Felena Hanson has dedicated much of her professional career helping businesses get started. She taught entrepreneurship at the college level for 10 years and is herself a long-time entrepreneur – her latest venture is a spa-inspired shared workspace and business accelerator for female entrepreneurs called Hera Hub.
Last year, while serving as president of the San Diego chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), Hanson was able to fill a gap in the business accelerator market by partnering with Bank of America to form the Launch & Growth Academies for Female Entrepreneurs.
“There are a lot of accelerators for technology companies, but if you’re not stating a tech company there’s not as many resources,” Hanson said. “There wasn’t a full accelerator program for folks starting, say, a service-based company, a marketing agency or something of that nature. I built both of these programs with that type of owner in mind.”
The Bank of America Launch Academy taught its first cohort of nine local women last summer and is currently in the middle of the nine-week program for its second cohort right now. The Launch Academy is designed for entrepreneurs at the very earliest stage of their business idea and participants are guided through 17 foundational steps of launching a business taught in a “Steps to Startup” e-course taught by Hanson.
The basis for Hanson’s curriculum was a program she had developed five years ago covering the steps to starting a business – the first being understanding the market need for a proposed product or service.
“A lot of entrepreneurs, unfortunately, don’t do that research before they launch a business,” she said.
Other course topics include naming, licensing, setting up a bank and credit card, record keeping, entity setup, tax set up, pricing, branding, marketing, online presence, contracts, insurance, team systems and financial projections.
“And that all comes together for a one-page business plan and their elevator pitch,” Hanson said. “They’re 100% ready to open their doors, so to speak, when they go through these 17 steps.”
In addition to the academy’s formal instruction, the program offers time for the business owners to brainstorm ideas, receive feedback, learn from guest subject-matter experts and build a community among the participants. Participants are also paired with a “business buddy” whose goals are closely aligned with their own to create further support and connection throughout the program.
“To have a very tight knit group of other in this case women supporting each other through the launch of their business is pretty unique,” Hanson said.
To be selected for the Launch Academy, the only prerequisite is to have a good idea. The business ideas in the current Launch Academy cohort include a marketing agency, an organic skin care products company, a hot sauce manufacturer, a healthcare app, fashion line accessories and career guidance services. Last year’s Launch program companies ranged from a time-management product to an educational platform for women who speak Farsi.
One of those companies from last year’s cohort that has now successfully launched is Sara Barthel Nutrition. Founder Sara Barthel joined the program to help her transition from her career as an executive recruiter to starting a career as a clinical nutritionist and certified functional medicine health coach for which she spent three years pursuing advanced degrees and had a real passion for but lacked skills and knowledge of how to run a business. After last year’s Launch Academy, she currently has a solid client base and was recently hired to speak at a national conference in her specialty.
The Bank of America Growth Academy is currently enrolling for its second cohort. Like the Launch Academy, it is a nine-week course for nine women entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs, however, run later stage companies – those with $200,000 in annual sales, at least one fulltime employee and two years in business.
“Once you’ve been in business awhile, once you’ve hired that first employee – that’s the biggest challenge for a lot of entrepreneurs, to go from solopreneur to being responsible for someone else,” Hanson said. “And of course, fundraising is always a conversation for scaling a business as well, so we set that criteria and it seems to be working quite well.”
One of the companies the Growth Academy worked quite well for last year is Pacific Commercial Property Services (PCPS). Margaret Goking was working in an operations role at PCS – her family’s second-generation commercial property services firm. In the program, she learned how to adjust and grow the family business she took over amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Goking said that before the program, any component of business outside of operations – such as marketing or sales – was daunting for her. After gaining the knowledge and skills to understand and run the entire business, she doubled the company’s annual revenue in just a few months after completing the program.
Women entrepreneurs like Barthel and Goking are part of a recent uptick in women-founded and -run businesses in the U.S. According to Bank of America research, women own an estimated 13 million businesses, employ more than 9 million people, and generate $1.9 trillion in annual revenues, which is nearly five times the national average.
Because of the success of the growing number of women branching out on their own and the with the success of last year’s cohorts, the Launch & Growth Academies are looking to expand.
“The inaugural group of women entrepreneurs in the program was such a success, we are thrilled to keep the program going this year,” said Rick Bregman, president of Bank of America in San Diego. “Small businesses are such an important part of our economy in San Diego, it’s critical they have access to the resources and skills needed to thrive.”
And expansion plans are not just limited to San Diego.
“We have active conversations about with the NAWBO San Antonio chapter now and had conversations with the Tucson chapter and the Bay Area chapter as well,” Hanson said. “That is the hope – that we can scale this. And that’s been BofA’s hope as well.”