl… and was starting to feel better and get really excited about returning to work and kind of coming out of that fourth trimester haze that I think all moms know well. Unfortunately just as I was preparing to come back to work, coronavirus started to show up in my town and of course all across the country.

And although in the news, what we really heard were stories about high demand for healthcare workers — particularly really early in the pandemic — at the same time there was this other impact of COVID happening. Healthcare workers were being put on leave and furloughed and fired, all across the country because of decreased patient visits. So things like preventive care, routine physicals… they just weren’t happening. People were staying home. Ultimately, a lot of healthcare workers were finding themselves in this position where they weren’t needed, and shockingly and sadly, that’s what I experienced firsthand. I found myself in this position where I was asking, ‘Do ride this out and kind of see if a spot opens back up for me. Or do I muster up some courage and make a change?’

For many reasons, I decided to take a leap. I think it was really important for me to get back into caring for patients. I was watching this medical crisis unfold and of course wanted to do anything I could to help. And on a very basic level, I needed an income. So I decided to go for it. Starting a practice was something that I had been dreaming of for years and years and years, but I had always told myself that it was too far out of reach. You know, I would tell myself I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have formal business training. I didn’t have sort of this panel of patients ready to support a new practice. And it all just felt like an enormous risk, I guess.

You don’t really see too many doctors these days going out and kind of hanging a shingle like people used to, because it’s a really competitive environment. It’s pretty intimidating to do that. And on top of that, like so many other parents during COVID, I lost all my childcare options. So I knew that whatever move I made, I would be making with my newborn and my toddler in tow. That was really overwhelming and pretty scary. But having that experience with my prior position, kind of being put on hold due to COVID, showed me that even an employed position was no guarantee. And it kinda gave me that little push to take a risk and be brave. I knew that if I was going to go it alone, I needed to do something different and bring something new to the table.

I wanted to set myself apart from the hospital system owned insurance-based practices that I think all of us are used to. So what I did was I started thinking about: what is it that I look for when I look for a doctor? What do I want for my own family? And I really asked anyone who would listen and talk to me, what do you look for? What do you wish you could find in primary care? And then I got to work building that. I envisioned a practice that was really affordable, accessible… a little bit old school in style. So not so rushed, a little bit slower and intentional, but still modern. So I chose a practice model called direct primary care. That’s why I’m Revival Direct Primary Care.

It’s sort of a newer, innovative approach to healthcare that challenges this whole concept of assembly line medicine..and instead, really puts an emphasis back on the doctor-patient relationship. So what sets direct primary care practices apart is that we do not require or bill through insurance at all. The reason for that is insurance dictated healthcare comes with a lot of baggage — really opaque billing. That’s hard for families. People have high copays, surprise medical bills. There’s a lot of paperwork, administrative burden and costs associated with that…and long wait times, just for very short, rushed visits (I’m sure every patient has been through that). And a lot of that is really not at the hands of doctors or nurses, but really an insurance issue. So what direct primary care does is it tries to sort of remove that insurance middleman, to improve patient access and give people a more personal primary care experience, while also saving them a lot of money.

The way we work is that we use a monthly membership fee with completely transparent pricing. So a flat, affordable monthly membership fee covers pretty much everything I do at the office. Everything from routine physicals, preventive care, chronic care like diabetes, hypertension, sick visits, illness, injury, even things like procedures — all of that is included in that membership fee. What that means for patients is they have predictable healthcare costs that they can budget for just like a gym membership or Netflix or anything that’s a membership. They’re not getting those surprise bills and it also is giving them this access. They can call me or text me or email me and they know me and I know them. And then from my perspective, it means I can see fewer patients. I can sit with them longer, and be a little bit more intentional in my visits and spend my time listening and looking them in the eyes instead of checking boxes and running room to room. It’s really something that benefits both doctors and patients.

WomensNet: You mentioned the monthly membership. It really is line with a gym membership, right? What is that typical monthly fee per person?

Christina: Most direct primary care practices mine included use age-based tiers. Mine is based on age, and we’re talking anywhere from $50 a month to a hundred dollars a month. Comparable to a cell phone bill or a gym membership or something like that. The goal is to support the practice, but really to make it as affordable for patients as possible. And we also do things to save patients money. I dispense medication straight from the office at wholesale prices, so people don’t have to go to the pharmacy and pay those markups. We’ve got discounted pricing on labs and imaging for sort of direct pay. So we really try to be as thoughtful as we can about money for our patients.

WomensNet: I know that you’re in the early stages and I’m really impressed with the amount of market research that you did as part of this process. So where are you now? What kind of results have you seen as you are in this startup phase?

