Entrepreneur Grows Grant-Writing Firm, Aims To Lift Region

By Ronald Fisher
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) “Aspire Grant & Development Partners” has made an impact on non profits across Pennsylvania. In the three years she has been in business, owner Michele Beener has secured more than $36 million in grant money for her clients.

The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

Building a legacy is something that Seven Springs-area native Michele Beener works toward daily in her Somerset office.

Beener, a Rockwood Area High School graduate, spent many years working for Somerset Hospital as the senior manager for government relations, marketing, strategic planning and community/diabetic education.

While Beener was happy in her role at the hospital, she liked the idea of leading her own organization.

Three years ago Beener opened the doors of Aspire Grant & Development Partners, a full-service federal, state and private grant research, submission and management agency.

“One of the things I loved while at Somerset Hospital was my ability to get grants,” Beener said. “I had done that for a long time, and I was increasingly being approached in the community by folks who had projects that I knew I could find funds for.

“When you have a very stable job that you would like to retire from, but yet you have that entrepreneurial side, it becomes an internal struggle,” Beener said.

“I started to worry about how much money I could continue to bring to Somerset Hospital if I were just working on Somerset Hospital,” she said. “I knew at that time that there were enough things out there that I could go get and make them happen — so I just jumped out and started my business in like a day.

“I left the hospital, and in two weeks I never looked back,” she said.

Located at 118 W. Main St. in Somerset, Aspire Grant & Development Partners has made an impact not only on that community but across the region. In three years Beener has secured more than $36 million in grant money for her clients.

‘Specialized’ business
Beener, who earned a master’s degree in business ethics from Duquesne University, credits her business‘ early success to her staff — made up entirely of women.

She currently employs five people and has an additional 19 consultants with whom she works. Beener said that each of her employees brings a specialized focus to the operation.

“I wanted to offer a consulting team where everybody had a unique skill set,” Beener said.

Q and A with Michele Beener

Question: Why did you choose to become an entrepreneur?

Answer: I think I chose to start my own business because I am independent, and I’m pretty driven. Given the choice to do a lot of things, I choose to work. I was raised that way.

Question: To what do you credit your business success?

Answer: Hard work and determination. It is not easy to get a $1 million. You’ve got to be determined, and you can’t give up.

Question: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs?

Answer: You have to be positive and determined, but you got to make time for yourself and time to evaluate. I think your first year in business you got to take steps back and evaluate what you are doing, and ditch what doesn’t make sense … don’t second guess yourself.

Also, one thing I can’t stress enough is surround yourself with good people. Get in business with good ethical people, moral people who will support you along the way that you can build sustainable relationships with. That is the No. 1 key to being successful in business.

Question: How do you define success?

Answer: Being happy and making a difference. I want to make sure that I am making an income for my family that I could be very proud of.

Question: What was the most significant turning point in the success of your business?

Answer: I underestimated my ability to grow this business outside of the area. The sky is the limit when you’re an entrepreneur, and when I stopped limiting myself and attacked the market — here I am.

Question: Which individuals were the most influential in your success and why?

Answer: My father (Michael J. Miller), absolutely. He always has my back, my biggest fan, very ethical. He taught me to always surround myself with good people.

Eric Mock, the CEO of Seven Springs. He’s now the CEO of Hidden Valley and Laurel Mountain (Ski Resort). He always allowed me to stretch my creativity. A gentleman that always believes in caring about the people he works with. I can’t say enough about Eric and his impact on my philosophy as a business owner.

Jackie Kulback of Gautier Steel. Being a woman in politics is extremely difficult. Some of our grants are political, and I am not a hard woman — I am emotional and I am a farm girl — and there were days I’m like, “I am in over my head.”

And I could always count on Jackie to say, “We’ve got this, we are women in nontraditional industries, and we can support one another, and we can get good work done together and everybody will benefit.”

Question: What is the legacy that you want to leave behind?

Answer: I don’t think it is so much about Aspire, but I think it’s a legacy of knowing that when I am gone my children can come back to Somerset County and know that their mom had an impact. I know that my father had a tremendous impact on this region, so I’d like my efforts and my life to be a reflection of his.

I’d like my kids to one day come back to our farm, hopefully over Christmas, and say, “Our economy is still thriving because Mom did this or Mom did that.” They could be very proud of that.

“So when we go bid a city or a township, we’ve got an edge, because we have a diverse skill set.

“Grant writing has become increasingly specialized,” she said. “There was this perception that if you were a small facility — in, let’s say, rural Pennsylvania — you shouldn’t even apply for grants because nationally your chances were very limited. So folks stopped applying. You either hire a grant writer that can’t possibly understand all of these agencies or you hire a firm that has a lot resources in the mix.”

Being able to offer a one-stop-shop to her clients and prospects gives Beener an advantage, she said. So she fully understands the importance of surrounding herself with a strong team.

Empowering women is important to Beener. Aspire Grant & Development Partners will be sponsoring a networking mixer, BizWomen Connect, from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at Industrious Pittsburgh.

Beener, a mother of four, was recently nominated for the Greater Pittsburgh ATHENA Award.

The award recognizes exceptional women who demonstrate excellence in their professions, contribute to their communities and help other women to succeed through mentorship. The ATHENA Award luncheon will be held Oct. 2 at the Westin Convention Center in Pittsburgh.

Beener said all members of her women-powered consulting team are active in the National Grants Management Association, assuring compliance with grant agency guidelines post-award.

“There’s no similar model,” Beener said. “You’re not going to have audit risks, and you’re going to get your money.”

‘Created a niche’
What also separates Aspire from some grant-writing firms is that Beener does not take on every potential client.

“I want to work with people who want to make a difference in the community,” Beener said. “I don’t feel that everyone is the right candidate for state and federal money. I take that very personal — and it’s created a niche for us.”

While she can’t disclose all of the names of her nonprofit and for-profit clients, she takes pride in her company’s 86 percent success rate, which includes big wins for Twin Lakes, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center; Corsa Coal, a mine developer that recently opened the Acosta mine in Somerset County; and Gautier Steel, a hot-rolled carbon and alloy bar manufacturer in Johnstown.

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