How the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative is Elevating Female Founders — Monica Hooks, Executive Director

Welcome to another episode of The Female Founder with Bridget Fitzpatrick, Co-founder of ASBN and the CBT Automotive Network. The Female Founder is a show all about helping women grow their businesses and reach their full potential. Each episode will highlight inspiring stories and advice from female entrepreneurs to help you build and grow your business. This show is designed to inspire and motivate other female founders to be the best entrepreneurs they can be.

According to Georgia.org, the city of Atlanta ranks number one in the US for the fastest growth in the number of women-owned businesses, and there are numerous organizations dedicated to mentoring and helping these businesses grow and thrive, including today’s guest, Monica Hooks. Monica is the Executive Director of the City of Atlanta’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, a program that provides an ecosystem of educational resources, access to funding assistance, and mentorship to women business owners.

More: Atlanta’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI) Introduces its 2022 Cohort
Atlanta’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative via Facebook

Transcription: 

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Monica, thank you so much for joining us.

Monica Hooks:
Thank you for having me, Bridget.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, it’s a pleasure. I know it’s been a little while since you were here at ASBN.

Monica Hooks:
Pre-pandemic. Yeah.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
I think it’s 2018. Right, right. So, welcome back. It’s been a little while.

Monica Hooks:
It has, but I’m so happy to be back and tell you about the program and see your fabulous studio.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Oh, thank you.

Monica Hooks:
Celebrating Female Founders. So, thank you for having me and having us.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Absolutely. I love it. Thank you. So, for those that are watching and don’t know what the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative is, can you talk to us about the program?

Monica Hooks:
Absolutely. So the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, W-E-I, stands for the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and we’re first and foremost a city-funded incubator. We’re actually the only municipally-funded incubator of our kind for early-stage startups led by women.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, talk to us about, maybe, the application process? How women can find out more about the program?

Monica Hooks:
So, it’s a 15-month program for 15 early-stage startups. We have two cohorts a year, which is actually new for us. And we do a spring admittance and we do a fall admittance. So, the program, again, runs for 15 months. It has 15 weeks of core curriculum and then 15 months of extended mentorship, wraparound services, business resources, support services, like our co-working space in the historic Flatiron Building, Downtown Atlanta.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
What are a couple of the things that the curriculum entails?

Monica Hooks:
Yeah, so one of the things that we’ve really been able to build on is that curriculum, make it super targeted and focused for early-stage entrepreneurs. And we do that with a four-pillar program. So, those four pillars include or involve a business strategy, learning and leadership development, strategic partnerships, and funding opportunities. And I like to point out, our business strategy, our business analysis is really a strategy piece, and that’s in place because I really think women should embrace strategy in anything that we do, and particularly as it pertains to business. Just because, historically, we have not been at the business table, right? And so there are biases associated with women in business. And to have a really, really strong strategy as an early-stage entrepreneur, I think is a competitive advantage and something that the city wants to afford our entrepreneurs.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Definitely. Now for the program, is there a specific business you’re looking for? There are a lot of programs that really cater to the tech world. Is there specific business that you’re looking for in your program?

Monica Hooks:
Yeah, thank you for that question. So, again, we focus on early-stage entrepreneurs and we’re industry agnostic. Any kind of business can be a part of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative program. We tend to attract, what they call, main street or lifestyle businesses. And then we, with all of these resources and services, hope that we can put the foundations around those, sorts of, businesses so that they can scale appropriately.

So, we have businesses in transportation and logistics, healthcare, education, B2C consumer products. We have businesses of all stripes. We certainly have some high-tech companies, as well. So, it really runs a range. What we’re really focused on is at their early stage, want to set their foundations and this is a critical piece, that they’d like to do business with the city of Atlanta and scale their business here in the city of Atlanta.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Nice. Now, we recently had on The Female Founder Show, Tamara Lucas, the founder of My Panda, who’s doing great work, and really, her app is taking off.

Monica Hooks:
Yeah.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Do you have any other… And she went through your program.

