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December 16, 2021 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Two participants share their thoughts after completing Cohort 2 of “100Knoxville” program

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series on Cohort 2 of “100Knoxville.” The initiative aims to grow Black businesses in the region.)

With Cohort 3 already on the horizon for the “100Knoxville” initiative, checked in with the five business owners of the second cohort. For a refresher on the five businesses, read this article. In part one of a two-part series, we get the insights of Semhal Nasreddin (SN), Founder of SOULSKY and Rachel Fletcher (RF), Founder of Knox Upholstery 

Tell us a little about your business, and when you knew you wanted to be an entrepreneur.

  • SN: My journey into entrepreneurship happened over time and started because of my love for graphic design. I’m a self-taught graphic designer and once I felt confident enough in the skills I acquired, I went into freelance design and ran my own design business for several years. Then, after I moved to East Africa (Tanzania and Ethiopia), I was inspired to create my own clothing brand.
  • RF: Knox Upholstery is a woman-owned, black-owned custom furniture upholstery business. My love for furniture upholstery began when I was working at the Clarence Brown Theatre at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville, as a Props Assistant where I learned how to upholster a wide variety of theatrical pieces for shows. The position was a temporary one and when it ended, I decided to open Knox Upholstery. I’ve always known I wanted to be an entrepreneur, even as a small child when I wanted to run my own architectural firm like my dad. I’ve always liked to blaze my own path. If someone tells me something cannot be done, I’m going to take that as a personal challenge, complete that challenge and show up later with pictures.  

Why did you pick this type of business? 

  • SN: I followed my passion for graphic design, and it evolved into me creating my own clothing brand.
  • RF: It was completely an accident. My background is mostly marketing and advertising. It wasn’t until I took the job at UT that I found my passion.  

What were you hoping to get out of the “100Knoxville” program?

  • SN: The goals I had going into the program were to connect with members of the entrepreneurship community, learn as much as I could from my mentors and fellow mentees, and apply the lessons learned into growing my business.
  • RF: I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get going into it. But I can definitely say, now having completed it, that it kicked my butt mentally. The opportunity to get outside perspectives from people who have experience outside of your particular business is invaluable. I haven’t had to question myself in such a way in a very long time and being able to question yourself is essential in business sometimes because if you think you are always doing it the right way, you are wrong.  

What kind of impact does a program like “100Knoxville” have on the community?

  • SN: 100Knoxville” has a huge impact on the community because by empowering us, we will be able to better serve our communities by delivering top-quality goods and services. We will improve the lives of others as a result. It also inspires me more to want to give back to others in the future and to help them achieve their goals and dreams.
  • RF: I don’t know what the impact is, currently, but I’m hoping it will get more of the business community involved. “100Knoxville” needs banks to step up and assist with loans. Access to capital is a joke for small businesses, particularly those businesses run by people of color. Knoxville businesses also need to be more involved in working with and collaborating with other businesses in the area.  

What can people in the community do to better support local Black-owned businesses?

  • SN: People can do a better job of supporting Black-owned businesses by patronizing our businesses and spreading the word about them through word of mouth, social media, and other avenues.
  • RF: Put bluntly, people need to shop more with businesses, and people who do not look like themselves. The benefit is huge. Not only does it broaden their horizons, but it educates and exposes people to different cultures and experiences. And while you are shopping locally with businesses that may not look or sound like you, that money is being re-invested into the ENTIRE Knoxville community and lifts everyone up.

The third cohort of “100Knoxville” is set to start in early 2022. Learn more about “100Knoxville” and the 5x5x5x5 program here.

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