19 Apr 20222 Comments
In the summer of 2020, as the world was defending itself from the sucker punch delivered by COVID-19 and just coming to grips with its implications, a team from the Westchester County Office of Economic Development, led by Deborah Novick, Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, sat down to develop a program to offset the encroaching unemployment catastrophe. “We knew thousands of people were going to lose their jobs and would face hard choices,” says Novick.
The result of that sit-down was Launch1000, an online program to guide and support up to a thousand Westchester residents in launching a home-based income stream or new business. The program, which included access to business knowledge, mentorship, resources and grants, guaranteed participants a shot at turning their idea into a viable business within six months.
In the fall of 2020, the OED began accepting applications from any county resident over the age of 18 willing to commit the time and effort to completing the virtual self-study program. “We had participation from every age group from 20 to 77, and education levels from sixth grade to Ph.D.,” says Novick. If participants lacked a computer or internet connection, one was provided. They didn’t even need a fully formed idea, just the motivation to go after their dream.
Deborah Pagnotta has worked at many trades: employment lawyer, college professor, workplace trainer, storyteller and more. But in May of 2020, she found herself at a crossroads: about to turn 65 and without a job. After spotting the notice for Launch1000 on her phone, she hit on an idea to combine two of her strengths—storytelling and conflict management—to create an engagement app to help employees craft and share their personal stories to create empathy in the workplace. “These days,” says Pagnotta, “empathy is sorely missing.”
Pagnotta joined the first Launch1000 cohort and began developing her business idea. Peer feedback and coaching helped her zero in on the market for an app that could foster workplace cooperation as well as the features that would offer the most value. Within a few months, she had secured a beta [test] partner and an app developer. By June, she had a functional prototype and a name: ULUStory. Pagnotta proudly shares the product’s catch phrase: “Your stories, your voice.”
“What sets ULUStory apart from other D&I [diversity and inclusion] and engagement tools is that we have powerful, demonstrable evidence that it works. Plus, it’s fun, creative and focuses on commonalities, not differences,” says Pagnotta. She is heartened by the range of individuals and organizations expressing interest, including two colleges and the county government. “We’re looking for early adopters to introduce the tool in a meaningful way. We’ll be tracking results to learn how it’s helping to resolve conflict, reduce lawsuits, and improve employee retention. That’s the needle really moving.”
On a visit to the Thimble Islands, Anne Wilson watched as two women sat at a table shaded from the sun, their hands flying as they crafted jewelry. Captivated by the vivid colors and sparkling beads, Wilson made a promise to herself. “I said, I’m going to learn how to do that. And I did.”
For years, Wilson crafted jewelry from pearls, Murano glass, crystals, and gemstones that she either kept or gave away as gifts. Sometimes, she’d fulfill requests for a wedding or special gift, but rarely charged more than the cost of materials. During the pandemic—on lockdown, isolated and unable to purchase supplies—Wilson heard about Launch1000. From the get-go, she had only one project in mind: to make and sell her own line of high-end jewelry.
At first intimidated by the “magnificent ideas” others were working on, from sickle cell research to food pantries in food deserts, Wilson soon warmed to the encouragement offered by her peer group. Today, Wilson no longer gives away her talent or her product for free. Her business, Mimi Blackstone Signature Collection (the alluring name emerged while brainstorming with her four grown children, who also helped create her website), is beginning to grow. “If you want to start a business, you can do it, at any age. There’s all this help out there,” she enthuses.
For years, Vicki Jimpson-Fludd owned a small management consulting business in Germany. These days, she presides over the board of a 60-member, semi-professional community orchestra as a full-time volunteer. “There are a lot of women like me: semi-retired and interested in many things that will help them live their best life,” she says.
After returning to the States, she explored shared housing, a model she’d seen in Germany. Her concept, Our Place in Westchester, offers an appealing scenario: a small, upscale community of active, single women, age 50 and over, seeking shared accommodations with like-minded women who want casual companionship without sacrificing their independence.
Jimpson-Fludd’s early efforts to get her project off the ground met with frustration. She couldn’t seem to any gain traction with venture capitalists who, she believes, dismissed her idea for reasons of gender, age, and lack of real estate experience. When she heard about Launch1000, she revisited Our Place in Westchester with renewed hope. All she needed, she believed, was some sound business advice and a few introductions to the right people.
Her initial conversations with Deborah Novick broke the logjam. “She put me in touch with the people I needed to know,” says Jimpson-Fludd. As she nears completion of the Launch1000 program, she is working with a team of real estate specialists and other advisors and has her eye on a club-like property in Westchester that she hopes to open this year.
As graduates of the inaugural Launch1000 program continue to spread their wings and report on their progress, a participant survey is providing valuable intel for future planning. “In our first year we enrolled a diverse group in every sense: race, age, education, language spoken at home,” Novick recounts. Seventy percent reported feeling confident they could live on the income from their new enterprise, even though more than 60 percent had never owned a business before. Among those who completed the program, close to $2 million in sales are projected for 2022.
But the stats tell only part of the success. “One of the biggest benefits was the unexpected relationships that were formed by this great mixing of people from every zip code in the county,” says Novick. These connections, she predicts, will have long lasting benefits for the community and the Westchester economy. “Whenever people break out of their own little world, there’s a chance to broaden each other’s horizons.”
Would the program have achieved the same result without the pandemic? Novick is philosophical. “People faced with losing their jobs are often forced to try something new that they might not have felt competent enough to try before,” she posits. In fact, she says, any significant economic disruption is typically followed by a burst of entrepreneurship. “We knew this would be a great opportunity for a lot of people. For many, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”