The Journal Gazette
Sunday, December 23, 2018 1:00 am

Women helping each other

Opportunity Center allows training for new business owners


Amber Harper taught general education in Indiana elementary school classrooms 12 years. She became a Google-certified educator and trainer, which allowed her to teach educators how to use Google for educational tools. Later, it became her mission to help burned-out educators who wanted a change.

In 2016, it started with a blog, Burned-In Teacher, where Harper shared her frustrations. In a few short years, it flourished into her own online business, where she uses an eight-step process to coach small groups of teachers. 

But running a business wasn't always easy. While Harper had plenty of motivation, she struggled with isolation.

“It was lack of direction,” Harper said. “Like where I should go next? Who should I contact for this question? What is the next best step to take as a new business owner?”

That turned around when she heard about Launch Women Business Builder, a program of the Women's Entrepreneurial Opportunity Center, which helps women and minorities launch business ventures.

The Fort Wayne Opportunity Center started operating in 2015 within the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, which also caters to businesses.

The Launch Women Business Builder program will conclude its first year in January and is accepting applications for Cohort 3, which will consist of five companies and 10 individuals.

When Leslee Hill, director of the Opportunity Center, first joined, most clients came in once or twice for one-on-one conversations. Hill began to notice a need for clients to work collectively.

“You have a group of people kind of elevating each other,” Hill said. “You get rid of that feeling of aloneness, which is so scary when you start a business.”

Another reason for the new program was to help women create an online business.

Hill said women-owned businesses in Indiana are underrepresented, and women face unique challenges when starting their business. Roadblocks include a negative mindset, lack of role models and mentors and lack of capital.

“We know minorities are minorities for a reason, so there are less women business owners, and there are even less women business owners that specialize in an online space,” Hill said.

The program lasts up to a year, and participants go through three phases to help launch their business.

Phase one is a 12-week period where participants are able to develop and validate their business model. Phase two is a six-month time frame where businesses begin to implement their model and create a product. Phase three, which lasts three months, allows the businesses to sell to customers and continue to grow their venture.

“Most of the women are operating jobs at the same time that they're creating these businesses,” Hill said. “So they're juggling family, full-time jobs, and this side gig.”

Participants must dedicate a weekly minimum of seven to 10 hours to work on their business, where they are able to interact with coaches and other members of the cohort. If they move to phase  two, each business is awarded $2,500. By phase three, members of the cohort can pitch their business for a chance at receiving $10,000.

Jillian Lee, who was chosen to be part of Cohort 2, started her business, J-it-Down, by creating customized merchandise in April.

An important takeaway she's learned is to not stress over perfection.

“We always think, 'I have that perfect logo or that perfect website,' but that's not really what you need to do,” Lee said. “That comes with time, because as it grows, things change all the time. So basically it's just trying to get it right, but not perfect.”

Both Harper and Lee said they found a new support system within their cohort, with the women keeping each other accountable.

“Before this program, I thought I was on an island by myself,” Harper said. “Nobody really understood my passion for entrepreneurship and for service, and these women do.”

For Hill, she loves it most when the cohorts continue to work together after the program and find shared experiences.

“I think what's really fun is watching them all talk to each other about being scared, about not being sure if they should do it,” Hill said. “It's like when you're thinking, 'Yeah this is so exciting,' and then you think, 'Oh my gosh, my whole world is going to change.' So they go through all of that together.”

About the program

The deadline to apply for Cohort 3 is Jan. 4.

To apply, go to

Business must be digital, e-commerce, app or web-based and woman-owned. There is a priority given to applicants within the northeast Indiana area. Those applying must for profit and make $100,000 a year or less.

Applicants can be in various stages with their businesses, even if it is only an idea.

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