Category: 2021

Iron & Grace Pilates

Iron & Grace Pilates & Fitness Studio

Staying fit in body, mind, and business

Received a $60,000 EIDL loan and $6,000 grant.

When Alaya and Chad Sexton left their home state of Minnesota in search of a change in scenery and a more manageable pace of life, they left behind a highly successful fitness studio they had built from the ground up.

Attracted to Central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and mild climate, Alaya and Chad settled in Lynchburg where, as seasoned business owners, they set up Iron & Grace Fitness shortly after arriving in 2012. By the end of their first year, they outgrew their first Lynchburg location and had cultivated another loyal client base with their unique approach to functional training based in Pilates, TRX® suspension trainers, and kettlebells.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, however, the Sextons’ business — like many in the fitness industry — was forced to adapt. Iron & Grace pivoted to virtual classes. As the pandemic dragged on, Alaya sought financial assistance through the CARES Act, which led to a meeting with the SBDC in Lynchburg.

While that initial meeting was to facilitate an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) application for Iron & Grace, the resulting partnership evolved into one that is still thriving.

“It was so much more remarkable for us than we thought it would be,” Alaya says of her initial meeting with Jennifer Woofter’s team at the SBDC. “We connected with them to start the process for an EIDL grant, but they helped us ferret out a bunch of other parts of our business.”

Alaya and Chad took the SBDC’s guidance to heart and got back to the fundamentals of owning a business. As a result, she says, she regained a perspective and clarity for Iron & Grace that she had not experienced since the business’s early days as an upstart.

“My trajectory with this business was this: I was very on top of all of my metrics while it was growing. Then, once it stabilized, I didn’t set sales goals. I didn’t have a really great marketing plan. I was busy. I didn’t carve out the time to be as intimate with my business, once it hit a place where it felt stable and fine,” says Alaya. “I don’t know that we would have been able to feel as good about our business as we do now without a business coach like Jennifer.”

Now with their doors reopened, Iron & Grace is back to running at a strong pace, and the Sextons are back to doing what they love.

“Our ethos has always been to help people enjoy their bodies, enjoy their lives, and not let their bodies hold them back from things they want to achieve,” Alaya says. “That’s different for every individual.”

The same can be said for any business. Sometimes it just takes the right coach to get there.

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Highland Monument Conservation

Highland Monument Conservation

Honoring history by conserving and maintaining monuments

Started a new business; received a $6,500 VCEDA grant; signed a $40k contract with Gate City Cemetery.

Highland Monument Conservation

It is not every day that you encounter a child fascinated by monuments and cemeteries, but Burke Greear was one of them. “I can go all the way back to being a child, really, and having some sort of reverence or feeling for cemeteries — that they are places that need to be taken care of and maintained,” says Burke.

This fascination led him to start Highland Monument Conservation, a business offering professional maintenance and conservation for historic stones. Burke’s childhood admiration for these stones influences how he conducts business.

“I don’t just take these stones as objects,” he explains. “I think about the person. Every death was a life, and every life was a death, and that deserves to be remembered.”

As the only business of its kind in the area, Highland Monuments has no shortage of work. Customers frequently contact Burke after seeing the poor condition of family members’ graves. However, new projects necessitate additional equipment.

Burke contacted the Mt. Empire SBDC hoping to find funding for this equipment. His wife works at Mt. Empire Community College, where a friend of Burke’s had previously been the SBDC’s director. He introduced Burke to Becki O’Quinn, the new director who became Burke’s advisor.

In one-on-one meetings, Becki guided Burke through the application process for a Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA) grant. He received $6,500, which he described as “a godsend.” He used the money to purchase a tripod and a jack system to lift and level stones safely. The SBDC also helped him prepare project updates and progress reports to present to his local town council.

“Being a beneficiary of the SBDC has really made all the difference in the work I’m able to do,” he explains. His new tools expanded the services he can offer to municipalities, historical societies, churches, and entire cemeteries.

With the new equipment, Burke was able to complete a $40k contract with Gate City Cemetery. He will also use the equipment in an upcoming project with 350 town monuments.

As for the SBDC, Burke comments, “Folks don’t really realize everything that they have to offer, and it would benefit them if they would get to know their local SBDC.”

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Dominion Psychological Associates LLC

Dominion Psychological Associates LLC

Counseling was “heaven sent” for Dominion Psychological Associates

Started a new business and received a grant.


Michelle Lankford-Johnson was ready to launch Dominion Psychological Associates (DPA) in 2021 — pandemic or not. Fortunately, the Hampton Roads SBDC and Associate Director Debra Farley were on hand to help her establish that business.

