SELLERSBURG — A group of local professionals offered advice on starting and running a business at a recent event at Silver Creek High School.
The 25th annual Silver Creek Entrepreneur Panel took place on Friday after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The event is presented by the school’s Finance Academy.
The panel included four entrepreneurs working in the Louisville and southern Indiana area in industries ranging from hospitality to auto parts. Speakers throughout the event answered students’ questions about their career path and the challenges ahead.
Jennifer Glaser, a teacher at Silver Creek, said the panel motivates students as they consider their careers. She is the director of the Career Academy program at Silver Creek.
“There are some among that audience who probably want to start a business, and they can be inspired by all of this,” she said.
One of the speakers was Elizabeth Kizito, owner of Kizito Cookies on Bardstown Road. She is from Uganda and started her business over 30 years ago after moving to Louisville. She spoke of her time working as a street vendor, “saying you can start with nothing and make it happen”.
“When I started my business, I had no money,” she said. “I couldn’t get a loan – nothing,” she said.
But she “didn’t give up,” she says, even though it was “an adventure” when she started.
“A lot of people told me what to do,” Kizito said. “I went to festivals, I was new to the Louisville area – I didn’t know what to do and had never been in business before.”
As word of the business spread, she became known in Louisville as the “Cookie Lady”. In addition to running her Louisville bakery, she is also known for carrying cookies in a basket on top of her head at events such as Louisville Bats baseball games and festivals.
One of the panelists was restaurateur Kevin Grangier. He is the founder, president and CEO of Belle Noble Entertainment Group in Louisville, which operates local restaurants such as Le Moo Fine Steak House, The Village Anchor, The Sea Hag Pub and Grassa Gramma.
Grangier graduated from Silver Creek High School about 40 years ago. He began working in marketing and communications in the region, and eventually started his own communications agency in Los Angeles, which quickly grew and opened offices across the country.
He spoke of challenges such as taking risks, saying it’s “important to have your ducks in your line” and to have a “plan in place so you can weather the storm”.
“I started with a laptop computer in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles and was the producer of the product,” he said. “The more I worked, the more products I could produce, and the more I worked, the more customers I could retain.”
He eventually returned to the area and began opening restaurants in Louisville. It was an “extension” of his career in brand development and product development, he said.
Panelist Ashley Porras owns Simply by Ashley, a Bolt + Tie store on Main Street in Clarksville. She’s a 2019 graduate of Silver Creek High School, and she started her business with online sales.
Her family has been involved in business for a long time, particularly in the health care sector, she said. His entrepreneurial experience began in high school.
“When I was in Silver Creek, I was doing pop-ups and flea markets, and selling bath bombs…” Porras said. “I was doing this, and then finally I was like hey, you know what? I love the idea of fashion and homeware, bathware and beauty, and I have them all combined in my shop.”
When she started Simply by Ashley, she worked four jobs, she said.
“I was a caregiver, I was a waitress, I was a chef, I worked in an outpatient clinic, and I ran my business,” she said. “And every paycheck, I would get 50% of my paycheck and just put it on my business. Watching this grow, it made me so happy, so when I bought my first wholesale inventory, I was like, man, I made it, that’s it.
When the pandemic started, she was able to make money from her online store selling face masks, and her business continued to grow as she “made whatever was fashionable at the time.” Help from her family gave her the capital she needed to launch her own storefront, she said.
She had to give up a few of her part-time jobs to make it work with her business, she said.
Mike Lee, founder of Total Truck Parts, also spoke at Friday’s event. The company buys and resells tractor-trailer parts and has locations in Louisville, Clarksville, Indianapolis and Glasgow, Kentucky.
He worked for various auto parts companies in the area, and while working for a local company, he was one of four workers who branched out to form Total Truck Parts.
“We didn’t know if we would make it or not, but 21 years later we’re on top of the world,” Lee said. “It’s a good business… I got there by having good employees.”
Lee said that when his business started, there were many competitors in the area, and he talked about the journey of the business as it grew.
“We had to go out of town and find supplies to sell the product,” he said. “We did that, after that they started coming to us and we started growing… In 2006 we joined a truck parts buying group, which gives us more power to purchase.”
Lee discussed the role of his company’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) in employee retention.
“Now my brother and I make about a third of the business, and the employees own a third…it’s an ESOP, and it goes into their retirement, and it helps retain employees,” a- he declared.
The panelists offered plenty of advice for young entrepreneurs.
Grangier stressed the importance of gaining experience, building relationships and the need for flexibility.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years and every day something new comes up – that never goes away,” he said.
He spoke about the current job market situation, saying his company “hasn’t sacrificed the quality of the people we hire” and that the company has adapted to meet the challenges, including expanding the set of benefits to attract employees.
Kizito advises entrepreneurs to “know what you’re doing before you borrow money” to avoid getting into debt.
Lee noted the knowledge gained from working for someone else for 15 years, saying, “if you want to be in this business, just learn it from top to bottom and hire good people to help you.”
Porras said networking is key, and she encourages entrepreneurs to “research as much as possible and ask people for help.”
“Get a lot of help from people who know what they’re doing,” she said. “Definitely diversify, because personally what I wanted to do was always in health care, and I never saw myself doing anything like that – diversifying, saving (money) and networking. It is very, very important.
Glaser said the event provides networking opportunities for students.
“Most of the time, students will go to these companies, they’ll recognize these business owners…I love the networking it provides,” she said.
Katie Bishop, a senior at Silver Creek High School, serves as vice president of the school’s Finance Academy. She posed to the panelists the question of “advice for young entrepreneurs”.
“I kind of thought about it a bit, and it’s just interesting to hear the advice they had to offer for me and my classmates as well,” she said. “I really like hearing what they kind of messed up when they started their business and then advising them not to make the same mistakes, so that’s what I took away.”