tri-c's thrive program gives budding businesses room to grow

 
All Neema Williams wanted was a chance. Thanks to a Cuyahoga Community College business incubator program, that's exactly what she is getting.
 
With help from the incubator known as ThRive, Williams launched Grand Fe’tiche de Pied (Big Foot Fetish), a footcare company that sells large-size women's shoes in sizes 10 to 15.
 
"It's an unusual name," says Williams, 42, of Akron. "I just wanted to do something different and give it my own twist."
 
Williams is grateful even to be in the position to give her business a curious title. The Tri-C business student comes from a rough background that includes a felony conviction in her younger years.
 
When searching for work, "it's not easy to find people with sympathy," Williams says. "Not many are willing to extend an olive branch after doing a background check."
 
Tri-C provided not just the emotional boost that Williams needed, but also the practical tools to get her business started. ThRive offers students a shared office space outfitted with a phone, computer and printer as well as access to a conference room and reception area. Participants also are assigned a mentor from either Tri-C faculty or the business community.
 
Where Good Ideas Come to Life
 
The incubator is in its fourth year at Tri-C's metro campus. To qualify, students pitch their ideas during an interview process, says program administrator and business professor Andrew Bajda. Fifteen hopefuls applied this year, with four making the final cut. Along with Williams, ThRive officials selected aspiring entrepreneurs building an entertainment venue, a nonprofit wellness garden and a "street club" that promotes self-management of Greater Cleveland neighborhoods.
 
The program seeks workable ideas that will benefit both the school and the region. "It can't just be a pie-in-the-sky thing," says Bajda. "Which one of these businesses will create jobs, or improve something in the community?"
 
ThRive graduates are expected to leave the nest with an executable business plan. The professor points to early successes like Danay Johnson, whose embryonic enterprise sells silk scarves, purses and ties handmade by women from the Cambodian village where she was raised.
 
"Most of the businesses here are modifying their models or working from scratch," Bajda says. "By the time they leave we want them to be running profitably."
 
Williams, the hopeful shoe maven, is not to that level yet. She currently has a distributor, but a house fire destroyed what little inventory she had amassed. Williams plans to restock her wares over the summer, aiming at a clientele of women or those who identify as transgender.
 
The budding entrepreneur will offer numerous styles, from comfortable pumps to stacked Victorian-style heels. Williams was surprised by how many styles were available for plus-sized individuals.
 
"People with big calves or larger feet think maybe there's one type of plain-colored pump available at their size," she says. "But I've researched it and found cute shoes at size 14."
 
Starting from ground zero was daunting, but ThRive has helped take away some of the anxiety, Williams says. She has an office from where she is ordering new business cards and is connecting with members of Cleveland's transgender community to learn what kind of footwear her future clients may like.
 
"It's nice to know there's a need for what I'm doing," she says.
 
A Network of Connections
 
Don Gaddis was part of ThRive's first cohort in 2010. His project was the Central Community Co-op, an outgrowth of a course at Tri-C. The cooperative, fashioned by Gaddis and his classmates, was targeted at residents of Cleveland's Central neighborhood who were looking for fresh produce and other healthy food.
 
Gaddis, 42, still works with the co-op on projects like bringing nutritional education into underserved neighborhoods. He also has his own business aimed at beautifying these areas. The company, called Gaddis Property Preservation, cleans and restores foreclosed and transitional inner-city properties.
 
The business acumen Gaddis harnessed to start his restoration company was gleaned from working on the co-op through ThRive, he says. The program linked Gaddis with politicians, funders and charities, entities he likely would not have reached without Tri-C's assistance.
 
"It gave us legitimacy and helped us own this idea we'd come up with," Gaddis says. "It took the idea and made it into an actual business."
 
An inner-city Clevelander who grew up in poverty, Gaddis was thankful for the chance to better both himself and his former stomping grounds. He also was impressed by the energy of his Tri-C compatriots.
 
"Their spirit was amazing," he says. "When people get a chance to build something of their own, there's going to be a shift in attitude."
 
ThRive director Bajda knows that not every idea is going to take off. However, there's something positive to draw from an experience that participants can take in any direction they choose.
 
"These students are networking and making connections," he says. "It's hard for us to turn down anyone who wants to get involved."
 
Though Williams is still involved with ThRive, that doesn't stop her from daydreaming about operating a little storefront where women of larger podiatric persuasions can be comfortable purchasing shoes. Should that dream come to fruition, Williams will have ThRive to thank.
 
"There's no distractions here," she says. "When I sit down at my desk I know it's time to get down to work."
 

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.