From the Drawing Board to the Marketplace in 6 Months

Have a skill and an idea to start a business?  If you are in Spokane, Washington, you are in luck.  The Avista Center for Entrepreneurship can help you launch your business in 6 months!

The Avista Business Entrepreneurship Network began when Avista, the energy provider for the inland Pacific Northwest, gave Spokane Community College funds to develop an entrepreneurship curriculum. The program prepares participants to start their own businesses.  The sixth class will be completing the program this month. It has been so successful that two more centers will be opening in the region this fall.  Their approach has even been adapted for students at Spokane Valley Technical High School.

What is the program exactly and how does it work?  Here are some highlights:

  • To apply, you must have a business idea—this is not a “general” business education. The goal is to give you tools you need to start a business.
  • Serves mostly non-traditional students (average age is 31), with a laser focus on launching their business concept.
  • Teaches the practical basics of starting and running a business.
  • Taught by faculty, community advisors, and local business leaders (who also serve as mentors).
  • Helps validate business plans and avoids launching non-viable concepts.
  • Provides tools to make plans “startup ready.”
  • Creates referral networks to increase the probability of success.
  • Eases the challenges of going to school later in life by having a short timeframe for completion (6 months) plus accommodates for distance learning and non-credit workshops.
  • Enables qualified graduates access to a micro-loan program for money to start their business.

How’s it going so far? Very successful, I’d say.

  • 112 students have been accepted into the program.
  • 76 students have completed it.
  • 37 businesses have been started.
  • 46 direct jobs have been created.

In May, Chief Counsel for Advocacy Winslow Sargeant and I visited the center and had the great pleasure of meeting recent graduate and new business owner, Sharmaine Nichole.  We even got to tour her business, Sharmaine Nichole Beauty and Barber. It was energizing to see her in the business she has built and to hear her inspiring story.

Pictured: Business owner Sharmaine Nichole explains the ropes to Chief Counsel for Advocacy Winslow Sargeant and Region X Advocate Jenn Clark.
Pictured: Business owner Sharmaine Nichole explains the ropes to Chief Counsel for Advocacy Winslow Sargeant and Region X Advocate Jenn Clark.

Nichole was a high school dropout.  She got her GED and had some cosmetology training.  She is highly creative, and cosmetology provided a great outlet for her passion.  One day she got a big idea. “Sharmaine Nichole” has just as good a ring to it as Vidal Sassoon or Paul Mitchell, so why not start her own beauty business?  She enrolled in the Business Entrepreneur Network program at Spokane Community College.  But it wasn’t a direct path from there.  After taking only a few courses, Sharmaine left the program to start a family.

Nichole was confident her dreams were just on hold. But others doubted she could ever finish the coursework and launch her business.  Nichole proved them wrong. She did return and completed the program.  She says the courses gave her a structure to funnel her creativity into a concrete and viable business.  Then, with only $5,000, she opened her salon.

When asked what helped her make it, Nichole explained that this program is really different because it focuses on small business—people who actually want to start something. It’s unlike the more general business programs that mostly prepare graduates to work for other people or in big corporations.  In addition, her connections from the program have helped her get media coverage and photo opportunities, and expand her business network.  Nichole now employs three people and hopes to grow her staff to 10 by the end of the year!

“Adaptability is critical to translating creativity in a business,” Nichole says.  And that’s what they teach so successfully at the Avista Center for Entrepreneurship.  She hopes the program will keep expanding so others get the tools they need to realize their dream of starting a business, just the way she has.

—Jennifer Clark, Region X Advocate

Jennifer Clark is the Office of Advocacy’s regional advocate  for Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. She can be reached at