From ‘stuck’ to successful: How female entrepreneurs in northeast Indiana are rising together

In Leslee Hill’s previous role as owner of Hill Image Consulting, she had what it took to help women dress more professionally, authentically, and confidently.

She had a degree in Fashion Merchandising and Apparel Design from Ball State University, as well as 15 years of experience developing and designing products for companies, like Vera Bradley, Icelandic Design, The Good Ones, and Spiegel Catalog Co. Leslie Hill of the NIIC Women’s Entrepreneurial Opportunity Center

While she garnered a steady list of clients, running her own business was taking a negative toll on her mental health.

“I just started getting too much inside my head as a business owner,” Hill says.

It turns out, she’s not alone. Isolation, depression, and anxiety disproportionally affect entrepreneurs compared to workers in other industries, Entrepreneur magazine reports. These struggles hit women and “others on the fringes” of startup culture particularly hard, writes Erin McKelvey, Founder & CEO of SalientMG.

“It has become increasingly clear to me that external appearances of stoicism and strength are just that—appearances,” McKelvey writes. “What we could use more of as entrepreneurs are authentic bonds that reinforce real internal strength through empathy.”

Today, Hill is part of a solution to create these types of authentic bonds among female entrepreneurs in northeast Indiana. In February 2018, she closed Hill Image Consulting to become the Director of the Women’s Entrepreneurial Opportunity Center (WEOC) at the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center’s (The NIIC). In this role, she’s harnessing her personal experience to mentor and support other female business owners.

“I think that every business owner goes through severe imposter syndrome at some point in time,” Hill says. “Now I feel confident.”

Since 2015, the WEOC has been serving women at all stages of entrepreneurship in northeast Indiana with business growth coaching, training and education, connectivity, mentoring, and access to capital. It is a U.S. Small Business Administration designated Women’s Business Center—one of only two in Indiana.

The WEOC Launch Women Business Builders Cohort 2 and 3.

As the Center has evolved over the years, Hill explains that it has gone beyond providing basic training and education to giving women who are doing the difficult work of entrepreneurship a reliable place to foster ongoing relationships.

“Within this year, we have made phenomenal strides on retaining clients and seeing them for multiple purposes,” Hill says. “They come in for all of our events as well as our programs.” 2019 WEOC Founders Cup Award Winner Amber Harper, Owner, Burned In Teacher and Ed Tech Consulting.

One such program that is making a difference in the lives of female entrepreneurs is the Launch Women Business Builder Program that began in January 2018. Consisting of a biannual cohort of 10 women, the program helps women accelerate the launch and growth of their businesses in the tech industry—a sector where they are largely underrepresented.

The Center for American Progress reports that in 2015 women held only 25 percent of executive, senior-level, and management positions in S&P 500 companies.

This disparity is why women launching tech companies need to know they are not alone, Hill explains. The Launch Women Business Builder Program intends to help level the playing field for women in startup culture who are often balancing multiple roles in their lives.

“These women are dedicated to building their businesses and providing support to those in their Launch Women Business Builder cohort, while also running a family, working full-time jobs, healing the sick, you name it,” Hill says. “We want them to know: We see you battling and winning.”

WEOC members attend a selling workshop at The NIIC.

One of Hill’s favorite parts of working with WEOC is developing her own course programming and curriculum for its programs. She also enjoys seeing the transformation the women make from when they start the program to when they finish it.

“Stuck, overwhelmed, astray, scared, wandering, hesitant, paralyzed, unmotivated, grasping” are just a few of the words the women have used to describe how it feels to start a business.

By the time they finish the three-phase, year-long program, they have the confidence-building experience of implementing business models for their digital, e-commerce, app, or web-based companies.

“All of our Launch Women Business Builders push through the roller coaster that is business building and persevere to reap the benefits,” Hill says. “They stay focused and strong when there is seemingly no strength left.” 2019 NIIC Mirro Business Builder Award Winner Jillian Lee, Founder and CEO, Uniquelee Creations, LLC.

In April, The NIIC recognized 10 women for their strides in the program at its sixth annual [email protected] Signature Event and presented three awards. 

Amber Harper, the Creator and Owner of a business called BurnedIn Teacher and EdTech Consulting, earned the 2019 WEOC Founders Cup Award and a $500 cash prize to help grow her business. She focuses on helping educators stay engaged in their careers, through tools and coaching.

Hill says that in the program, Harper devoured the WEOC’s mentoring services and effectively utilized their coaching to work through her fears.

“One particular fear she recently conquered was hiring staff for her business,” Hill explains. “Overcoming this fear is helping her to flourish and grow her company.”

Another entrepreneur, Jillian Lee, the Founder and CEO of UniqueLee Creations, LLC, was presented  The NIIC’s Mirro Business Builder Award for her work designing customized accessories, from cell phone cases to shoes and light switches. This award was established five years ago and recognizes Lee for embodying the core traits of “personal excellence, energy, passion, and making a lasting community impact,” explains Karl LaPan, President and CEO of The NIIC.

Lee also received a $1,250 cash award to help grow her business.

“WEOC and my business coaches have helped to push me when I felt unmotivated,” Lee says. “Being in a group of other women helped me to see we all experience the same feelings and challenges. We lift one another up, which is great.”

WEOC Launch Women Business Builders Program

Registration for the next cohort of the WEOC Launch Women Business Builders is now open. Visit the NIIC’s website for more information and register online here.

Learn more about the [email protected] Movement

Visit TheNIIC.Org/IdeasatWork/ to learn more about this movement and annual signature event [email protected] Signature Event, celebrating entrepreneurship across Indiana. Save the date for next year’s event on April 21, 2020.

This story was made possible by funding from the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center’s (The NIIC).

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