As a math major in college, Tonya Hicks was told by a professor that her only career option was math teacher. Hicks didn’t think that was for her, and after learning that electricians too need to be good at math, she left college and signed up for the apprenticeship program at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 917 in Meridian, Mississippi. She was the fourth woman to enter the five-year program, and the first to make it all the way through, becoming the first woman journeyman electrician in the chapter. That was 22 years ago.
About 17 years ago, Hicks launched her first business, a contracting company doing electrical work on commercial construction and renovation projects in and around Atlanta. Then, as now, it was an industry dominated by men. Only 13 percent of construction firms are women-owned, the lowest of any industry.
“A lot of the guys thought I was just the cleaning lady,” says Hicks. She would often play along, not wanting to tip her hand. “I wanted to compete with the guys at first, without them knowing who I was,” she adds. Her commercial construction company did a little over $500,000 in contracts last year, and almost the same this year. She’s already got $1.5 million in contracts lined up for 2017.
For her second act, Hicks is starting another business, with support as one of the 15 inaugural members of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI), a brand-new, city-funded incubator for women-owned businesses in Atlanta.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had been talking about launching an incubator for women-owned businesses since before he took office in 2010. It finally happened in 2015, and more than 100 women entrepreneurs applied to take part. A final group of 35 pitched their businesses before a selection committee of public and private sector representatives, who chose the 15 inaugural members.
Hicks’ second business, Women Do Everything, is a residential construction company that will provide electrical, plumbing, HVAC and light carpentry for Atlanta-area homeowners, primarily employing other women to do the work.
The idea caught Hicks by surprise. When the 2008 recession hit, Women Do Everything started out as just a blog and workshop series to teach women how to do repair work and home improvements, giving them some new skills while reducing costs at home.
“Most everybody that I know from workshops has gone back to work, but they kept calling me to come do some work for them because they didn’t have time,” says Hicks. “For some women it can be intimidating for so many men to come into their home.”
A lot of women found out that men were price-gouging them, or worse. “I have helped quite a few women after contractors took their money and run off without finishing the job,” says Hicks.
As part of WEI, Hicks is learning how to shift from her existing focus on commercial construction, dominated by men and mostly male clients, to a residential market where her clients (and employees) will mostly be women.
“It gave me the creative energy I needed to build this thing for women,” says Hicks. “Being in construction for 22 years, it can kind of harden you a little bit. You end up operating and communicating in a way that only men understand because that’s who you have to work with.”
WEI members come from a diverse array of industries, from food to tech to media to healthcare and beyond. Reed also recruited Theia Washington Smith as WEI’s executive director.
“I think one of the great things about WEI is it’s been a catalyst for community collaboration,” says Washington Smith. “It started with Mayor Reed, who had a vision prior to becoming mayor, but recognized it would take a community-wide effort.”
Besides recruiting Washington Smith, one of the first big decisions was selecting a location. Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, became a crucial partner in doing so, says Washington Smith. They sought a downtown location, with good transit access, and proximity to other resources and potential partners for WEI and for the cohort. They found it in Atlanta’s Flatiron Building, which was just finishing up modernization and redevelopment. In June this year, WEI moved into the top floor of the historic 11-story structure, which was actually completed five years before NYC’s more famous Flatiron Building.
The city invited other partners in an effort to weave the location into the broader entrepreneurship ecosystem, including a Microsoft Innovation Center on the ground floor. Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE), a Georgia-based community development financial institution specializing in small business loans and technical assistance, took up permanent residence in a new co-working space on another floor.
ACE founder and CEO Grace Fricks serves on the WEI advisory board, along with Carol Tomé, CFO of Home Depot, and Gerard Gibbons, president for U.S. sales at UPS (both Atlanta-based companies).
WEI members get free office space for 15 months, access to mentorship and advice from the six-member advisory board and other networks, technology resources from Microsoft, and, crucially, post-incubation support. Through its partnership with Invest Atlanta, WEI intends to give member businesses the same red-carpet treatment that economic development agencies all across the country have historically reserved for “attracting and retaining” large corporations.
“It really is putting the same level of power behind small businesses [as large corporations],” says Washington Smith.
One member in the food industry, for example, is working directly with Invest Atlanta to find a brick-and-mortar space for her business. Hicks will be working with Invest Atlanta to access loans for equipment and materials, and possibly finding a building for equipment and material storage.
As a metric for success, Washington Smith says the top priority for WEI is to put more women-owned businesses on the path to creating jobs. Seven members have already added at least one employee besides the founder, including Women Do Everything, which had zero employees before the cohort moved into the Flatiron Building this past June. Since then, Hicks says she’s already hired two full-time and two part-time employees, and she plans to be up to 10 staff in the spring when residential construction work starts to ramp up again.
Perhaps most importantly, WEI is fostering connections among women-owned firms. Nine members have done business with other cohort members so far. Washington Smith hopes that the current and future WEI cohorts will foster greater connections between the city’s resources and the other estimated 203,000 women-owned businesses in the Atlanta region. They don’t all have to be part of WEI, she says, to take advantage of resources like Invest Atlanta or ACE.
“I hope to inspire women to pursue their dreams and also to go back to what a lot of women used to do where we help each other,” adds Hicks. “I don’t promote independence for women, I promote interdependence. We all need each other.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Oscar is a Next City 2015-2016 equitable cities fellow. A New York City-based journalist with a background in global development and social enterprise, he has written about impact investing, microfinance, fair trade, entrepreneurship and more for publications such as Fast Company and NextBillion.net. He has a B.A. in Economics from Villanova University.