Christina: I think the scariest thing when you are starting a new business is hitting launch — making your website live and sharing it with people. And I actually kept this business really close to me. I did not tell many people for quite a long time, because I was nervous. You want to present it to the world beautifully and perfectly. But when I finally did share, the response was really incredible. Within just a few hours of launching my website, I had inquiries coming through for people wanting meet and greets to join. I will say the biggest resources was other women. I talked to moms — women do so much of the healthcare thinking for their families; the planning and the thinking. I’ve been so lucky to really have a community of moms kind of come around the practice and support it, which is wonderful.

WomensNet: What do you think has been the secret to your success thus far? It sounds like perhaps connecting with other moms has been a big piece. Is there something else you think that’s contributed?

Christina: The special sauce is just being authentic and believing in what I’m building. I’m a mom, I have two young kids. I’ve got a four-year-old and a one-year-old, and I know how challenging and kind of awful it can be to navigate the healthcare system. Even just to go to a doctor’s visit can be very stressful. So when I think about my practice, I have tried to think about it from the perspective of a parent, what can I do to make it easier, more convenient, heaven forbid more pleasant to go to the doctors. And I think that looking at things through that lens has really been helpful. And yes, I think a focus on motherhood and parenthood as a family doctor is really important. I started to offer things like newborn home visits, so that moms who have just given birth don’t have to pack up their belongings, their babies, the diaper bag, and come to the office… just doing things to make it more comfortable for people.

WomensNet: How did you originally hear about the Amber Grant, and then what made you decide to apply?

Christina: I found the Amber Grant on Google. I had been out of work for a while when I started the business. So I was not in a place to spend a lot of money. And like most physicians who have put themselves through undergraduate and medical school, I’ve got a lot of student loans on my back. So I did not want to take out another loan for the business. That was something I was trying to avoid. So I did a lot of number crunching… a lot of research, like you said, to try to figure out ways to stretch every dollar and cent I did have as far as I could go. Then I was looking for opportunities for ways to kind of give me my best shot. And when I found the Amber Grant, it really aligned so much with this female-focused, motherhood-focused practice I was building. I loved that it was so empowering for women and I watched all the videos of previous recipients and I just sort of felt this strong pull to go for it. And I’m so glad I did.

WomensNet: How are you going to use the $10,000 to grow your new practice? What are some of the biggest, best bits that you’ll make right away, do you think?

Christina: I was trying to think about what make the biggest impact on growth of the practice, both in terms of number of patients — and in terms of the services I could offer. And it shook out into three categories: equipment, marketing and then continuing education. When I was at the VA in the earliest stages, and it came time to purchase equipment, I went sort of bare bones. I tried to buy everything I could secondhand and only buy what I absolutely needed: an exam table, blood pressure, cuff… the very basics.

Of course there are pieces of equipment that I knew would make an enormous impact on my patients; probably the biggest at the top of that list was a vaccine fridge and freezer. So if you want to administer vaccines at your practice, you have to be able to store them appropriately. Because those items can be costly right now, what I would have to do is send patients to a pharmacy or the local health department for their shots. Which of course is just not convenient. It’s doable, but it’s not ideal. So the Amber Grant will allow me to purchase those, which means I can store and administer vaccines myself, which is enormous for my patients. And it also means I can take part in the Vaccines for Children program, which is a federally funded program that gives vaccines free of charge for children who might not otherwise be able to get them, because of inability to pay.

So now I can participate in that program, which really opens up my practice to more people, and is just a wonderful thing to be able to offer. So I definitely some equipment in mind.

And then marketing so far, I’ve just been doing all the free things: social media, local meet and greets, mom groups — that kind of stuff. But I’ve been presented some really nice, bigger opportunities that come with a fee, like a local magazine spread. Having this money means I’d be able to take advantage of those, which is wonderful to help me get the word out.

And then just continuing to invest in training, so that I can remain up to date on all of the evidence-based medicine. I’m double board certified in family medicine and lifestyle medicine. So to maintain those and to always be growing my knowledge base and skill set.

WomensNet: Looking even farther ahead, what are some future plans that you might have [say, in the next three to five years] for your business?

Christina: Right now I’m laser focused on creating the best possible experience for patients at every touch point. So whether it’s just interacting through the website and social media to enrolling, to coming to the office…I just want people to have a really good experience and to grow the practice organically to a size that feels comfortable and where I can still know my patients by name. And keep it sort of intimate and personal, since that was one of my visions. But always when I look down the line, I want to think about expanding services to really meet the needs of my community. So that might look like bringing on other physicians, and it might mean expanding scope a little bit. There’s some things that I would love to offer like prenatal care and some more robust fourth trimester care for women to more fully support women in the community. And the big dream would be to have a space of my own. I’m leasing a perfectly suitable office right now, but to have a space of my own where I could have rooms for things like nutrition classes and fitness and things to really serve people more fully in their health.

