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Part Three: HBCUs and Business Incubators

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By Rosaland Tyler

Associate Editor

New Journal and Guide


An unfortunate chain of events could have transformed Karon Shields into the worst kind of statistic.

Shields returned to work from a four-day weekend in 2008, learned her boss had sold the company, but she decided to buy it with a relative. For four years, Shields operated Covenant Care at the Hampton University Business Incubator. Now, she is the best kind of statistic. Her company employs 24 people after starting with six employees. It is accredited, located in Hampton, and offers a range of personal and in-home health care services to seniors, veterans, the disabled, and those who want to remain at home.


“We are gradually growing,” Shields said. “We have had quite a few struggles. This is how the business incubator helped us. We were able to acquire small business capital. The director of the center would meet with us each month for a class and we would brainstorm on how we could help each other grow.”


 “The director helped us talk to people at the VA Hospital,” said Shields, whose owns the company with a relative, Rhonda Scales, who is an attorney at Jefferson Labs.

“We are contracted with the VA Hospital now,” Shields said. “We have World War II veterans we care for. Our practice serves people from ages 18 to death. The director of the center was a huge asset when we were going through the accreditation process. The center also educated us business wise. There are many knowledgeable and prestigious people on the board at the center. I can go on and on about the business incubator. But because of it, I believe we are going to make it. It is God’s will.”


“When we opened we had in our heads we would go to the incubator because we would need guidance and expertise to lean on,” Shields said. “We are firm believers in Christ and proud to be a Christian-based company.”

Statistics show small women-owned businesses create 16 percent of all jobs in the United States. Female-headed firms generate about $1.4 trillion each year and employ 7.9 million people, according to the 2014 State Of Women-Owned Business Report released in March. Another interesting statistic is that each day, about 1,299 women open a business in the U.S.  During the past 17 years, the number of women-owned businesses has increased at 1.5 times the national average.


“The report clearly shows that women are choosing the path of entrepreneurship at record rates,” said Randi Schochet, vice president, Brand Strategy and Activation, American Express OPEN, which commissioned the report. ”Women-owned businesses in the United States account for 30 percent of all enterprises,” Schochet said.


This means when Shields nursed her new company along at the business incubator at Hampton University, she joined more than 9.1 million women who run their own businesses nationwide. Providing space and nurturing services to new and small businesses in the crucial early years, the Hampton incubator is one of scores of centers at HBCUs that offer office space, equipment, training, and other services to new businesses in the early years.




In Maryland, Sonya Hopson launched her company at her kitchen table in 2010. In a recent phone interview, Hopson reflected on how she could have become the worst kind of statistic after she became pregnant at age 18 with twins in her freshman year at Norfolk State University.

Instead, Hopson earned a degree in physics at NSU in 1990. In fact, her twins were 3 years old when they sat watching their mother cross the stage during commencement ceremonies at NSU. Hopson grew up in Cavalier Manor in Portsmouth. During the week her parents watched the twins who are now 27. She had a scholarship, lived on campus, and returned home each week to Portsmouth to be a single parent.


“God is so mind blowing at times,” Hopson said in a phone interview from her office at the Bowie Business Innovation Center located at Bowie State University. “I went to NSU, school started in August. In October I found out I was pregnant. I finished my exams on a Wednesday, and the children were born. I returned to school for spring semester. God covered me with a family that loved and supported me. I graduated in four years.”

Instead of becoming the worst kind of statistic, Hopson graduated and worked at a nuclear power facility for 13 years. From 2005 to 2013, she worked at NASA Goddard Space Center.


In July 2013, she moved the firm she launched on her kitchen table into the Business Innovation Center at Bowie State University. Hopson is president and CEO of Sage Services Group LLC. Her company provides workforce re-entry training on a sliding scale and contractual basis. Her company also helps to implement these programs at non-profits and government agencies.


“I could have been a statistic but by God’s grace I was not,” Hopson said. “By age 40 I was working for NASA and traveling all over the world. I have two undergraduate degrees and a master’s degree.”


“Business is great,” said Hopson, who also has a 16-year-old daughter. “We are looking at doing close to $200,000 in our first year. Being in the incubator is very helpful. I am among counselors who help you avoid pitfalls.”


“Now I have nine teachers who work with me part time,” Hopson explained. “We started out with three clients – three non-public schools in Prince George’s Country. Now we have nine schools. We also work with charter schools and churches. We provide support to children who qualify for free meals. They are considered at risk. My teachers provide math and reading support. We also do SAT preparation and testing. We provide other types of academic support programs, as well as workforce development and re-entry training for ex-offenders.”


“I am minority certified in Md., Penn. N.C., Ga., and Fla.,” Hopson said. “My true vision involves expanding into other states. I recently hired a business development specialist. And my company was recently certified to provide engineering services in the past three weeks. The work is coming in. God has more than opened doors. He has opened windows.”

There 26 incubator centers in Maryland, said Lisa S. Smith, executive director of the Bowie Business Innovation Center. Bowie has the only center located at a historically Black college and university in Maryland. Prince George’s County ranks second behind Montgomery County in having the largest number of women-owned businesses in the state.


The innovation center operates as a separate non-profit with an operating agreement with the university. The center has an annual budget of $200,000 that comes from public and private funds. It is self-supporting and 75 percent of its funding comes from public funds.

It has nine offices that are leased on a 12-month basis for rates ranging from $575 to $600 a month. The furnished offices include internet, phone service, printing, a conference room that seats 12, a lounge, kitchen, and 24-7 access. Clients also have access to facilities and services at the business school at Bowie State University.


The innovation center also offers six start-up companies access, but no office space. These six start-ups pay $250 a month. They receive mentoring and other services including access to the facilities and services at the university’s school of business.


“Our project is unique in many ways,” said Smith who is also on the board of directors at Financial Services Corp. of Prince George’s County. It provides loans and other types of public and private assistance to small businesses in the county.


“We are only two years old,” Smith said. “We have a dual mission. We accelerate and identify growth in young companies that enter our program, take space, leave our program, create jobs, and continue to diversify economic development in the Bowie area.”

“Business incubation is a process,” Smith explained. “We are very big on mentoring the heart and soul of what we do. We have 15 clients at the moment.”


“This gets to the second part of our mission,” said Smith who worked for 15 years at Angle Technology in the United Kingdom. For eight years she worked at North Star Innovation Partners as a business consultant. In 2009 she began working on a feasibility study for the innovation center at Bowie State University.


“My experience is useful and valuable to my clients,” Smith said. “We provide education through internships, special projects, and other initiatives. Our companies agree to be the subject of business planning assignments, address classes, and in some cases hire students for credit internships. We are the bridge between the theory and the real world.”


“We fully believe we have extraordinary impact,” Smith said. “Each year I make a formal presentation to the mayor and to the city council. They were our first sponsors. This year after I made my report, they said, ‘You have exceeded our expectations. Please keep up the good work. Let us know what you need.’ I felt it was praise of the highest order. Top officials complimented our efforts.”

 ...Next Week

How HBCU business incubators are creating entrepreneurs and jobs nationwide.

Last modified on Thursday, 17 July 2014 10:24
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