Monica Hooks:
She did. She did. And we are so proud of Tamara, the CEO that she has become in My Panda. You know, she’s going to present on the Venture Atlanta stage, along with another one of her WEI sisters, a Travelsist. So, that’s really… That’s a milestone for us, to have two of our Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative businesses on that stage. You know, what I want to say about the program and about some of these businesses is that, instinctively or just by definition, we get into this space of social entrepreneurship, because women-led businesses tend to be profitable, they tend to be innovative and they tend to be impactful.

Because women approach business problems with, kind of, a different approach that’s generally holistic. It takes into account the community and civic concerns, policy concerns. So, we’ve got a couple of businesses that have been featured in Techstars Social Impact Accelerator, which is a great progression out of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative program, right? That’s WunderGrubs are inclusive, which was formerly Civic dinners, and Jenn Graham and Akissi Stokes are fantastic.

And then with regard to profitability, I have to brag about these two businesses, we have out of our second cohort, Brown Toy Box, just got distribution in all 1800 Targets, nationwide. And then in the most recent cohort, for Rochelle Porter Designs, and she has distribution in West Elm, Macy’s, and a number of other big-box retailers that are looking to have her designs in store. We’re really proud of our ladies.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
You should be. I love these stories. That is fantastic. I think I’ve even seen Ms. Porter at West Elm, painting her designs right there on the store floor.

Monica Hooks:
And you know, Rochelle is a perfect example of that lifestyle business, that was born of her passion and her special sauce. And that’s the strategy I try to teach. What is it that you do differently than anyone else? But she’s created a business and it’s going to be an enterprise business that we’re going to see around the globe. There are influencers around the globe that wear Rochelle Porter Designs. And so, it’s not just the mom and pop, you can start that way, but with our program and so many others, and most importantly the grit and the passion of the ladies, you can become an enterprise business.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Absolutely. Now, you are also a female founder. You went through the program yourself.

Monica Hooks:
I did.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Talk to us about that experience.

Monica Hooks:
I was in the inaugural cohort with my business, m-oracle, which stands for ‘The Marketing Oracle’, and that was focused on marketing strategy. I think what’s really important about my story, is that I started my business as a consultant and I did many years of consultancy and media and entertainment, and all that was really good. What we call that is a solopreneur. And the reason this is important is so many people start their businesses as solopreneurs. And being a part of the program allows you to understand that definition and see what you need to do to scale and grow. So, I was able to take my learnings from the first cohort and say, “You know, I really want to build a piece of software around this marketing strategy insight that I have.”

And again, so many women that come through the program have a domain expertise. So, they’re starting out in this space, but if we can get them to scale their business, that’s the success. Now for me, I’m still working on my software, which is another important story to talk about entrepreneurship. It’s not an overnight process. It requires so many resources. So, I’m working on case studies with the US Census Project, or let me say this… I’m working on case studies that leverage data from the US Census. I’m in the space of media, in the space of politics, all around marketing strategy. And I never would’ve been even privy to that pathway, had I not been in the program.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Okay, as a female founder… I’m a female founder… We go through a lot of challenges that we really might not be prepared for, especially early on. Do you have any advice for small business owners watching today?

Monica Hooks:
I do. I do. Have you ever heard of the phrase, “The only way to it is through it?”

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
I have not. And I love that.

Monica Hooks:
Yeah.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
I love that.

Monica Hooks:
So, one of my mentors and a great mentor for a lot of women and founders in this city is Bernie Dixon. And she teaches a course on confidence with Launchpad2X. And she’s really trying to inspire confidence in women and have them understand their worth and their value as they lead in business. And it’s like, how do you teach confidence?

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Monica Hooks:
So, I’ve caught into this phrase, “The only way to it is through it,” because that drives your confidence. You know what you know. And you’re going to have mistakes. You’re going to have what people call ‘failures’, but they’re not really failures. They’re learning experiences. And you had to go through that failure in order to get to a good solution for you and for your leadership style and for your business. And so, I guess some people say “The only way to it is through it,” or “Just get going,” or “Just do it,” all of those things. Don’t let that hold you back and know that there’s value in their nuggets of information, in jewels of information, in that process.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
That is great advice because I think that, probably, the majority of women business owners lack confidence. You might not know it, but I think most of them do. So, I think that that’s great advice. And if you can find a mentor like Bernie, that you mentioned, books and all kinds of things. But it’s a constant… You might feel like you’re confident one day and then the next day it’s just…

Monica Hooks:
Yeah.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
No, it’s not there anymore. But you have to keep getting through it.