WomensNet: Do you have any advice for other women business owners?

Christina: The first thing that comes to mind is that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. I’m a doctor. I am not a business person. I never thought of myself as a business person. And I was really — I shouldn’t say was — I still am sometimes overwhelmed at the business side of things. The idea of forming a PLLC, and finances and licenses and all of that…I’m a planner and a studier and it’s been very uncomfortable for me to sort of sit in this discomfort of not knowing things. But I’ve learned that it’s really okay. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to learn as you go. It’s okay to make mistakes. And you really don’t need to have every answer just to start. You just have to start. I’m just of the belief, if you can do it yourself, go for it… do it.

I think that being mindful of your expenses at the beginning, your startup costs… is very important. And one of the best ways to keep those costs down is to do things yourself. That not only saves you money, but that helps you gain experience. And it really helped me gain competence as an entrepreneur. So I have anything I can do myself to save money. Whether it was designing a logo and then having graphic designer sort of refine it for me …[or] doing my own branding. I did my own website, and I have zero computer skills to speak of. So if I can teach myself, anyone can teach themselves to build a website. Just anything you can do: physical labor, painting your walls, installing your signs… whatever it might be.

We have this phrase in medicine, we say: “see one, do one, teach one.” And I think that that really applies to business as well. So when I was brand brand new and too scared to do things, I attended a conference on opening a practice. I read books by brilliant direct primary care physicians who blazed this trail. And that was my way of sort of seeing one. And then it was time to do it myself. And I hope that one day down the line, I can pay it forward. If there’s another physician who’s hoping to go down this path, then I can do the “teach one” part of it.

May 2021 Amber Grant Awarded to The Sweetberry Company

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

We’re thrilled to announce the $10,000 May Amber Grant recipient. Congratulations to Tiye Harris, Founder of The Sweetberry Company.

Tiye is the sixth qualifier for the 2021 year-end Amber Grant ($25,000).

Recently, WomensNet Advisory Board member Marcia Layton Turner sat down with Tiye for an exclusive interview. You can listen to their conversation and view the transcript below.

WomensNet: Welcome everyone to a chat with our latest WomensNet winner of the Amber Grant. Today, we’re speaking with Tiye Harris of The Sweetberry Company, formerly Sweetberry Books. And she is our Amber Grant winner for May, 2021.

I’m Marcia Layton Turner. And I’m just one of the members of the WomensNet Advisory Board. So Tiye, welcome. So glad that you’re able to chat with us. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your business. Why did you start it? What do you sell?

Tiye: Sure, absolutely. Well first thank you, Marcia, for being a part of a group that has afforded women like myself to have the opportunity to be a recipient of the Amber Grant. So thank you so much. So excited to be a May recipient of the Amber Grant.

The Sweetberry Company really got started from one eventful exchange from one of my very young students. So about 13 years ago, I left a career in pharmaceutical sales to join the Teach for America Corps. It was kind of a passion of mine to teach inner city youth. So it was my first class with Teach for America — a kindergarten class in Philadelphia — and we were having a lesson where the kids had to draw what they wanted to be.

And we were going to make a comic book of what we’re going to be when we grow up. And half of the students were having trouble thinking about what they want it to be. And the other half got really busy drawing athletes, entertainers… but the other half — it wasn’t that they were spoiled for choice. It was almost as if they didn’t know what they could be. So in the drawings that had already been drawn, I noticed that no careers like teacher, police officer, a fireman, a doctor, had been drawn. So I said, ‘Hey guys, who wants to be a doctor,’? And before the students could even answer, one of my little, most bubbly students — his name is Celine — he laughed and he said

“Mrs. Harris, we can’t be doctors, were black.” And it stopped me in my tracks. And the whole class started laughing. Now this is a class of five and six year olds, and it was inner city Philly, a 100% black and about 90% low income. And I don’t say that to say that this demographic doesn’t think they can become anything; not at all. But later, statistics will show when I start The Sweetberry company, exactly why that was very important. But it just blew me away that that was the thought. And of course, while I was with those students, we did so much around black history and lessons where we can integrate that in. And I started to think, how can I help change the narrative? Because at the end of the day, you can’t be what you don’t see and you can’t achieve what you don’t believe.

And the thing was, you just need exposure. And it starting so young. This was years ago when this first started. So I thought about it over the course of years, of course, and decided that my contribution would be to use some of my creativity skills, my teaching skills, to start with the books. There have been studies that show that children are more susceptible to like reading if they see characters that look that like them, or if they see characters that have a community like theirs. But aside from that, there was a study that showed that nearly 60% of low income homes have no books in their home for the kids.

