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Washington County Programs Develop Leaders, Entrepreneurs

Program encourages young professionals to shape the region while business competition equips entrepreneurs and businesses with the tools they need to succeed.

By Kevin Litwin on March 1, 2023

Spot of Color Owner Hana Eichin
Hana Eichin

How does a community ensure it will have great leaders at the helm for years to come? Washington County has the answer – you put in the work to develop them now.

Here, the Washington County, VA Chamber of Commerce backs the annual Leadership Washington County initiative, which works to ensure young professionals are prepared to help shape the region, build its economy and take part in worthwhile causes.

Also, the Washington County Business Challenge, an annual competition and training series, equips businesses and entrepreneurs with the tools needed to thrive in the region.

“This is the best way possible for emerging leaders or newcomers to engage in Washington County, finding out and understanding how it works. Participants learn how all these different sectors function and intertwine together to make Washington County
the great place it is.”

John Coleman | Leadership Washington County

More Than Just a Class

The program begins with an orientation each September and ends with a graduation in May. Class participants attend eight one-day sessions that occur on the third Tuesday of each month.

Each class features 15 to 20 individuals, and the sessions they attend include listening to presentations by motivated leaders, participating in group discussions and building social and business networks.

Participants, however, do more than just sit in a classroom. Each class makes visits to sites throughout Washington County to learn about sectors such as government, arts/culture, health and wellness, education, agriculture, police and fire, businesses and nonprofits.

Participants also spend their time learning about the social, economic and political institutions and resources in the region, which Coleman says unites classmates of diverse backgrounds and experiences who have demonstrated an interest and talent in leadership.

Plus, toward the end of each class, participants work together to create a legacy project aimed at helping a nonprofit.

“For our group project in 2014, we helped educate people on how to register to vote,” says Allison Mays, a program participant that year who today is the senior advancement officer for major gifts and planned giving at Emory & Henry College and current board president of the chamber. “We held registration events and even hosted some debate forums for candidates who were running for local offices.”

Learning to Lead

A participant of the 2021-22 class, which was made up of 16 individuals, is Hana Eichin. Her group was the 28th graduating class.

“Being a female, I never really thought of myself in a leadership role when I was growing up and would shy away from those skills,” says Eichin, who owns an arts supplies store in Abingdon called Spot of Color. “But when I saw this opportunity pop up on Facebook, I believed this program was for me. I am a leader now owning a business, and even if it’s a business of one, I’m still the leader and need the skills that the program teaches.”

Eichin says after she began attending the leadership classes, she was amazed at how much she didn’t know about Washington County.

“We did one class on the history of Washington County, and I really enjoyed finding out how the county has become such a central location for commerce in Southwest Virginia,” she says. “I also enjoyed the field trips to learn much of what’s happening in Washington County.”

One of those field trips focused on arts and culture. “With me owning my art supplies store, I even led a leadership art workshop on working with our hands and creating art,” Eichin says. “I recommend the program to everyone who lives in Washington County.”

Participating in the class has shown to have positive and lasting effects on participants. Mays says she still stays in contact with several of her classmates, many of whom are still active and involved in the community. “I still have great memories of my time participating in Leadership Washington County,” she says.

Washington County Business Challenge in Virginia
Virginia Community Capital

Competition Sparks Successful Businesses

Washington County entrepreneurs can tap a diverse menu of services and resources to help their fledgling businesses grow and thrive.

The Washington County Business Challenge, for example, is an annual training series and competition for entrepreneurs and small businesses, sponsored by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator, Virginia Community Capital and the Town of Abingdon.

The Business Challenge, now in its 10th year, awards grants to startups and existing small businesses looking to expand in the county.

“The idea actually started because, like a lot of small towns, we had some vacant storefronts,” says Sandy Ratliff, community innovation adviser for Virginia Community Capital. Ratliff has been involved since the program’s start.

Training for Success

During the six-week training portion of the competition, participants are guided through the process of starting a business, including business planning, legal documentation, financing, product development and marketing. There are also networking opportunities for seasoned business owners to share tips and answer questions.

“We saw how other communities were able to fill their vacancies by hosting business competitions, so we decided to try it here,” Ratliff says. “We know that having small businesses not only fills the needs of services and products, but they also provide a way for people in the community to make a living. That’s very important for a small town.”

“We put them in contact with professionals who can help them with their business – that could be a lawyer, a CPA, someone who works in insurance. We also have other entrepreneurs share their experiences,” Ratliff says. “We also connect them to other resources and funding sources, and cover topics like how to sell to the government. So during those six weeks, we try to connect them with the movers and shakers, the supporters that can help them and walk them through the next steps.”

At the end of the six weeks, participants present their business plans to a panel of experts, who judge them on the strength of their business plan and their ability to successfully pitch their idea.

Appalachian Teas and Botanicals in Abingdon, VA

The 2022 winners included Appalachian Teas and Botanicals, which was awarded First Place Startup; Sprout Consignment, which won First Place Existing Business; and Blue Mountain Therapy, which received the Emory & Henry Entrepreneur Award.

Ratliff says small business development doesn’t end after the winners are announced. The Business Challenge hosts free, biweekly workshops for entrepreneurs and small-business owners, covering topics that range from cybersecurity to online marketing.

“We have a workshop called New Knowledge, where we cover everything from cybersecurity to how to sell on Amazon. We’ve even had hands-on training on how to market on Facebook,” she says. “Our goal is to support these businesses because even after they go through the Business Challenge, sometimes they still need some professional development.”

Writer Teree Caruthers contributed to this article.

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