“Debra Farley and the SBDC were heaven sent,” Michelle affirms.

In actuality, it was an earthly messenger, Michelle’s sister, who pointed her toward the SBDC after attending a class at Thomas Nelson Community College. “My sister told me the person teaching that class could tell me everything I needed to know about running a business,” Michelle notes. “I called Debra, made an appointment, and that was it!”

Michelle’s initial meeting with Debra began with crafting a plan. “Debra told me, “Number one is always a business plan,’” Michelle recalled. “Debra was very direct about that and a lot of other things — that’s what I like about her.”

Along with discussion of a business plan, Michelle received practical advice on how to get started. “We talked about how to register a business with the city,” Michelle explains. “Debra also made sure I knew who was important to have on my team — a banker, lawyer, CPA, and bookkeeper — things like that.”

Following the SBDC’s advice, Michelle registered her business last September. “From September to June 2021, I worked with the SBDC doing webinars and getting the groundwork done, so I could launch the business,” Michelle explains. “In grad school, they taught us a lot about social work but, then when I got a license, I suddenly realized — there’s a business part to this. I feel blessed to have help from the SBDC.”

Currently, Michelle is working with the SBDC to complete her business plan. “With Debra’s help, I’m going through the business plan to make sure I’ll be able to explain it,” Michelle says. “Once that’s done, I plan to apply to the city for funds to help with the set-up costs.”

Recently, Debra introduced Michelle to the SWaM (Small, Women-Owned, and Minority-Owned) business program. “I qualify for each area of SWaM,” Michelle notes. “There are benefits in that program, and I plan to take advantage of them.”

As a counselor herself, Michelle especially appreciates the business counseling she’s received from the SBDC. “When you hit that brick wall and don’t know which way to go next, having someone there to tell you the right way to go is extremely helpful,” she adds.

Michelle is already spreading the word about her number one resource — the SBDC. “You need a good foundation when you start a business,” she concludes. “The SBDC is an excellent resource to get you through those important first steps and be confident about the future.”

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Discover Next Step

Discover Next Step

Discover Next Step: Brain health and professional development

Increased sales and long-term contracts.

Barbara Gustavson always had a talent for coaching and mentoring, but her job as a financial analyst did not provide many opportunities for her to pursue this passion. After eleven years, she realized she needed a career change.

“The pay was great, the people were great, but I just felt something was missing,” she explains. Founding Discover Next Step, her coaching and consulting business, filled that empty space.

Barbara teaches clients simple strategies to help them determine the next steps in their personal and professional life. She also promotes holistic well-being and effective communication for teams. Her approach, which she developed through working with renowned psychologist Dr. Daniel Amen of the Amen Clinic, focuses largely on brain health. This research-informed method promotes creativity, fulfillment, and innovation, which all contribute to workplace productivity.

Working with the University of Mary Washington SBDC allowed Barbara to expand her business to mentor more people along their personal and professional journeys. Barbara reached out to the SBDC after receiving an email advertisement. At the time, she felt isolated from her local community and wanted a supportive team around her.

“It has been such a lifeline for me,” Barbara says, reflecting on her SBDC courses and one-on-one mentoring. “They’ve been so supportive of me in developing my mission statement, vision statement, and everything I’ve needed for my business.”

Her favorite SBDC offering is the women’s mentorship program organized by her advisor, Susan Ball, whom she calls an incredible connector. “If I was struggling in an area, she would immediately know who could help me,” says Barbara.

The pandemic posed new challenges for Barbara as businesses cut professional development budgets. To help Discover Next Step stay afloat, the SBDC helped her market her entrepreneur reset program to struggling businesses, as well as take on other new opportunities, including consulting for Dr. Daniel Amen as his new Brain Health Licensed Trainer Program Director. She also adopted a brain-based approach to executive coaching, which increased her sales.

“There’s such a need for mental-health support in the world,” Barbara says. “My vision is really just to grow a community of experts who want to make a difference.”

Barbara’s partnership with the SBDC has made her vision a reality. She recommends the SBDC to other small business owners, calling its advisors “socially responsible visionaries” with “amazing ideas about how to help people at a deeper level and make a social impact.”

As Barbara supports her clients, the SBDC will continue supporting her.

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Cowden Technologies, LLC

Cowden Technologies

Flying high: Drone tech company gets a lift

Secured grants from the Center for Innovative Technology ($79,500), Rebuild VA ($8,817), and Gauntlet 2020 Business Plan Award ($5,000), EIDL advance and loan ($110,000), and PPP ($6,000)

Have you ever wished something could work better than it does? Sometimes that’s all it takes to inspire someone with an entrepreneurial inclination to start a small business. And when inspiration strikes, the SBDC is there to assist.