As I was teaching, I found that there were little, if any books, that my students could see themselves represented in. And I was an early elementary school teacher. So we’re talking kindergarten to third or fourth grade. And there were hardly any books where the students could see themselves. And also in these communities, in this community, there’s usually one book per 300 students. This is statistically speaking. Now this was in 2014 and we hope these demographics and these statistics have changed. But nonetheless this really fueled me to want to do something different, to help shape the narrative. So the first book was, Look What Brown Can Do, for Sweetberry Books. It is like a little kid version of a black history book. It’s made for little eyes and little fingers. It’s illustrated, it’s written in ways they can read it and understand.

And we’re not just talking about black history champions that we all kind of know about. Many of them we don’t know about. And it just caused Sweetberry Books (now The Sweetberry Company) to blossom to more books. We now have products that have characters on them because the point is, you know, “representation matters” is so much more than a hashtag. And we want every child to be able to see themselves as a hero and as a main character. And while these books are perfect for any household, it means so much to me that I’m able to put them in hands of kids that look like me and look like I did. I didn’t have that when I was a kid either.

WomensNet: That’s awesome. And what are the other two titles that you have in front of you?

Tiye: In front of us, I have Kayleigh Bailey. We often see books that have black characters and they are centered around either black culture — our hair, maybe black history — but I wanted there to be a book series where it’s just a character doing little kid stuff. So this is just Kayleigh. She’s just Kayleigh. She tends to take things very, very literally. So this is called Scaredy Cat, and she thinks when she gets scared, she turns into a cat. So it’s pretty cute. And this book here, it’s a coloring book, and it was birthed in our quarantine. Beautiful, beautiful illustrations using quotes from black champions. Just a beautiful, beautiful book, and we have others and other products on the website as well.

WomensNet: Obviously, you’ve been very successful so far. What do you think has been your secret? What’s gotten you to this point?

Tiye: This is something that I’m extremely passionate about. And when you are starting a business, businesses have challenges. They have major challenges and minor challenges, but what really keeps me going is receiving feedback. I get videos all the time, messages all the time. Just the reviews and the pictures and the videos, is so much bigger than me, that it really has helped on the days you kind of think, ‘do I have anything left in me?’

But when you get a mother to write you and say, ‘my child now wants to be an electrical engineer with a focus on cellular technology,’ ….and they’re eight? That means so much. And you get grown up saying, ‘I didn’t know, I could sing opera.’ I wanted to, when I was a kid, but I didn’t know this was here. I didn’t know this world existed. So those are the types of things that say to me, ‘you’re doing a good job and keep going.’ And that to me is more success than anything.

WomensNet: So take me back. How did you hear about the Amber Grant and what made you decide to apply?

Tiye: The Amber Grant stuck out in a huge way because not only was this centered around women in businesses, but I saw an array of women. I went on the website and I saw that this grant had been given to so many different businesses, doing so many amazing things. And also women of all walks and cultures in life. And that just stuck out to me. I was so grateful to even be able to apply, and now to be a winner, is amazing. Thank you.

WomensNet: Now that you’ve won $10,000 to grow the company, what are some of the first investments that you think you’ll make?

Tiye: So The Sweetberry company has been afforded some pretty great opportunities that haven’t been able to scale as well as I would like due to inventory. Typically, I just keep around 200, 100, books of each copy. And from a publisher’s perspective, that’s a very low amount of inventory. So when I get opportunities to perhaps, put a book in the Smithsonian National African-American Museum or other African-American museums, whether it be one in North Carolina or LA, they’re asking for such large amounts and on a monthly basis. They might say ‘Hey, we need this. This is wonderful. We want to place you here. This is great. We’ll take 550 copies or 1200.’ And so at that point, it’s a matter of timing. It’s a matter of cost.

With the Amber Grant, one of the first things that will happen are getting those numbers, those inventories up right away, so that I can fulfill those orders as well as sell on my own. Once this happens again, go to trade shows and pop-up shops, and be able to interact more with my merchandise. Aside from that, we have some pretty great things in the pipeline for stories, expanding the line for older kids, middle grade(s). One of them I’m really, really excited about, is going to feature black children and children of color with disabilities. And that’s going to take a very different kind of illustrator, because it’s comic book form. And illustrators are costly, as they should be — it takes a lot of expertise. So the Amber Grant is going to help us propel those projects forward.

WomensNet: You gave us a little bit of a taste of what’s to come next, and that was going to be my next question. What are your future plans? So beyond, say, the next six months to a year, what do you see for The Sweetberry Company.

