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  • Writer's pictureAlissa Fisher

Entrepreneurs of Erie

RISE Highlights Erie County Small Business Owners to Celebrate National Small Business Week (April 30th - May 6th 2023)

Welcome to "Entrepreneurs of Erie," a captivating campaign by the Regional Incubator for Sustainability & Entrepreneurship (RISE) that celebrates the spirit of innovation and resilience embodied by our local small business owners. In honor of National Small Business Week 2023, RISE had the privilege of interviewing seven remarkable entrepreneurs from Erie County. RISE presented their stories by sharing one powerful quote from each. Join us as we dive into the extraordinary tales of these visionaries who continue to shape the economic fabric of our community.

Dr. Danielle Hayward-Sneider, Bright Ideas Speech Therapy

"I sort of put my career on the back burner and raised my kids. Now, all of my kids are 18 or over except my youngest is in seventh grade. I started refocusing, since I had a little more time, on what I wanted to do. I did tons of research to find something that checked all my boxes. Through my research I found the Northwestern SLPD program, a clinical doctorate program. You can tailor the program, everything you do, toward where you want your practice to go and turn around and apply it. I always wanted to go to Northwestern. When I finished undergrad, that’s where I wanted to go. So this was really the stars aligning. This is exactly what I am looking for. They can help me get this right. I applied but I didn’t tell anybody, I thought there was 0% chance that this little hospital therapist in rural Ohio was going to get in. How am I going to stand out? I only told my husband that I applied. I got a call out of the blue that they wanted to interview me. I still thought to myself, they probably interview everybody. So I interviewed and I didn’t hear anything for a while. One day, I am driving in between patients and I get a call and it says Evanston, and I didn’t really think about Evanston, Illinois which is where Northwestern is.

She says thanks for applying and interviewing, and I thought here it is, this is the let down, and she says we were really impressed with you and we think you would be a great addition to the cohort - they only take 20 in the world - and we wanted to offer you a scholarship. I almost wrecked my car. So I got to take these great business classes, and the teacher was an SLP and had an MBA, so it was perfect. I was going to wait until I completed the program before I started my business, but after a couple classes, I decided I wanted to start. I did and I got way more interest than I expected.

I thought, all right, let’s do this. When I graduated I was starry eyed. I thought I was going to change the world. Everyone thinks that when they graduate. I don’t know maybe I am changing the world. You can’t fix the entire world, so I always say change your little corner."

Shawna Stencil, Downs on the Farm & Castalia Farms

"My youngest was born with down syndrome, and at the time, I was already rescuing animals. There was a natural link & bond I was noticing between animals and people with disabilities. I wanted to start a nonprofit that would combine both the rescue aspect and animal assisted activities for those with disabilities.

I have always had a passion for rescuing animals. Ever since I was a little kid. I’d bring home all kinds of little things. My mom would say, 'Oh my gosh, Shawna, where do you find this stuff?' That’s just my heart. I’ve always been drawn to them. Animals show a very non-judgmental, unconditional love. They don’t look at us like we look at each other. It offers a place of acceptance and something kids don’t always get out in the real world.

For the venue, Matt and I decided to take on the property because we fell in love with it and its history. It had gone about a decade without proper maintenance. We wanted to bring it back to life. Instead of being private like it had been for decades, we wanted to open it to the public. We found a way we could do that by hosting different events like weddings."

Tim Smelcer, ISI Solutions

"My wife would say I am stubborn, well, because I am. I have always been that person that says, 'tell me I can’t do it, and I’ll prove you wrong.' Or at least I’ll give it a really good shot. Marketing is always changing. Google is always changing. Every few months, something is changing. For me, I love the challenge of trying to stay on top of things and help somebody get the results they are looking for. Resilient may be a better sounding word. I do try to push myself harder than I probably should sometimes, but I want to succeed. Not for myself but for my clients who are trusting me.

What got us into the business was helping business owners who feel stuck, who are wearing a lot of hats, and they just don’t where to turn. My why, and I don’t really have a clever way of saying it, really is just about helping people. I am an ordained pastor, so I spent the first 20 years of my life after high school in that world. Faith has been a big part of my life. And part of faith has been helping others make better choices and lead a better life."

