As a Black woman entrepreneur, Ashlee-Symonne Mooney felt her skills were underestimated at times, but a new program helped validate her business acumen.
The Hatchery, an entrepreneurial development program that formally launched in January, expands the NewBo City Market’s business incubator by reducing barriers to entry and giving under-served entrepreneurs the tools needed to start a food or retail business.
“Because of my age and because of my color, some people didn’t seem to take me seriously,” said Mooney, 26, the owner of Not Anything Specific, which sells tie-dye clothing and other items at her shop in the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids. “Now people recognize this as an official business. They see a Black-owned business in NewBo. It’s definitely helped out.”
Mooney, who opened her shop in March, and other shopkeepers in the program who follow requirements receive grants in the form of rent discounts on a 12-month lease at the market, 1100 Third St. SE.
Three main program components – personalized business development guidance, vital sign check-ins and continuing business education – provide business owners with tools in areas such as developing a business plan and marketing skills.
“It really did generate a lot of interest,” said Julie Parisi, NewBo City Market’s new executive director, citing 25 organic inquiries in the initial weeks after the announcement of the program and another dozen since then. “To me, it indicated we were meeting a need in the community.”
Parisi, who was a shopkeeper and owner of Zaza’s Pastas before serving on the board of directors, and later becoming a market staff member in 2018, said the Hatchery is designed to help people of color, immigrants, women, minorities and those in the LGBTQ community overcome barriers to starting a business and to diversify the market’s businesses.
As of early this summer, six business owners were enrolled in the program, including Kellie Kesselring, 49, owner of Grandma’s Root Cellar by Chef Mama K, who identifies as queer.
The shop, which opened June 3, sells Kesselring’s jams and hot sauces, along with vegan and gluten-free soups and vegan sandwiches.
Named in honor of her late grandmother, Orlane Huey, who taught her cooking skills from a young age, the shop came about after a friend told Kesselring about the Hatchery program.
“It was the right opportunity at the right time,” she said, noting that she returned to Iowa to care for her mother after office jobs and culinary positions in Chicago, including her first professional restaurant job at the Little Goat Diner.
Kesselring doubts she could have afforded all the equipment and other start-up costs associated with the food booth at the market without the rental discount.
The LBGTQ community faces certain barriers in the business world, particularly younger people who have been kicked out of their homes and don’t have stable living arrangements, she noted.
Guest to shopkeeper
Jessica Webb, 29, owner of Herbally Anointed, which offers natural health and beauty products made with organic ingredients, was the first business owner in the Hatchery program.
“I’ve always had a passion for herbalism and the desire to share my knowledge with those around me,” she said. “So, I set up a website and started promoting it on social media. From there, it gained a lot of popularity and fueled my interest in turning my passion into a business.”
Webb became a guest vendor at the Black-owned business markets at NewBo City Market before entering the Hatchery program.
She credits the program with helping to overcome some of the challenges faced by new business owners, including cost, production and marketing.
“The Hatchery program and the NewBo City Market has tremendously helped aid in the development and growth of Herbally Anointed,” Webb said, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The Hatchery program offers several valuable benefits and among them would be the discounted rental rates, business advisory opportunities, and another marketing outlet for my business and products.”
Parisi said NewBo City Market lost four businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but due in part to shopkeepers in the Hatchery program, are back up to 21 total businesses as of June, or about 74% occupancy, with at least one more on the way.
Other businesses in the Hatchery program as of early this summer include the Tiny Yarn Shop, Shawnniecakes and Luna Gelato & Ice Cream, in addition to those owned by Kesselring, Webb and Mooney.
Mooney launched her business to earn money at the start of the pandemic in 2020, by offering the tie-dye clothing she created online; something she continues and has learned to balance since opening her shop at the market.
She segued later that year to become a guest vendor on weekends at the NewBo City Market before becoming a full-time shopkeeper this spring and credits the Hatchery with getting a handle on determining inventory needs and other business skills.
Not Anything Specific seeks to “amplify voices that refuse to subscribe to any specific lifestyle” as noted on its Facebook page.
In addition to being at her shop as much as possible and taking care of her young child at home, Mooney spends time on the acid wash and tie-dye work on “blank” clothing she purchases for her shop.
“It’s hard, but it’s worth it,” Mooney said of being a small business owner. “The NewBo Hatchery program helped me feel confident in what I’m doing.”