Tiye: We’ve got so many great plans. I’m so excited. So we have planned to partner with charter schools and large organizations that service minority urban low income youth. And typically we do see a lot of children of color there. So, like I said, charter schools like Boys and Girls Club YMCA, and we are planning to start something — tentatively called The Sweetberry Book Club. The purpose of it is to get booklets and magazine type books into the hands of these kids so that they can take something home; something that’s encouraging, something that they can have and keep for themselves. It wouldn’t be a charge, because it’s a partnership with these different entities. But it really means a lot to be able to give a child something that’s going to inspire them and encourage them to look towards the future and show them what they can do.

I’m really excited about that. In addition, probably early next year, I’m currently working on a specialty coloring book that is going to specifically be for jails and prisons for activity time for visiting day. A lot of times kids like this kind of get overlooked, and I’m passionate about that. I don’t want anyone to be overlooked. They’ll still be aligned with our goal to make sure that every child is represented and they get to see themselves as a main character. Those are two of the major things that are coming down the pipeline, in addition to some more books.

WomensNet: Do you have any advice? So many of the women in our community are getting started, trying to find their way to get to where you are. So do you have any advice for them? Anything you’ve learned along the way that might help them?

Tiye: My biggest advice would be to honor your journey. Because sometimes, especially women, we look at everything we have to do. We’re moms, we’re not moms, we’re aunts, we’re working or taking care of responsibilities. We might be caring for other people. And so we keep a lot on our shoulders and we think ‘I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be doing this. I should be this already.’ And it doesn’t help. Sometimes on social media, we see other people with some measure of success that we think we should have maybe gotten there already, but it really is a journey. And so sometimes we have to honor that journey and celebrate what we’ve already done. And that would be my biggest piece of advice.

We hear a lot of stories about how you just got to grind, grind, grind, grind. And sometimes that can feel pretty stressful, especially when you’re building a business. So honor the journey. You don’t have to be anywhere. You’re not right now. You’re in the best place; keep building and celebrate today.

April 2021 Amber Grant Awarded to Suite Creative Studio

Wednesday, May 19th, 2021

We’re thrilled to announce the $10,000 April Amber Grant recipient. Congratulations to Jessica Owusu-Afriyie, Founder of Suite Creative Studio. SCS provides fashion design, development and production services to bring clients’ ideas to market.

Jessica is the fifth qualifier for the 2021 year-end Amber Grant ($25,000).

Recently, WomensNet Advisory Board member Marcia Layton Turner sat down with Jessica for an exclusive interview. You can listen to their conversation and view the transcript below.

WomensNet: Welcome everyone to a chat with our latest WomensNet winner of the Amber Grant. Today, we’re speaking with Jessica Owusu-Afriyie of Suite Creative Studio, who’s the Amber Grant winner for April, 2021. I’m Marcia Layton Turner. And I’m one of the members of the WomensNet Advisory Board.

So, Jessica, welcome. Let’s start at the beginning. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your business, beginning with why you started it.

Jessica: Just to start, I do want to say thank you again for this opportunity. It’s so amazing. I just really appreciate this grant and what it can do for my business.

I started my business about four years ago after I had spent over a decade in the fashion industry. I had worked my way up from design assistant to design director for a private label and branded licensing company. I found myself out of work with a young child. I was looking for what was my next step and what was my next move. I did a lot of interviewing and really at the end of the day what I decided to do was follow my passion in the [fashion] industry.

I love working in design, but I was really being called and pushed to working with more sustainable brands. More ethically focused brands. The industry can get kind of a bad rap sometimes with the amount of waste that is produced. I wanted to have a little bit more power to choose who I was working with, so that I could be proud of the brands that I worked with and the product that I ultimately created. So I started Suite Creative Studio as a resource for other brands to work with us on a design and development basis. We work with our clients on product-based services — everything from creative design to market-ready product, and everything in between.

So there are many steps that go from having the idea for a product to having that product in hand and ready to sell to your consumer. And we help with all of those steps. Our team is very experienced and well-versed in creative design, technical design, sourcing materials, sourcing manufacturers; negotiating and communicating with the manufacturers on our client’s behalf as well.

We focus on a few categories. Namely intimate apparel [which is] one of our niche categories. Swimwear and active wear. Those are our three biggest categories. We also work with ready-to-wear, which is our everyday clothing, and some accessories as well. As a company initiative, sustainability is really important to us. It is definitely the way of the world; it’s the way the industry needs to go. So that is something that we work to implement within our clients brand development, wherever we can, regardless of whether or not the brand is specifically looking to be a sustainable brand.

WomensNet: I’m picturing the process. So let’s say I’m a big name swimwear company, and I know that we want to create a new line and we’re looking for support. So I can come to Suite Creative Studio and ask for help developing something totally new, right? And you can guide me in sustainable options, if, if my goal is to become more sustainable.

Jessica: Absolutely. We work with companies and clients of all sizes. We work with clients that are established, and have their own maybe internal teams, but are looking for an outside resource or as a private label option for maybe a new category.

