The entrepreneurship era is upon us, with more small businesses pushing the American economy forward than ever before. And while women are certainly a part of this growing trend — and are actually starting businesses at a higher rate than men — the fact remains that women disproportionately struggle with common entrepreneurship hurdles, from lack of a support system to lack of capital.
But in Atlanta, the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI), spearheaded by Mayor Kasim Reed and led by Executive Director Theia Smith, provides an innovative — and completely free! — opportunity for women to receive access to a collaborative workspace, mentors, technology resources and everything else they need for small biz success.
An entrepreneur in her own right, Theia relies on personal experience to guide WEI participants through every stage of the startup journey, and she’s sharing some of it here. Read on to get her advice on when to start your business (spoiler alert: there’s no time like the present) and why it’s so important to support local, women-led businesses. Welcome Theia Smith as our newest FACE of Atlanta!
How did your prior career experience equip you for your role with WEI?
I really got the entrepreneurial bug when I was still in college. I was at Spelman, and I really developed a love for public relations. I started my own PR firm, and when I look back now, especially with what I know about entrepreneurship, I think that if I had known all the things that really go into structuring a business the right way, I never would have done it. But that experience allows me to think back to the needs that I had when I was in business for myself, when I didn’t know where to turn or who to turn to.
But I also have been fortunate to experience what it’s like to work for a Fortune 500 company. And that experience has been instrumental as well, because it really allowed me to think about what it takes to reach that level. Every business, at some point, is a startup. Nothing is born as a company. So how do you create a large company, and what culture does that company embrace?
I take all of those lessons, from both the space of being an entrepreneur/solo-preneur, and then having worked for a Fortune 500 company and seeing what it took to get that company to that point, and I apply them to my work at WEI.
You said that if you had known everything involved in starting a business, you probably wouldn’t have. Do you think it’s easier or more difficult now to become an entrepreneur?
I think it’s definitely easier. There are so many resources that you can now access online and so many virtual support groups that can be beneficial as you’re thinking about where to turn for support and assistance. I will say also, though, that the presence we now feel by way of social media and online engagement also creates a much more competitive atmosphere for pretty much any industry. And it can be very difficult to define and distinguish yourself in what can often feel like a very crowded market.
Why was it important to launch WEI, both for women and the city of Atlanta at-large?
I think Mayor Reed had the vision for WEI prior to becoming mayor, but I think that what he learned quickly as he was campaigning for the job is that women were, and definitely still are, really significant in driving the economic engine of the city. So when you look at women entrepreneurs, particularly here in Atlanta, and when you look at what they are contributing to the economic vitality of the city, it’s really important to create the best opportunity for them to be successful and keep those businesses here.
At WEI we’re really trying to create entrepreneurs who are job creators. There’s a lot of research that shows that businesses — whether they are women-led or men-led — will stay where they start. So we obviously want to keep these really great, innovative entrepreneurs and their businesses in Atlanta. And we want to help WEI participants feel like the city of Atlanta is their first investor. We believe in their ideas; we believe those ideas have a place here; and we want to see these women go on to be company-building entrepreneurs who create jobs and ultimately make a difference in the wealth distribution and economic mobility of our city.
For women especially, business and life are not mutually exclusive. So in your own life, how do you balance WEI, your family and your work on different boards around Atlanta?
It’s a challenge, and every day is something new. I’m mom to a 4-year-old, so that is the most important thing about what I do.
I overheard my daughter telling one of her friends that her mom is the boss, and that means that she gets to write on her walls. WEI is located in this shared, collaborative space with writable walls, and, for entrepreneurs, it’s where they get all their great ideas out, and they have these incredible sessions where they’re gathered at the wall with other collaborators. My 4-year-old is just like, “Oh, I can write on the wall. This is the best thing ever.” So it’s really special for me to know that my daughter can look around her and see the drive of women entrepreneurs and business owners and take for granted the fact that there was a time when we could not do that.
Those are the moments that make it worth it for me, but it is definitely a juggle every day. So whether it’s on a board or doing volunteer work, at this point in my life, I have to be involved in things that I really feel passionate about, and that, at the end of the day, will hopefully make me a better person.
What advice do you have to help women take the plunge who are thinking about launching a business, but who are maybe a little nervous because of everything involved?
It always sounds too simplistic, but honestly, my advice is to do it now. If that means you have to start your business while you still have a job, I still say do it now. Someone said to me once that it’s better to be uncomfortable and challenged now — and maybe you have to feel that way for the next few years — than to spend the final 10 years of your life that way.
We talk about exit strategies for businesses, and I don’t mean to be morbid, but you have to think the same way about your life. How do you truly want your life to be, and what can you do now that would make you successful in however you define success for yourself and for your family, particularly as you are in the latter part of your life?
So don’t wait another day to figure out whether entrepreneurship is for you. Be strategic and be logical about it — keep your job while you are able to and use the weekends or the evenings to explore entrepreneurship and start to generate some supplemental revenue. But be uncomfortable and challenged by it now, as opposed to missing out on that opportunity and regretting it later.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things that you can’t live without?
I’m an avid reader, and I have to have great books. I can’t live without travel. And I also have to have Cadbury Easter Eggs. They’re 10 cents, and they’re awful, and it’s the cheapest chocolate you will ever eat. But I stock up on them at Easter, and I just eat them the whole year.
Thanks to Catrina Maxwell of CatMax Photography for the beautiful photographs of Theia.
Read about even more inspiring Atlanta women in our FACES archives. Click here.