Lea Wechter, Gathering Grounds Coffee House

“Why do I do what I do? I think it's easier to say why I started. I lived in Norwalk and I had a business in Huron before the coffee shop. I always had to stop in Norwalk before I got to work to get a coffee. Once I was doing business in Huron, I found I really liked it here. Good people. Good morals. It’s a good community. Now, how I see the coffee shop, it belongs to the community. It is no longer mine. Yes, I facilitate a lot of the things that happen, but really what it is, is what the community asks for.

One of the things I am most proud of is how I treat my staff. I don’t underestimate them. I want them to make living wages. I want them to have good lives. I really care about them. Not just in work, but out of work. And I think that is part of what makes me successful. My staff want to see me succeed. I want this to be a place of work that is safe and steady. I want to cultivate an environment for people to grow.

I am extremely self-motivated. I think I am more motivated than anybody I know. I can come up with an idea and not be so scared by it, that I can figure out how to do it. Then do it. Taking those big steps can be really hard for people. Though, I do doubt myself sometimes, when I am passionate about something, I just go go go. Nothing will stop me. Other people ask me “How do you start?” And I say, “I just start.” I don’t hold myself back. No idea is too big.”

Grant Puckrin, 19th Designs

“I knew from a young age that I wanted to either start something or be part of something from the ground up. I started my business part time through high school and college. I took a job right out of college. When the opportunity presented itself to take my business full-time, I just jumped in with both feet.

People thought I was crazy, which maybe I still am. You know you are leaving the security of a job to commit to a high-risk situation. I think before people make that decision, they need to have a goal. Give your business this many months to make a certain amount per month and if that doesn’t work, you have to be willing to go back to a job until things reallocate out and then try again. That’s what you see a lot of startups do. They’ll get caught up in committing to something they think is going to work for months and months and before they know it, they’re closed.

So, I was nervous to take the risk, but I knew deep down it was the right move to make at the time. My business was scaling up to where it was matching my part-time job. And, I am very passionate at what I do. I think that passion has lit a fire under me to keep going. I am a forward-thinker, too. I think months and years in advance. I love looking back to see how far I have come. I can say I built this. It takes a lot of work, but I have a lot of pride in building this business.”

Jason Layhue, Shooter Films

“I was working at another place, and I got injured. I fell 26 feet through a ceiling. Broke my back in two places. I had a bunch of friends in the entertainment business. Two of them were paying different videographers, not from Sandusky, to do videos. And they were paying a lot for these videos. I was bored and had been home for a year and couldn’t really do too much. I told my friend who was making music I was interested, and we looked up some cameras. He bought a camera for me. I told him I’ll shoot videos for you. Let me work with the camera, get used to it. The first video we put out was a music video. We did like 60,000 views.

I love the storytelling. I really like weddings and 70th birthday parties where you can really tell someone’s story. The majority of my stuff I realized is these little precious moments that you can capture. The craziest thing is, the job I was working at was a really good job at a good company, but I ended up finding what I really loved from the injury. Having the time off and being able to master the camera and learning as much I can. I am self-taught. I went to school for art, but photography and videography I learned on my own.

Hard work pays off. Make sure to tuck away, plan ahead, and re-invest in yourself. Never give up. There are going to be a lot of days where you may not understand or feel that you are where you need to be, but it’s the beauty of the journey.”

Sarah Gilbert, Sweet Pea Flower Truck

“I started working in Huron’s last flower shop, The Enchanted Florist, years and years ago. I worked for a wonderful woman who was my mentor. I sat back and watched her, and she taught me. Eventually, I became a massage therapist and an esthetician. I was a massage therapist for almost 20 years. I loved it, but I started to lose my intent for it. Once you lose your intent for something, you should stop doing it. It’s a disservice to yourself and your clients.

I was pregnant with my youngest, and I was trying to think of something to do to get back into the flower industry, but I didn’t want a brick & mortar. So, I started thinking about food trucks and markets. Farmers markets have become such a trendy thing and I saw flower trucks setting up at them. I just started googling flower trucks. I realized there was nothing like that around here, and that’s how Sweet Pea was born. We bought a concessions trailer and turned it into a pop-up that would display almost 40 buckets, and all of a sudden, I was a full-time florist.

I love it and I will never look back on it. It is my favorite thing I have ever done. I am the messenger of everything. Flowers speak everything. In times of sadness, joy, and celebration, just thinking of you. Every single thing. And there’s no language barrier. If I gave flowers to every single person here, you would see this really palpable sense of joy. It fills my cup.”


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