Or maybe like you said, to incorporate sustainability if they are not already doing it in house. Even the largest brands out there typically will have some level of external resources for design and development in addition to their in-house resources and their in-house teams.

And then all the way down to pre-launch businesses as well. We work with clients that haven’t even gone to market yet. Maybe they just have an idea of the product they want to create, and they may not have the technical design background. They may not have the creative design background to refine their design to make it something that is marketable and viable. So we work with people across the map, as far as stages of either development or brand growth.

WomensNet: I’m so interested in this topic because we hear so much about the H and M and the fast fashion and how terrible it is for the environment. Do you see rising demand for more sustainable options, sort of as a backlash against this fast fashion?

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. The sustainable fashion category has been something that’s been growing for a long time. So there’s a lot of talk about it right now, but it didn’t start two years ago or five years ago. It started honestly decades ago, but it’s been building steam. And for sure, the last 10 years there’s been some gasoline on that fire and people are really starting to pay attention — from the consumer level, as well as from the manufacturer level. And that’s one of the most important aspects because we have to show that it’s something that’s wanted. And then we have to put the responsibility on the manufacturers in order to choose better options.

So use less toxic chemicals or non-toxic chemicals. In the dye process, can we use less water? Can we use organic materials or recycled materials? The consumer can’t get that until the manufacturer also makes that commitment and offers those options. So there’s a lot of innovative and more forward thinking manufacturers and vendors out there of materials and trims, that have been working on these initiatives for a long time. We’re getting to the place where demand and possibility is starting to come true. We’re able to really start buying into more sustainable options, whether it be a less toxic option or a more natural option. People are doing amazing things with with recycling, for sure.

[Also] working with new natural fibers or working with natural fibers in a new way. Also looking to eliminate animal products in the process as well. There are amazing companies out there that are working with vegan leathers that are not the 20 years ago, polyurethane leather that is vegan, but it wasn’t the better option. Now, it’s becoming the better option. So it’s being made out of cactus or mushroom, or coconut leaf — all these interesting, amazing things. Being experts in the industry, we’ve had our finger on the pulse of this movement for 15 years, and we’re able to kind of help brands and support them into knowing that these options are out there, and then finding them, and cultivating them over the course in the life of a brand.

And so the demand is definitely there. I think the consumer is very used to fast fashion. We’ve gotten very used to it and the price point specifically. So that’s a hurdle because I think most consumers want a more sustainable option — but they want it to be the same price. So that’s where the industry is now trying to work on making that happen, and eventually it will 100% will happen. But we are inching our way there.

WomensNet: This sounds like an exciting time to be in the industry when all this change is happening.

Jessica: It sure is. It’s definitely a fun industry in general. It’s very grueling. It’s very challenging, but it is very fun. It’s very rewarding. There’s so much change. There’s definitely a major shift in the industry right now. Also a shift towards kind of disruptor startup brands. There’s a major opportunity for startup brands to kind of enter and do something new and put their spin on it and really make a big difference.

WomensNet: What do you think has been the secret to your success so far?

Jessica: Starting my company was really just to feel great about what I do. Admittedly, sometimes in this industry, you don’t. Because of either the product that’s being made, or the conditions that it’s either coming from or creating. I just really wanted to actively make a different choice within my career. And I felt that it had to be possible, to still be in this industry, but feel really good about what I’m doing. I love the people that I work with. And so that’s something that I live with every single day. The clients that we work with are amazing.

I have created friendships with my clients as well. Ultimately, I really want to see them succeed and to build these great businesses for themselves and their legacy. Something that can really change the market and also just change our idea of what’s possible. And to know that there are ways to do things. There are other ways to do things and what we see being done. So I think just trying to stay true to my passion and my belief in working with great people and wanting to leave a positive impact from what I do.

WomensNet: What made you decide to apply for an Amber Grant? Did you have a particular need that you were trying to meet?

Jessica: Yes. Our business has been growing. We’ve been lucky for sure to have come out of a really tough year in a good place. We’re basically looking to expand our reach to work with even more companies. 85% of our clients are women-owned businesses. We really want to focus on cultivating these women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses, to be able to see more inclusion and more representation in this industry — in an impactful way.

In order to do that, we really need to grow our team as well. So the reason why I applied was really to help facilitate in that. With any company growth, there’s a cost to growth for sure. Building our team and what is involved, as far as purchasing computers, purchasing additional software — those are the types of things that we really need to build out. It is a big upfront cost. But for our company, it’s important and necessary right now.

WomensNet: So it sounds like the $10,000 will allow you to start adding to your team immediately?

Jessica: Absolutely. We have somebody starting in two weeks, which I am very excited about. I am looking to stretch this as far as it can go. Sourcing the things that we need — computers and things like that — that are either second hand or refurbished or whatever, so that we can really leverage this opportunity for growth.

