YOUNGSTOWN — “I feel like female leadership is just different. It’s not that it’s better or superior; it’s just different,” Tanisha Wheeler of the Youngstown Business Incubator said.
That was, in part, her response when asked about the significance of the women-led organization in the city’s downtown.
They have shared experiences, whether that’s being a mother or climbing the corporate ladder together, Wheeler said, to the highs and lows and experiences of everyday life, and the work to advance entrepreneurship across all walks is being done in an environment that encourages freedom and the exploration of new ideas and programs to help budding businesses and their owners.
“There is a lot of understanding and compassion that not only do we extend to one another, but we also are able to extend to our clients. We created a great culture where we’re able to work together, thrive and strive … I think it’s very important for women in business to see female leadership,” Wheeler of Youngstown, who’s also regional director of the Minority Business Assistance Center at the YBI, said.
The organization was formed in 1995 to help grow startup software technology companies but has grown to become so much more.
It now includes Wheeler’s MBAC, which helps small, minority, and socially and economically disadvantaged businesses across seven counties from Ashtabula south to Monroe County.
There’s also an advanced manufacturing team led by Vice President Stephanie Gaffney; the EVOLVE Technology Program for tech entrepreneurs led by Director Chandler Fiffick; and a Youth Entrepreneurship program led by Director Megan Payich.
Jessica Sprowl was recently brought on to oversee marketing and communications for the YBI, led at the top by CEO Barb Ewing and two vice presidents, Colleen Kelly, senior vice president, and Heidi Ruby, vice president of operations.
Ruby, of Newton Falls, said there was a time years ago when former CEO Jim Cossler was running the incubator, which then had a much smaller staff, and the joke — often directed at Cossler — was the YBI was the Girl’s Rule club.
Kidding aside, what was a wisecrack then is absolutely true today.
“I tend to think that women will lean on each other and their network for help and guidance, and that is something we frequently talking to each other about,” Gaffney of Poland, said. “I feel like we have a great mesh here. There is no animosity between any of us and we all want to rise together collectively for the greater good of the YBI. I think that is something we have done really, really well together.”
“I’ve been here it feels like for so long that to me, it’s not a place of work, it’s more like family,” Ruby, who started at the YBI in the late 2000s as facilities manager, said. “Not many people can say they get up and enjoy coming to work every day. This place has something special about it.”
For example, Kelly recalled during the pandemic her mother was diagnosed with cancer and, because of COVID-19 restrictions, it was decided to bring her home rather than place her in hospice care so the family could care for her and see her.
“Barb was like, ‘You do what you have to do. We have your back. Do what you have to do,’” Kelly, who started as the YBI’s director of development, also in the late 2000s, said. “We are like that with everyone.”
Kelly was a single mother when she started at the organization, and she said, as any women in the position can probably attest, perhaps one of the worst things to hear in the mornings is school had been delayed two hours.
At the YBI, however — and even before the pandemic — if bad weather was expected, it was common to be given the OK take a computer to work from home to make sure family was cared for first.
“For a single mom at the time, I thought, ‘Wow!’ ” Kelly of Boardman, said.
“My first answer to everything is a qualified ‘Yes,’ and if there is a direction somebody wants to head, if there is a program somebody wants to implement, we will always do our best to figure out how we can do that,” said Ewing, who started at the YBI in 2011 as chief operating officer and ascended to CEO in 2017 when Cossler stepped aside.
In fact, Ewing of Salem, said that’s how the Women in Entrepreneurship program to help women in business was formed.
The YBI’s senior VP Kelly was among a group who pitched the idea for the program, initially led by former YBI staffer Stephanie Gilchrist, who helped grow it into the MBAC, which she was director until leaving recently for a position with the city of Youngstown.
Kelly remembers thinking then, “If we can do this for software technology companies, why can’t we help women?”
The people at the YBI, “they seemed to have taken the same path I did in many respects,” Ewing said.
“They were hired to do something in particular, but they were allowed and encouraged to grow and develop into other areas, take on additional responsibilities and they have flourished,” she said.
Their work ethic, the value they bring to the organization and the fact Ewing can rely on them “has allowed us to continue to grow at the pace we are growing,” she said.
The freedom to pitch ideas and make them reality, allowing themselves and the YBI to grow and evolve, the women said, is a tremendous value as employees.
The principle was present during Cossler’s time, and it continues with Ewing.
“We often say when we hire a new hire … or its a new area of work we have not dealt with before, Barb gives us that freedom, that ability to take an idea and run with it,” Ruby said. “It gives you a sense of pride knowing that if you come to any of us in the organization and say ‘I have this idea, I want to be able to do this,’ you’re going to have the backing from the rest of our management, plus you also get it from the board.”
Take, for example, Gaffney, who worked as an independent contract at the YBI before starting full time in the advanced manufacturing program.
The first project she managed — a precision-printed steel parts network — she said she “was given carte blanche by Barb to go ahead and run with it.”
The MBAC’s Wheeler, who was a business counselor with the center before becoming director, said she landed in “good soil where it was healthy for me to grow” when she came aboard at the YBI in 2021.
“Barb is extremely supportive of our growth, and I think we lean on one another. We all lead separate programs and deal with the companies in different ways, but I think there is a beauty in that story, and how it all came together,” Wheeler said.
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