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Two Cedar Rapids women had years of experience creating fun family parties together.
To turn their ideas into a moneymaker, they enrolled in a program that guides entrepreneurs through developing and growing a business. They learned enough to hit the ground running, then pivot when the COVID-19 pandemic hit a little more than a year later.
Consuelo Steel-Cherry and Allison Laughridge met as co-workers, then became close friends.
The two moms found they had compatible skills: Steel-Cherry loves to plan parties, and Laughridge enjoys crafting and baking. For about 10 years, they helped each other with celebrations for their kids - birthdays, graduations and christenings.
Eventually, friends and family began asking for help with their parties.
Steel-Cherry thought about how they'd planned elegant events for her five kids on a tight budget, and she wanted to do the same for other single parents. The women decided to start a business together in 2018.
They chose their business name - One Umbrella Event Planning - because they cover everything needed for a party. They chose Laughridge's favorite color, lavender, for their logo.
Their plan was for Steel-Cherry, a self-professed 'social butterfly,” to handle most client contact. She and Laughridge then would develop a plan and present it to the prospective client.
'I couldn't ask for a better best friend and a better business partner,” Steel-Cherry said.
It was by chance that Steel-Cherry saw a Facebook post about what was then known as the Cedar Rapids Entrepreneurial Program, or CREP, which started in 2017.
The women applied, were interviewed and accepted into the program. Over several weeks, the two learned about creating a business plan, marketing, building a website and managing their finances.
'All of these things we thought we had down, but we had no idea,” Steel-Cherry said.
Pre-pandemic, they were planning in-person birthday parties, corporate events and themed parties, such as an LGBTQ prom and a 'Great Gatsby” party.
When Steel-Cherry and Laughridge struggled to define a target audience for their budget-friendly party services, the program's resources helped them re-define a target market.
Maurice Davis, the program's manager, also guided them through pricing their services.
'Time is a big component, more so than materials. He taught us that our time is valuable,” Steel-Cherry said.
She and Laughridge also learned to pivot when the pandemic shut down in-person events.
One Umbrella Event Planning now offers Party in a Box, with themed decorations and supplies for a kids' party for up to 24 people. In a similar way, customized graduation baskets helped celebrate high school seniors' graduation when ceremonies were canceled last year.
Recently, CREP has evolved into Empower by GoDaddy. Although it has been more than two years since Steel-Cherry and Laughridge went through the program, they've maintained a close relationship with Davis and Faith Robinson from Empower by GoDaddy.
The Cedar Rapids program is funded by GoDaddy, with day-to-day operations handled by the nonprofit Jane Boyd Community House. The nonprofit is one of 27 official Empower by GoDaddy partners in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans and London.
The 12-week course offers business development workshops and networking for non-traditional entrepreneurs. Unlike many startup programs, only non-tech ideas are supported. Child care and transportation, if needed, are provided.
'They are a godsend to a small business,” Steel-Cherry said of the program. 'It has been a phenomenal partnership.”
More recently, Empower by GoDaddy hired One Umbrella Event Planning to set up and decorate for its events.
'We work with (Steel-Cherry) pretty closely,” said Robinson, Empower by GoDaddy's administrative navigator. 'She's very professional.”
Robinson began working for Empower by GoDaddy two years ago.
She said Davis constantly pushes her to grow and learn. At his urging, she is teaching the current cohort and has started her own business, 4K Photography, which grew out of her interest in communications at Kirkwood Community College and Mount Mercy University.
'I've learned so much in this process. I really knew nothing before I started working with Empower, and now I've learned a ton,” Robinson said. 'And I can apply it to my own life.”
MY BUSINESS MATTERS
Empower by GoDaddy strives to support minority business owners in other ways.
Black-owned and women-owned businesses have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. One study found that within the first two months of the pandemic, there was a 41 percent drop in active Black business owners and a 25 percent drop in female business owners.
Another study noted that 56 percent of Black-owned businesses were not profitable last year, compared to 44 percent of white-owned businesses.
Robinson said that without civic equality, there is no economic equality.
When the summer's Black Lives Matter protests activated citizens, she said she and Davis were compelled to act. They reached out to Steel-Cherry to help them find Black-owned Corridor businesses to feature in an ongoing marketing effort called My Business Matters.
Together, they developed an ever-growing list of Black-owned businesses to showcase in videos and social media posts.
Steel-Cherry said the collaboration brought to light numerous Black-owned businesses she hadn't known existed.
Robinson said she also was surprised by how many Black-owned business owners she hadn't heard about before. Her goal is to promote eight or nine videos, all created gratis by Fred Ebong of Fred Ebong Studios, one of the business owners listed on My Business Matters.
'Our goal is to highlight Black-owned businesses to help them get the support and media attention they deserve, just like everyone else,” Robinson said.
She particularly enjoys the networking that happens during and after a video shoot.
'It's just great conversation with like-minded people who look like you,” Robinson said.
To learn more about the Empower by GoDaddy business training program and the My Business Matters marketing campaign:
Phone: (319) 366-1408
Social media: facebook.com/EmpowerbyGD
Apply for Empower by GoDaddy program
Cedar Rapids Empower by GoDaddy focuses on developing and supporting small business owners and entrepreneurs in Cedar Rapids and surrounding areas. Jane Boyd Community House is the official nonprofit partner in Cedar Rapids.
Since the local program's inception in 2017, about 140 entrepreneurs have gone through Empower by GoDaddy in Cedar Rapids. The majority of participants are women.
Several times a year, up to 25 non-traditional entrepreneurs begin a free 12-week course. The entrepreneurs receive the education and mentorship they need to launch a business. The cohort structure allows community support and feedback, small business owner development and connections to area business professionals.
The process begins with an online application, followed by an interview. To apply, visit janeboyd.org/programs/empower/empower-application.
The Empower program won PR Daily's 'Corporate-Community or Nonprofit Partnership” category in the 2019 Corporate Social Responsibility Awards.
Based on Empower's success, GoDaddy plans on using the framework, curriculum and core program components to launch another 26 programs across the country.