WomensNet: Looking ahead, even farther into the future, what are some future plans that you may have for the company. Two years ahead or five years ahead?

Jessica: Sustainability is a major initiative going forward. So working to be more and more sustainable, I plan to start working with 3d prototyping. That is basically something that can cut out a stack or two of sample making, which can save materials [from being] wasted. It can even lower your carbon footprint from shipping and transit and things like that. And also help with expediting lead times for the sample and development process. It’s an exciting new direction that the industry is going in and starting to implement more and more. The software is quite costly, but that’s something that we’re working towards and working to develop and get into in the next couple of years.

We’re also looking to eventually start a scholarship program. It’s something that I have been wanting to do for a very long time. Because starting a business in general — and an apparel brand specifically —  is a big undertaking and it can be very costly. Sometimes that is a barrier of entry that does not allow for everyone to take that risk, even if they have what it takes.

I would really love to build in a scholarship program to bring on, maybe a couple of brands per year, and get them to market and aid in their growth. So we would be focusing, again, still on the women and minority communities to bring their ideas to life and be able to pay forward the opportunities that we’ve been given as well.

WomensNet: Do you have any advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs, anything you’ve learned along the way that you think might be useful or helpful?

Jessica: We all know business is challenging. It can be scary. And we have our ups and we have our downs. But when it comes to business, you’re never going to be as up or as down as you are forever. It’s not permanent. Things come in waves. We have peaks, we have valleys. I think it’s most important to really enjoy the ups, but also prepare for the downs because they will come.

But if you are prepared for it and resilient, you’ll get through it and you will live to see another day in business. In the thick of things, sometimes when we’re working on things so closely, it’s really hard to see what we’re accomplishing or what we’re even getting through. And sometimes you just need a little bit of space to look back and then appreciate what you’ve achieved or what you’ve overcome.

March 2021 Amber Grant Awarded to Muse Relations

Tuesday, April 20th, 2021

We’re excited to announce the $10,000 March Amber Grant recipient. Congratulations to Katie Brunelle and Maggie Knowles, Co-Founders of Muse Relations. Muse Relations is a PR and marketing agency that focuses on strategic storytelling and relationship building.

Katie and Maggie are the fourth qualifiers for the 2021 year-end Amber Grant ($25,000).

Recently, WomensNet Advisory Board member Marcia Layton Turner sat down with both ladies for an exclusive (virtual) interview. You can watch that conversation right here or find the transcript listed below.

 

WomensNet: Welcome everyone to a chat with two of this month’s WomensNet’s winners of the Amber Grant. Today, we’re speaking with Katie Brunelle and Maggie Knowles of Muse Relations, who with their business partner, Victoria Furman, are the Amber Grant winners for March, 2021. I’m Marcia Layton Turner, and I’m one of the members of the WomensNet Advisory Board.

So, Katie and Maggie, why don’t we start by just getting a little bit of background. Tell us about your company, beginning with why you started it.

Muse: Absolutely. Thanks for talking to us, Marcia. We started a PR and marketing agency initially, in January of 2020, and we came together with our own skills. We had a really successful restaurant opening pop-up that we came together for, and we sold a hundred tickets in five days. It was a huge success. So we decided to start our own company together. I gave the full-time clients that I was working with a timeline to be done with them by March 2020…so very timely, we had our own company… right when the pandemic started. We did lose some clients that were non-essential businesses that had to shut down at the time. So we used that word ‘pivot,’ and we ended up finding a lot of people looking for production, which we also had experience with: TV, commercials, YouTube channels, local TV.

So we transitioned from Muse Relations into more Muse Media. That’s kind of the evolution of us.

One of our first big commercial clients wanted to create really great content that showed different people outside of their normal hunting/fishing group. So we brought in women who are fly fishers and hikers. We really worked with them to enhance their existing audience and to attract more people into the outdoors while we couldn’t do anything else during the pandemic.

WomensNet: So what do you think has been the secret to success so far?

Muse: We are dedicated. We have drive. We check in all the time with each other. Whatever project we’re working on, everybody is all hands in. But we’re also human and we allow ourselves and our team to be human. So if [someone’s] kid is sick, if you’re having an off day [we understand]. We are both single moms. So, well, three of us, we’re all single moms. So we have a family first ethos. We’re at home. We’re trying to be teachers, we’re still trying to work. So if someone’s having a crisis, we’re not going to force them to jump on a Zoom call with us. You take care of your kids and then we’ll regroup. We’ll get back together when things are common on the homefront. That balance really makes the work side of things work out better.

WomensNet: And how big is your team there? The three founders, then how many other contractors and employees do you have?

