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SPARK grad launches business

| Thursday, September 11, 2014

Gail Hickey launched her new small business, The Bend Executive Shuttle, on Aug. 19 after successfully completing the SPARK program at Saint Mary’s College, an 11-week program sponsored by Saint Mary’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI) that helps South Bend women gain business skills to succeed.

Hickey has been an independent contractor in the South Bend area for the past six years. She developed a relationship between Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame and as a result obtained a large clientele, which gave her the idea to create her own shuttle company, Hickey said.

“Because I was already an independent contractor, it was a very easy transition,” Hickey said. “But I needed things that I wasn’t privy to as far as business plan writing and things of that sort, which is why I ended up coming [to Saint Mary’s] to the SPARK program.”

Hickey said her service is not just another cab company.

“It is going to be a little more than [people] normally expect,” she said. “We do a lot more for our clients than other cab companies do and even more so than limos do. People have even called my service a ‘rolling concierge.’”

In order to get the company off the ground, Hickey needed to learn how to write a business plan, develop social media and develop a capital for herself, she said.

“There is a lot to put together and they give you all the tools,” Hickey said. “It’s not just the paper that they give you, but the camaraderie and the friendships you develop. It’s people that have the same vision as you do for wanting to be a woman in business, and you feed off that energy and it’s fabulous. … I would recommend it highly to anybody, and I have.”

SPARK has three phases starting with an orientation session for anyone with a viable business idea and willingness to launch that business and they get selected, Martha Smith, WEI project director said.

“Just because you apply to the program doesn’t mean you’ll be accepted,” Smith said. “We have a minimum of eight participants that we take in and a maximum of 14. The more likely they are to launch that business, the more likely they are to get accepted.”

After orientation the 11-week course begins, meeting twice a week, Smith said. Community members with business expertise such as CPAs, lawyers, business owners, psychologists and social workers teach the classes.

“We prefer that people with expertise in that particular area teach the class,” Smith said. “They give you their business card … they really, really want to help.

Graduation follows the 11-week course, Smith said.

“It’s a big high for everyone and then reality sets in — this is a lot of work and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Smith said. “At the end of the 11 weeks, there’s two features they end up with: a business plan and increased self-confidence.”

Rekindle the Flame is the third component to SPARK, Smith said. Participants meet once a month at the college and have an educational component for one hour and one hour of networking. They discuss success stories and lessons they have learned.

“This exchange is give and take, and once a year we have a retreat,” Smith said. “Everyone comes in together and again we celebrate successes and we learn from each other. ‘What could have been done better?’ or ‘How do we go forward?’ or ‘How do we tweak the idea so that you can too become a success story?’”

Eighty-one women have gone through the SPARK and SPARKart program since 2011, Smith said. Hickey’s class was the most successful class thus far.

“The neatest thing is that I’m a business owner,” Hickey said. “It brings tears to my eyes because I own my own business. That is so hard to do nowadays and I just thank God every day that I am a business owner. To be able to go into a company and tell them what I do and hand them my business card and have it say owner, that’s huge.”

Saint Mary’s provides a connection to the SCORE program post-graduation. SCORE is a program sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration to provide advice to small business owners.

“They end the program and they end up with a business plan to do it and then SCORE takes over,” Smith said. “It’s a service that they don’t charge for and very few people take advantage of it. There’s a retired professor from Saint Mary’s, who is a SCORE advisor, and he connected us with SCORE.

“It’s all Saint Mary’s connections that we offer to them. Saint Mary’s offers the connections and the network so they can be successful.”

“The main feature [of SPARK] is that it is for women only,” Smith said. “It’s women helping women, that is our distinction. We take a woman whose business idea is viable and wishes to launch that business, regardless of where they come from.”

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About Alex Winegar

A junior at Saint Mary's, Alex is a Communicative Sciences and Disorders major. She serves as the Saint Mary's co-associate news editor. Alex enjoys traveling, food and spending time in "The Mitten."

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