NextLevel Program Graduates Learn To Make Small Businesses Prosper

By Tim Omarzu
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.

Chattanooga is great if you’re an entrepreneur.

Wendy Buckner knows that first hand because in 2008 she took part in the inaugural CreateHere Springboard, a program that helped entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses and eventually evolved into today’s Company Lab entrepreneur “incubator.”

“That class helped me create my business,” said Buckner, who co-founded the Hot Chocolatier artisan chocolate shop that year with her husband Brandon Buckner.

Now Wendy Buckner has taken part in the first-ever class of a new program meant to help existing Chattanooga-area business owners thrive.

At a Thursday night ceremony, she was recognized as one of 16 business owners to graduate from the first round of classes in a program called NextLevel that’s offered by the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga.

“I highly recommend it to other business owners. Especially people without a business background like me,” Buckner said. “It’s going to teach you how to create a growth plan.”

Buckner said the NextLevel program got her to realize she needs to back off from day-to-day operations and focus on the big picture.

“I work too much in my business and not on it,” she said.
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The program also exposed her to a book that she likes and recommends, “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It.”

And Buckner said it helped to get away from the Hot Chocolatier, where she regularly works 80-hour weeks, to rub elbows with other small business owners.

“This class brought us all together, and I’m like, ‘You have that problem, too?'”

Participants were required to be in business at least three years, have at least one full-time employee besides the owner, and have $250,000 to $10 million in revenue. Each business owner paid $1,000 to take seven months of night classes. That helped cover the expense of the program, which got most of its funding from the Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations, said Warren Logan, president and CEO of the Urban League.

“You’ve got to have a little skin in the game,” Logan said as the reason to charge business owners tuition for the course.

The NextLevel program is based on curriculum developed by the nationally recognized and award-winning StreetWise MBA curriculum developed by Interise, a Boston-based nonprofit organization. Follow-up studies demonstrate that the program works well, Logan said.

“They just had a tremendous growth rate for small business owners that had gone through the course,” he said.

Logan said the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga will offer two or three NextLevel classes early next year and then do a follow-up study to see how well the program works here.

“We’re kind of piloting this for the national Urban League,” he said.

Historically, the Urban League is an African-American organization, but the NextLevel program is open to all, Logan said.

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