Monica Hooks:
You just keep getting through it.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Monica Hooks:
And it’s a really good thing. It’s nothing to be fearful of or to be intimidated by.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Monica Hooks:
You’re going to gain something from it.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. And like I said, I think that we’re not alone in that, we all face some sort of lack of confidence in whatever department it might be.

Monica Hooks:
That’s right.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
But we don’t talk about it a lot and it’s there. So, I’m glad you brought that up.

Monica Hooks:
Thank you for the question.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yes. So, with the cohort, what’s going on? I know you mentioned the fall process. So, what’s next this year?

Monica Hooks:
I know… Well, by the time this airs, we will have announced our fifth cohort, which is so exciting. We have 60 portfolio… Or 60 businesses in the portfolio, currently. And then, with the addition of this 15, it will be 75. And this is another thing I’m not sure the community knows, each cohort has their own logo, which is a little bit of a riff off of the original Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative logo. And so, for my cohort, it was ‘breaking glass ceilings’, Cohort two was ‘sore’, cohort three, it was… I can’t remember, they’re going to kill me. No, because it was my, it was bloom-… It was ‘blooming’. Cohort four, it was ‘grit’. And for this cohort, it’s about ‘her move’.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Oh, great.

Monica Hooks:
So, the whole logo is a chess piece and it speaks to how women have to involve strategy and how, here in 2022, our program and my teammates, we really believe that it’s a time for women and it’s a time for them to really put forth their strategic advantage.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yes.

Monica Hooks:
They are extraordinary… 15 extraordinary businesses. Range of disciplines. I think one of them is already over a million in annual revenues. A number of them are approaching a half a million in annual revenues. They have about 40 full-time jobs between them. They’re going to contribute to the jobs number for the city. Just great, great businesses.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
That’s great. Now, you have done a lot with the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative since you started in 2019. Can you talk about the impact that it’s had on the city of Atlanta, since you’ve started?

Monica Hooks:
I can. So, we love to tell people… We have generated close to 600 jobs for the city of Atlanta, and we’ve garnered close to four and a half million dollars in capital investment in women. And we’re so proud of those numbers. I actually know that those numbers are going to be revised soon, which is a good thing when we’re using taxpayer dollars to drive economic development. But at the end of the day, we’re just really, really proud of those outcomes and looking to build on them.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Well, you should be proud. Congratulations. That’s great.

Monica Hooks:
Thank you.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Now talk to those women watching that might want to get involved. How do they apply?

Monica Hooks:
Oh, thank you so much for that question. So, follow us on all of our socials. We have a really strong presence on Instagram and on LinkedIn. Our web address is WEIAtlanta.com, and that’s where you’ll find our application, which will open again in December, likely on the 1st of December. And then we keep that application open for a month and then we will process those applications, which…

The online application is a written piece. And it just gives us a broad overview of where you are in your business, why you think we would be a good program for you to set those foundations and prepare for scalability. After that written application is submitted, we have a number of our invested Atlanta team members, helped us to evaluate those applications along with other community and business leaders. And that’s something I’m really proud of too, because the community is involved in developing these women.

The top 30 are selected for pitch presentation at Invest Atlanta, with the city of Atlanta beneath you, to inspire you, and then the top 15 are selected. And we generally announce the next cohort or the spring cohort during Women’s History Month, which is at the top of March in 2023. So, if you’re interested, or you know a woman who is leading her first startup… Or maybe it’s not her… Maybe it’s her third or fourth or fifth startup, this is a good thing. Serial entrepreneurship is a great thing. Please tell her about our program and that we’re over here minting the next Coca-Colas and Home Depots and we would love to see them apply.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Doing such great work, Monica. Thank you so much for joining us. We’d love to have you back on, maybe after the next round of cohort and talk more about this. But great work, thank you.

Monica Hooks:
Thank you.


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