By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“We saw it as a way to optimize what we were already doing locally,” says Aundrea Wilcox, Executive Director of the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship.
The “it” to which she is referring is the Propel Mentor/Protégé Program created by the Knoxville Chamber and championed by Doug Minter, Director of Small Business Development for that organization.
“I learned about Propel last year, but have known Doug for quite a while,” Wilcox said. “He approached me about the idea of expanding his Propel program to Kingsport.”
As she looked at the opportunity, Wilcox says she saw two key advantages to what the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce was already doing. One was a better way to utilize volunteers; the other was a mechanism to fully engage GrowthWheel, a visual toolbox and cloud-based platform used by business advisors to help client companies make decisions and take action.
“With Propel, my advisory council members are now paired with protégés,” Wilcox explained, adding that “it’s enriching for both the client and the volunteer.”
Since its inception in 2008, the Knoxville Chamber’s Propel program has involved 72 participants that have collectively had more than $61 million in total economic impact and created 728 jobs for the region. The key is the correct pairing of a small business owned by a woman, veteran, or minority with an established community business leader for one-on-one assistance tailored to their specific goals and challenges. It’s an on-going, two-year process.
Wilcox said the Kingsport Chamber had been using the GrowthWheel tool for the past three or four years, but shifted to being a Propel affiliate for several reasons.
“The Kingsport Chamber has all of the necessary parts – infrastructure, expertise and support,” she said. “This new approach is more efficient and purposeful.”
With additional funding from AEP-Appalachian Power, Wilcox launched the first cohort in mid-2018. The eight-person group is very diverse in many respects.
“We have three veterans, five women, and two ethnic minorities,” she says. “They are also diverse in their experience as business owners – from just a year in business to more than 10 years, and from under $20,000 in revenue per year to over $1 million.”
After a four-week boot camp and after writing their own individual business plans, the protégés meet monthly as a group, once a month with Wilcox, and regularly with their mentors.
For Wilcox, a 13-year veteran of the Kingsport Chamber, Propel is one more tool in her arsenal to serve small businesses. The Chamber is also connected with the Tennessee Small Business development Center (TSBDC) network. In 2011 the Kingsport Chamber formed a partnership between KOSBE and the TSBDC becoming the TSBDC at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) Kingsport Affiliate Office. Through its affiliation with TSBDC at ETSU, the Kingsport Affiliate Office covers a wider service area and has the rights to utilize assets like GrowthWheel.
“KOSBE and the Kingsport Chamber are perfect partners for Propel,” Minter says. “Aundrea is an amazing administrator. The partnership helps us to grow Propel to be a stronger regional player in the small business development space.”
He added that funding received from the State of Tennessee’s BERO (Business Enterprise Resource Office) “allowed us to look outside our region called Innovation Valley and expand services and offerings to a larger footprint East Tennessee. We were also able to expand our Propel Contractors Boot Camp into the tri-cities region and into Chattanooga.”