Take Mickey Cowden, for example. In 2017, he was part of a Virginia Tech team that went to Abu Dhabi as a finalist in an international robotics competition. “A lot of the problems we had, doing field testing and stuff like that, I felt could be automated,” he said. “I was wishing we had a docking station so we could just land the drone automatically to handle logistics like power and data management instead of having to do everything manually.”

Fast forward to 2021. Mickey recently pivoted the focus of his small tech company, Cowden Technologies, from general software engineering to product development. The product? A smart docking station for mid-sized drones. Capabilities will include automatically recharging the drone’s battery, seamlessly transferring data to base or cloud storage, reloading payload (for spraying crops, for example), and providing a physical connection secure enough to hold tight even on a moving vehicle. But this pivot has come with a whole new set of challenges.

Enter Cheryl Tucker with the Roanoke SBDC. Based on a recommendation from a colleague at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, Mickey contacted Cheryl, who turned out to be an invaluable resource.

While the shift to product development has been a dream come true for Mickey, it also meant a shift to a whole new set of issues, many outside his area of expertise. “There’s a lot of different aspects to doing product development, and coming from the consulting world, I thought I had a reasonable handle on that,” Mickey says. “But in a lot of ways, it’s an entirely different beast.”

Cheryl provided Mickey guidance in everything from financial and business advice to making essential connections in the business world and successfully applying for loans, grants, and other funding sources.

As Mickey describes it, “Cheryl has been a wonderful business resource and actually turned out to be a very supportive friend, so I think I definitely lucked out when I got to work with Cheryl.”

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Carrington and Crafton

Carrington and Crafton Academy of the Performing Arts

A new generation revives a dance studio

Successfully started a business and was awarded a grant.

The Carrington and Crafton Academy of the Performing Arts (CAPA²) story is one of lasting friendship and the arts. Molly Williams’s grandmother, Ann Carrington, founded the Carrington Dance Studio in 1967, and Chelsea Moss’s grandmother, Petie Crafton, played the piano for the dance classes. “My mom and Molly’s mom were also best friends,” Chelsea says. “And Molly and I were also friends through the years.”

Molly took over the dance studio in Crewe when her grandmother retired. When Chelsea came back to town after dancing in New York, the two friends began to talk about opening a studio together. “When a space opened up in Farmville, we thought it would be the perfect place for us,” Chelsea explains. “We started dreaming it up in October 2020 and opened in January 2021.”

Chelsea’s father was the one who led them to the Longwood SBDC. “My dad knew Katherine Beale, who had worked in New York like I did and now worked for the SBDC,” Chelsea relates. “He suggested I call her for advice.”

Chelsea made the call and found Katherine ready and willing to help. For starters, Katherine encouraged Chelsea and Molly to reach out to their new community in Farmville. “Katherine suggested that we join the chamber, reach out to businesses and community members, and put out feelers to Longwood University,” Chelsea notes. “Her advice was to be confident and show people what we had to offer.”

Katherine also cautioned against overextending. “She said to think of three things you can do today and then do them,” Chelsea recalls. “It was the same when we talked about our future goals. Katherine told us our goals were great, but we should focus on things we need to do now to get to that point.”

The starting point for the two dance entrepreneurs was renovating a building. “We financed it out of pocket,” Chelsea explains. “We put in flooring, mirrors, bars, and fresh coats of paint.”

Advertising was done via Facebook, Instagram, and direct mail. “Katherine gave us tips on the open-house events we held,” Chelsea adds. “Katherine also put us in touch with Letterpress Communications. They did a marketing audit that gave us valuable feedback on every aspect of our business.”

Molly and Chelsea readily recommend the SBDC. “We really appreciate having another businesswoman as a cheerleader,” Chelsea concludes. “Katherine is confirming and complimentary — it’s especially helpful to hear her say, ‘Yes, you can do this!’”

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Akiak Technology

Akiak Technology

The SBDC joins Akiak Technology to aid Alaska’s tribal communities.

Created three new businesses; increased revenue from $4,000 in 2020 to $1.5 million halfway through 2021.

2023 SBA Small Business Person of the Year*

When Kevin and Sharon Hamer went to visit family in remote Akiak, Alaska, in 2018, they hadn’t planned to come back with a business. But two years later, they launched Akiak Technology, LLC, and they had both a business and a purpose.

“We went to visit my wife’s Tribe in Akiak, Alaska,” says Akiak Technology President and CEO Kevin Hamer. “While we were there talking about our government careers and pending retirement plans, Sharon’s cousins in the Tribe asked us what we could do to bring much-needed revenue back to the village. We agreed to help but didn’t know how to start.”

