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SMC office helps women SPARK businesses

Kaitlyn Rabach | Thursday, February 21, 2013


The Saint Mary’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI) has opened its application process for the fourth session of SPARK, an eleven-week entrepreneurship training program for women in the greater South Bend community. 

SPARK 2013 will take place from March 5 to May 16, and participants can choose between morning and evening classes, which run for three hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

“Since we started in 2011, the SPARK program has really grown,” WEI project director Martha Smith said. “We started with just one session a year and then moved up to two. Inaugurating the evening classes will allow more women to apply for the program. This way we can help spark more businesses.” 

The program is dedicated to assisting low- to middle-income women in the community gain more business knowledge on how to become entrepreneurs, Smith said. Each woman applies for the program with a business idea and if accepted, she expands her business plan so it can become a reality. 

Juli Turrell, who works as a realtor with Kaser Realty in South Bend, is one of this year’s applicants. Turrell said she wants to open an alternative therapeutic center in the community.  

“A friend told me about the program and it seemed like a perfect fit,” Turrell said. “I would like to be an entrepreneur, but there is just so much that I do not know. I hope to be accepted into this program so I can get my business up and running within the next six to nine months.”

The SPARK program is modeled after a San Francisco non-profit called the Women’s Initiative, Smith said. Both programs include intense training sessions on topics like marketing, break-even points, mission statements, business plans, stress management, networking, record-keeping and loan information. 

“SPARK has three phases,” Smith said. “First we begin with the screening sessions, and then we move to program acceleration or the 11-week training sessions. 

“However, we do not stop there. The third phase is ‘rekindling the flame’. Participants must attend monthly meetings and we provide mentorship for up to a year after the training sessions are finished.”

Smith said the greater South Bend community has played a significant role in funding the SPARK program. The main sponsors for the program are First Source, PNC Bank, NIBSCO and Key Bank, as well as small donors from the community.

“The beauty of this program is that it’s Saint Mary’s College facilitating a program sponsored by a group of members in the community,” Smith said. “It is from the community and for the community.”

Since its first session in 2011, Saint Mary’s has collaborated with the Notre Dame Clinic Law Center to help participants have a better grasp on the legal aspects of owning their own business.

Clinical professor of law James Kelly oversees his third-year law students at the center, helping to draft and review contracts, advise and represent clients on leasing, employment and other regulatory compliance obligations.

“While we represent both nonprofits and for-profits, the small business clients referred to us from SPARK are a highly valued part of our client base,” Kelly said. “The women receiving business training and mentoring from SPARK are starting interesting and exciting new ventures that benefit greatly from the legal advice and representation that our certified law interns provide. 

“The center is very proud to support SPARK’s mission of making our local economy more inclusive and fostering the creative energy of the women of our community.”

Smith said she is thankful for the clinic’s work and believes this collaboration will only improve the program’s 55 percent success rate.

“Our SPARKlers have been very successful,” Smith said. “They have started bilingual daycares, catering services, fitness centers and those are just to name a few. Not only do they leave with the spark to start their own businesses, but each woman blossoms and leaves with increased self-confidence.”