Building sustainable businesses has been the singular focus of the Nashville Business Incubation Center since it opened its doors 35 years ago. NBIC has been the launching pad of several successful minority and women-owned businesses such as Slim & Husky’s and The Grilled Cheeserie. The program’s foundation is built on three tenants: business sustainability, capacity building, and job creation. Essential to NBIC’s success has been its leadership. At the helm is Angela Crane Jones, CEO, and small business advocate.
Angela, a former business owner, took the reins in 2003 after selling her company. “At that time, I didn’t know I could run a business and have a family. Most of my friends were employees at Fortune 500 companies and couldn’t relate to my dilemma. It was a challenge for my husband and I to conceive. So, I thought selling the business and focusing on my family was my only option,” she shares. Angela has since realized she could have done both, and endeavors to ensure other women understand they, too, can do both, especially with the help of a supportive community.
After selling her business, Angela sought employment at a local business development center. But it was NBIC, and its then Executive Director Mildred Walters, who made the offer. In the fall of 2003, Angela stepped into purpose. For twelve years, she worked as Assistant to the Executive Director, developing competency in the small business development space and building a Rolodex of supporters. Angela’s hard work and commitment didn’t go unnoticed. In 2013, she was named Interim CEO, then CEO, of the Nashville Business Incubation Center.
During that time, Angela’s vision for NBIC began to take shape, but it came with challenges. In 2016, NBIC’s longstanding relationship with a strategic partner ended. “Rebuilding NBIC as a separate entity was difficult but necessary. We were still seeing too many business owners fall through the cracks, be it losing the business due to a lack of succession planning or an inability to grow because of insufficient resources. The rebrand of NBIC shifted the focus to empowering small business owners, specifically minority women business owners, who on average earn just $24,000 in revenue annually, compared to their white counterparts at $140,000+.”
Under Angela’s leadership, NBIC successful reorganized and rebranded, going on to relocate to a new building featuring a modern design, executive offices, classrooms, and most importantly, a suite of programming targeted to the unique needs of emerging entrepreneurs and established but stuck companies. The pinnacle of that programming is NBIC’s Mighty Oak program that prepares business owners to build sustainable companies to achieve at least $1M in revenue ($500,000 for professional services businesses), create jobs, and scale.
“It is our goal at NBIC to shift business owners’ mindsets from scarcity to abundance. They can only do that if they get out of the ‘worker bee’ mentality and put on their CEO hats, working on the business every day instead of working in it. That’s hard to do, and we understand that. That’s why we walk alongside them as they make the transition.”
NBIC prides itself on meeting small business owners where they are, providing educational resources for them in somewhat of an academic style, supported by knowledgeable instructors, mentors, and coaches.
When NBIC pivoted in 2016, little did Angela know that less than five years later, she’d need to tap into the same strength and agility she used to rebrand and relaunch NBIC to rebuild again.
In March 2020, a tornado devasted the North Nashville community NBIC called home, causing significant damage to their new building. Displaced yet not discouraged, Angela and her team immediately contacted all clients to offer support. The ability to do that was predicated by a decision Angela made two years earlier.
“Early on, I realized that if NBIC didn’t embrace technology, we would be closed or on the blink of closure within a year.” Angela saw technology enablement as the future of sustainability and growth for NBIC and its clients. “We brought in an Entrepreneur-in-Residence exceptionally skilled in technology to help us build technology infrastructure. With everything essentially cloud-based, we could work from anywhere. That framework was NBIC’s saving grace after the tornado as operations shifted from in-person to online.
Then the pandemic hit, and once again, NBIC’s early adoption of technology proved a benefit as classes went virtual. But for Angela, offering online instruction was only half the battle. She recognized that what small business owners in Davidson County needed most was access to technical assistance that helped them pivot. At the heart of that pivot was technology.
“It became clear to me that businesses needed a digital presence to survive the aftershocks of COVID-19.” Thanks to her efforts, NBIC was awarded a $600,000 grant from Metro Nashville under the CARES Act. “This grant enabled us to provide hands-on technical assistance for up to 200 small business owners struggling to keep their doors open.” That assistance included financial services, e-commerce/website capability, digital strategy development, and legal support.
As the economy begins to stabilize, Angela is looking ahead to how NBIC can best serve MWBEs moving forward. She realizes that business dynamics in Nashville are changing. Before the pandemic, businesses sought office space with all the bells and whistles. But after a year of working from home, many are turning to virtual offices and remote teams. “Our goal is to be what firms need now, which looks different from years ago. In the past, our space was a draw, but NBIC’s secret sauce has always been its commitment to giving business owners not only the knowledge but also access to mentors, practitioners, and funders they need to scale.”
With technical assistance comes accountability. “We’re looking for business owners who are coachable and want that level of oversight.” NBIC serves the whole person, helping business owners consider all factors impacting their business trajectory. “We don’t operate in silos. We help you define your goals – business and personal – then develop a road map to get you there.” It is that commitment to preparation and their track record of success that enables NBIC to change the narrative of small business ownership.