“By the time we ask for help, we’re often in a desperate state. I tell clients: It’s OK not to know everything. But tell someone! Ask for help – and sooner rather than later. I preach this a lot: Be OK with not being OK.” – Natalie Williams
Natalie Williams is part business coach, part motivational speaker and part fairy godmother.
As the executive director of The Women’s Business Center of Charlotte (WBCC), she helps women decide if they want to start a business and how to grow an existing business. And she does almost all of it without charging a fee.
“Thank goodness for our community partners,” she said. “We couldn’t do this without them.”
WBCC, a part of The Institute, offers more than 80 workshops designed to support women entrepreneurs. Founded in 1986, The Institute engages underutilized groups – minorities, women, people with disabilities, rural residents and others – to help integrate them into the business world.
Want to learn how to build a brand? Williams and WBCC have you covered. Need to understand Six Sigma? You can do that here, too. You can learn what “market share” is and why it matters and learn how to develop a business plan. They offer a course that helps business owners take a product from concept through testing to prototype.
In fact, Eleven women recently graduated from “Run, Start, Grow 2 Market.” Two of them have products in patent-pending status.
WBCC clients may spend a few hours in a single training workshop or sign on for up to 12 months of one-on-one coaching.
The speakers who lead these workshops or serve on panels are true experts. For instance, North Carolina’s Secretary of State Elaine Marshall participated in panels at the Heart of a Woman Conference sponsored by the WBCC and her office participates in WBCC sessions called “How to Start a Business” several times a month.
WBCC also offers networking opportunities, so you can find your peers – and maybe find your first customers. Williams can even assist in the process of gaining access to capital. (That’s the fairy godmother part.)
Helping startups and seasoned pros
It’s not just fledgling entrepreneurs who come to WBCC. Some clients have been in business for 15 years and suddenly need help expanding offerings, opening another location or adding an e-commerce platform. “It could be a $3 million business, but they need help with organizational compliance,” Williams said.
WBCC clients run organizations in nearly every sector – from retail to nonprofit to food services. Occasionally, Williams will have a male client, but 95% of her clients are women. Of those, 80% are women of color.
Ask her about a success story, and she’ll tell you there are too many to name. One client who’d always dreamed of opening a Pilates studio opened one in NoDa. Another started a mental health counseling service that serves families, teens and individuals.
Williams likes working with women because there are particular challenges women face in business that men don’t generally deal with. A lack of confidence is the biggest one, she said.
“I tell them:’ As women, you’re used to managing budgets every day,’” she said. “You may not think of what you’re doing as cash flow projection, but it is. We live like that. We have to know what’s coming in, what’s going out, what we’ll carry over from one month to the next.”
“A lot of what I do is based on emotion,” Williams continued. “It’s letting them know: I have your back.”
A major pitfall she sees women business owners face: “By the time we ask for help, we’re often in a desperate state. I tell clients: ‘It’s OK not to know everything. But tell someone! Ask for help – and sooner rather than later.’”
“I preach this a lot: Be OK with not being OK.”
And there’s another, less tangible way WBCC helps clients. “Women know they can share their ideas confidentially with us,” Williams said. No matter how big, bold or crazy the idea, WBCC is a safe place to share it and ask for candid opinions and advice.
Clients find their way to WBCC in a variety of ways. Some are referred by resource partners. (Prospera, a nonprofit that offers free bilingual assistance to Hispanic entrepreneurs, is one.) Some find out about WBCC from the Small Business Administration (SBA), CPCC and SBTDC at UNC Charlotte.
No matter how they arrive, they get the help them need, provided enthusiastically by Natalie and her WBCC team.
The impacts of COVID-19
The pandemic forced WBCC to “pivot hard,” said Williams. The training that used to be offered in-person suddenly had to be shifted entirely online.
WBCC even began offering courses about navigating COVID-19. “Forward Focus Future/Virtual Girl Talk” is held every other Tuesday at 6 p.m. Williams hosts the open forum where women share stories and discuss their pivoting strategies and how to transform a business during a crisis.
When the COVID lockdown first happened, information from the government was coming at people fast. It was often difficult to comprehend and apply.
“People saw us a resource,” Williams said. They knew they could count on WBCC to translate government jargon and make it understandable.
Are aspiring entrepreneurs considering opening a new business? Even now? Yes, said Williams. “Even in the midst of COVID, people still have a desire to start and run their own business.”
But there’s a lot of ground to cover between having the desire and becoming a business owner. One of the courses WBCC offers is a feasibility class.
“Leaving a solid paycheck for something that’s not so solid is scary,” Williams said. “You have to prepare before you sail that ship. Some women who take that class decide to put entrepreneurship on the back burner. And that’s a great thing to realize – before you jump in.”
DIG IN DEEPER ABOUT THE WOMEN’S BUSINESS CENTER OF CHARLOTTE
This story was written in partnership with Wells Fargo Corporate Philanthropy and Community Relations.
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