To figure that out, Kevin and Sharon set up a meeting with Senior Business Counselors George Siragusa and Bernard Ferret at the Mason SBDC. Over the next year, George and Bernard regularly met with the Hamers to establish a solid business framework. “George and Bernard were invaluable to us and helped us take years off of the new business learning curve,” Sharon says. “They guided us through the steps of turning our business purpose into a successful business plan of action.”

After 34 years of federal service, Kevin retired in January 2020 to work full time on Akiak Technology. They had some success in 2020, ending the year with 8(a) certification as a tribal-owned business. Their business model was centered around providing IT services to government customers. Due to the pandemic, that model dramatically expanded in 2021 to include tribal broadband services in rural Alaska.

“We expected to help our Tribe through revenue generation in the Washington metro area, but in 2021 our Tribe needed help getting broadband internet in Akiak,” said Kevin. “Our Tribe is one of 56 ‘unserved’ by broadband.”

The Hamers again turned to Mason SBDC’s George and Bernard to help them through the pivot to broadband. “We needed to find a way to offer our wireless broadband solution to the other unserved tribes and use grant money to fund the infrastructure builds.” Kevin said. Creating a new 501(c)3 nonprofit Tribal Consortium was the answer. “We didn’t know how to create a nonprofit, but George and Bernard did!” Sharon notes. “George and Bernard have been with us every step of the way.”

The results have been fantastic. In just four months, Akiak Technology has the wireless satellite system ready to deliver broadband services to 100 percent of Akiak homes and businesses.

But they didn’t stop there. With the help of George and Bernard from the SBDC, the Hamers set up the Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Broadband Consortium, which has 17 tribes representing 9,000 people. In September 2021, they submitted a proposal to bring affordable broadband to all 17 tribes.

The for-profit side of the business has been booming as well. The services Akiak Technology offers include digital transformation, agile software development, DevSecOps, IT management support, hybrid cloud services, and, of course, broadband. “Our first year in 2020, we had several small contracts that brought in around $4,000 in revenue,” Kevin relates. “This year, our revenue is about $1.5 million through a combination of contracts and grants.”

Kevin believes an important first step for his business was a visit to the SBDC.

“The SBDC accelerated our business startup and helped us pivot quickly when we faced new challenges/opportunities,” he concludes. “The SBDC is amazing — it’s been one of the major keys to our success.”

*2023 SBA Small Business Person of the Year

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) announced the 2023 State Small Business Persons of the Year award winners on March 16, 2023. Akiak Technology LLC is proud to announce that Sharon Hamer, the first indigenous President of our tribally owned 8(a) business, was named Virginia’s Small Business Person of the Year.

Each year, SBA honors outstanding small business owners and entrepreneurs from each of the States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Virginia’s 2023 Small Business Person of the Year is Sharon Hamer, President and Co-founder of Akiak Technology, LLC.

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Air Treatment Company

Air Treatment Company

Bigger and better: Air Treatment Company’s new chapter

Secured $1.5 million loan; increased sales by $1.3 million; created six jobs; retained 19 employees.

Air Treatment Company had been in business for years when Jim Griffin and Dan Simpson bought the company from Dan’s uncle in 2020. They both wanted to make a good thing even better. “When we bought it, I’d worked there for about seven years, and we saw an opportunity to make it bigger, better, and more profitable,” says Dan.

Air Treatment Company ( provides comprehensive maintenance, repairs, and replacements on air and heating units. Their goal is to keep customers’ homes comfortable and provide efficient, effective service.

Jim and Dan were not sure where to start when buying the company, so they reached out to the Mason SBDC. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Jim admits. He met with his advisor, Timm Johnson. “The first visit, I came in as a deer in the headlights and left there somewhat confident that we could do this,” Jim says.

Working with the SBDC helped Jim and Dan secure a $1.5 million loan, increase their sales by $1.3 million, create six jobs, and retain 19 employees. They plan to use their loan to purchase commercial real estate in the future.

Jim and Dan are proud of the company’s positive culture, both for employees and customers. “When a customer has a complaint or a concern, we fix it immediately, and we usually do a little more than what they ask,” says Dan. Regarding employees, he adds, “I can make the people around me feel appreciated by giving them the things they deserve and the things that make them feel important. So, when I walk through the door, I feel like it’s a work family.”

Jim explains that the SBDC “can help with a wide variety of different areas, not just the actual initial purchase or startup,” citing human resources and advertising as other supports provided.

“Somebody who’s thinking about going into business for themselves should know that they’re welcome [at the SBDC],” Dan adds. “They’ll be happily received and given good guidance.”