Muse: We work with quite a few videographers, editors, graphic designers, developers. We’ve worked with 20+ other people on different projects. We do have a film crew that we are bringing with us on a couple of projects.

WomensNet: What made you decide to apply for an Amber Grant? Did you have a particular need? How did you find it?

Muse: Probably a year ago was the first time we heard about you. And we’ve been following along. But this project that we applied for specifically — which we can talk about in a second — we felt like we had narrowed down exactly what we needed the money for. And we had a tangible product, something that we already knew we could accomplish and put a great product forward. I think that’s why the Amber Grant felt like a really good fit at this time.

WomensNet: Tell us about how you’re going to use the $10,000. You did have a very specific plan for that.

Muse: Yes. One of the projects that we are just wrapping up right now is a local TV show. It was the third season and they asked us to come in and help host and produce for this season only. We quadrupled sponsorship and boosted the viewership on a Saturday night at 7:30 PM. We have a thousand viewers in Maine. So it was really successful. We get so many compliments all the time on the work that we did with that show that we were inspired to create our own show. And it’s really specific. We’re pretty passionate about this project because I really believe it’s going to help our entire state and with the pandemic. We’re really looking toward our food industry, but not just the restaurants. We want to find our farmers and our lobstermen and growers, and everyone who’s actually producing that food that then goes into Maine’s restaurant industry. Maine is known for going farm to table.

Muse: So we have a lot of farmers and people that we are excited to interview. So it’s not just a typical cooking show. I’ll start interviewing one of these growers, these farmers, getting their story, really figuring out what they’re passionate about and any pivots that they’ve had to make coming out of this odd time in history. Really getting into what makes their farm, or whatever they do, special. And then we’ll be getting some seasonal ingredients from them, taking it back to an incredible award-winning local chef here who will show all the beautiful things that he’ll do with the food. What we really love is that then he’ll wrap up with what to do with the leftovers, because I think people are so much more aware now of waste, and being sustainable. And then having that leftover piece, I think will be an extra fun tidbit.

Another piece is that when the chef is cooking, when it’s done, we’re going to gather at a table with the farmer who helped bring the food and some other local people who have something to do with the topic that we’ll discuss. So we’re calling the show, Grown and Gathered. It’s going to be a New England, come-and-we’ll-feed-you, and that’s how we show we love you type of show.

So the grant we applied for because we wanted to get started on production. So we’ve already done our sizzle reel. We did all of our graphic work today and we’re getting ready to do our first full two episodes. So thanks to you, that was able to happen pretty quickly.

WomensNet: Tell us about the future plans for your company. Where are you going to go from here?

Muse: We have had more interest in our public relations and marketing side of things. So we’re going to grow both sides of the company. Maggie is going to steer Muse Media. She’s going to be a creative director, and I’ll [Katie] be directing the PR side. We have so many more ideas, especially with media, that we’re really excited about, and pitching even wider nationally. We have some big plans, because the model of the show can be taken anywhere. Every state has a beautiful story with their food, their heritage, their seasons, and then what can be done with that. So we’re excited to someday take it on the road.

WomensNet: Do you have any advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs? Anything that you’ve learned along the way that you think might be helpful for them?

Muse: I think women tend to really give themselves a hard time if they’re not doing everything 100% perfectly. Give yourself the permission to be good at whatever you’re doing in that moment. We’d all go crazy and would never sleep if we were a perfect mom, a perfect business person, etc. So allow yourself to be in the moment, whether it’s 12% or 80%. And be okay with that. You’re doing the best you can in that time and let yourself be in your creative space, or your parenting space, or whatever that looks like. That’s what you’re supposed to be and be proud of yourself because you’re amazing.

I would say say stick with it. There were certainly times when we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we doing? Shouldn’t we be applying for jobs somewhere?’ And we really feel like we’ve hit our stride and it’s coming together. So I would say sticking with it and believing in what you have is really important. And being grateful — always be grateful. We start many team meetings with gratitude.

WomensNet: Awesome. Well, Katie and Maggie, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to share your story with the WomensNet community. Congratulations on being our latest winners.

WNN Blog Get application & business ideas on the WomensNet blog »

What people are saying about WomensNet

Forbes

“You have to be in it to win it...seize the opportunity and apply.”

Nerd Wallet

“The Foundation awards $10,000 to a different women-owned business every month. At the end of each year, one of the 12 grant winners is awarded an additional $25,000.”

Score

“Launched 20 years ago this grant honors the memory of a young woman who wanted to be an entrepreneur but died at age 19 before she could achieve her goal.”

Fundera

“The Amber Grant Foundation was launched in 1998 to honor the memory of a young woman. The grant was formed to help women entrepreneurs reach their goals when Amber could not.”