By Debbie Adams
The much-acclaimed Gauntlet Business Program and Competition kicked off its 2020 session on February 4—this year in four locations: at the Vinton War Memorial, at Dabney Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge, at the Buchanan Community House, and at the Rockbridge Community Center.
The Gauntlet is a 10-week long, community-focused, comprehensive business development program and competition catering to the needs of local entrepreneurs by providing innovative strategies and regional resources.
Entrepreneurs participate in weekly business training sessions, meet and network with successful entrepreneurs, fellow Gauntlet participants, and mentors, and develop business strategies that provide a roadmap to success.
The Advancement Foundation (TAF), founded by President Annette Patterson, introduced the Gauntlet in 2015 with just “an idea.” The program has grown by leaps and bounds, pivoting somewhat from that initial concept, and impacting innumerable individuals and communities along the way.
Now in its sixth year, the program has grown from 15 entrepreneurs in its inaugural year with $12,000 in cash and prizes awarded, to 130 participants in 2020 with over $300,000 in awards to be distributed, along with other resources. The Gauntlet is now Virginia’s largest business program and competition.
About 350 entrepreneurs have completed the business program over the years with a total of over $815,000 awarded in cash and prizes, along with $760,000 in grants and loans.
In order to receive prizes, businesses must open and operate in the Alleghany Highlands, Botetourt County, Roanoke City, Roanoke County, Vinton, Rockbridge County or the City of Salem for one year.
The Gauntlet has served more than 13 cities, towns, and counties in the region and has grown to utilize the services of more than 35 resource agencies locally and throughout the state.
In the beginning, Patterson would contact professionals for advice concerning the needs of her entrepreneurs. Not a single one ever turned down her requests for assistance. There are now 250 mentors throughout the region who have donated 3,000+ hours of their time to assist new and existing entrepreneurs with their businesses. Many will be speaking to the 2020 Gauntlet classes and entrepreneurs.
At the opening session, Patterson welcomed the new enrollees and presented an overview of the program. The group played a game of balloon toss around the War Memorial ballroom; whoever caught the balloon gave a one-minute description of their planned or existing business.
It turned out to be an intriguing mixture of proposals which ranged from assisted living to glamping, a tree service, holistic health care, food trucks, coffee carts, caterers, fidget production, website design, personalized products, a music studio, a “Sober Bar,” disc golf, music therapy, fuel additives, and videography to name a few.
They also revealed what they hoped to gain from the Gauntlet experience. Most want to learn more about business plans, marketing, budgets, motivation, or ways to expand a business. Many joined the class for the networking opportunities it is known to provide.
Patterson introduced the Gauntlet team which includes staff members Kathleen Carr, Missy Paxton, Kelly Turner, Debbie Custer, Simone Knowles, Kat Pascal, Becky Freemal, and Rodney Perdue.
She noted that small businesses are the backbone of the community and the economy. There are 28 million small businesses in the United States whose employees make up 55 percent of the nation’s workforce.
Since 1982 the number of small businesses across the nation has increased by 49 percent. While big businesses have downsized by four million employees in that time, small businesses have added eight million jobs.
She described the “Gauntlet Culture” to the new participants which she hopes they will adopt, including the principles of “seeking continual improvement, encouraging the Pivot, and embracing practice and action.”
Gauntlet Business classes meet on Tuesdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the four locations. The 2020 program concludes on May 14 with the Gauntlet Awards and Graduation Ceremony at the Vinton War Memorial.