Jim and Dan have already referred other business owners to the SBDC and will continue to utilize its resources as Air Treatment Company grows.

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Agenacare Housecalls

Agenacare Housecalls

Agenacare Housecalls helps bring care home

Increased patient volume from 25 to 2,500 in less than two years; created 15 jobs.

“When I started Agenacare Housecalls, I asked myself what I would want as a mom,” Whitney Pugh says. “Health care in the home is exactly what I would want.”

Whitney took her idea to Roanoke Regional SBDC’s business advisor Tom Tanner. “I told him I have this idea for a business, but I don’t know how to do it,” she recalls. “Tom helped me put the business together in August, and we launched it in November.”

Whitney, a nurse practitioner, went to the SBDC for help with business specifics. “I knew my field but nothing about business,” she says. “Initially, Tom helped me understand the difference between a PLLC and LLC, and helped me get my tax ID and establish a bank account. He walked me through all those things I had no clue about.”

As the business name implies, Agenacare makes house calls. During the last two months of 2019, Whitney, the sole provider, cared for 25 patients in their homes. Despite the pandemic, the patient count in 2020 increased to 500. “We made the decision when COVID started that we were not going to shut down,” Whitney says. “I was still the sole provider until December 2020.”

By 2021, Agenacare’s staff had grown to five providers, five contractors, and five administrators. “To date in 2021, we’re at 2,500 patient visits,” Whitney adds. “We don’t take insurance, so for us to be that busy is really good.”

Tom has been involved every step of the way. “I go to Tom first and say, ‘this is what we want to do — will it work?’” Whitney says. “Tom is my sounding board when I want to see if something is doable.”

Future plans include adding more areas of care. “What the community needs is what we develop,” Whitney notes. “We’ve already split into two practices, and we’re on our way to adding a third.” Before offering managed care, Whitney plans to consult the SBDC. “The SBDC helped me get where I am today,” she says. “I consider Tom a key player in my business.”

Whitney enthusiastically recommends the SBDC to all who ask about her success. “I recommend the SBDC a thousand percent,” Whitney concludes. “I’m very appreciative of all the help I’ve received from them.”

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Advantage Supply Center

Advantage Supply Center

From farm animals to pharmaceuticals and everything in between

Received $35,000 Payroll Protection Program Loan

For the majority of her professional career in information technology and process analysis, Celeste DeVaneaux has worked among teams of similarly knowledgeable and talented professionals.

However, when she moved solo across the country to open Advantage Supply Center, Inc., in Virginia in 2014, she found herself uncomfortably isolated.

“I cut my teeth on the West Coast, so one of my challenges in starting the business was being in Virginia and understanding the rules and the climate around here,” Celeste says. “I had trouble finding somebody who knows more than I do, and I’m not saying that to be conceited. I just had a big support group on the West Coast, but I didn’t have that here.”

Living in a new state as a first-time business owner without the safety net of trusted peers, Celeste’s leap-of-faith move to the Commonwealth quickly turned into a freefall. Her business model was to create a service that assists state agencies with purchasing necessary products at affordable prices — all within the confines of the state’s purchasing protocols. With a once-robust network of peers nonexistent in her new home state, Celeste began seeking out expertise anywhere she could find it, which quickly led her to the SBDC.

“I was used to incubators in California, so as soon as I started this up I started researching what was available in the state,” she says. “I found the SBDC through Virginia Highlands Community College, and they were very helpful in connecting me with the people I needed to be connected with and in areas like financial planning and cash management.”

Cindy Fields of the Virginia Highlands SBDC became Celeste’s point person at startup, but the SBDC’s assistance did not stop there. She has remained an ally throughout Advantage’s six-plus years of operation and has proven to be a valuable extension of the Micro SWaM company’s six-person staff. The company now supplies state agencies “with everything from farm animals to pharmaceuticals” and, with the help of the SBDC, successfully navigated a COVID-19 shutdown that significantly scaled back the purchasing power of Celeste’s clients.

“When the initial shutdown happened in March of 2020, our customer base dried up,” she says. “The SBDC was very helpful getting us through that. I spent a great deal of time in meetings and training, filling out grant applications and essentially jumping from rock to rock over the lava pit to keep the money flowing, so I could keep people employed.”

The SBDC assisted Celeste with a Payroll Protection Program loan and supplied her with necessary contacts when needed, including a new bank.

“I didn’t know where to go, and it was the contacts I had with the SBDC that pointed me in the right direction,” she says. “That’s really valuable. It’s not just the assistance they offered in applying for a loan; it’s the connections they have and how quickly they used those to help me when I needed them.”

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