One of Huntsville’s most well-known small business champions hopes to leave her nonprofit organization later this year not just surviving, but thriving.
Joanne Randolph, president and CEO of The Catalyst Center for Business & Entrepreneurship since it launched in 2003, doesn’t know yet what she will do when she leaves her longtime role, but is confident about the future. The Catalyst, formerly known as the Women’s Business Center of North Alabama (WBCNA), counsels and trains up to 4,000 women and men each year in every phase of startup growth.
“We have people come to us from all walks of life in all industries in every stage of the business life cycle, from idea to startup all the way to growth and maturity and at various levels of knowledge about business in general,” she said. “We can’t be one-size-fits-all, so we customize our services to each and every client who comes through our door.”
Randolph, who spent the first 20 years of her career in the aerospace and defense industry, began her entrepreneurial journey as the first employee and CEO of BizTech, Huntsville’s longtime high-tech incubator in Cummings Research Park. While at BizTech, she said a board member approached her about launching a women’s business center to encourage and support women starting local companies.
To open a women’s business center, Randolph said the organization had to be serving clients for at least a year to apply for funding from the U.S Small Business Administration. So, Randolph and an all-volunteer board got to work helping North Alabama women navigate the business world.
“With very little advertising, the demand for services quickly outpaced the volunteers’ time,” she said. “So, I was hired as a consultant to come in and do nothing but coach clients.”
The organization later applied for – and won – a five-year, $750,000 SBA grant. Randolph, who became CEO in 2006, said The Catalyst has served more than 30,000 clients and helped spur hundreds of jobs across the region since that time.
With help from Decatur-based marketing firm Red Sage Communications, The Catalyst successfully launched a new identity and website in 2017. Randolph said rebranding from WBCNA to The Catalyst was a natural transition as the organization grew beyond its original focus of helping only women-owned businesses get started and succeed.
The Catalyst now has six priority areas, including startups and entrepreneurs, established businesses, women, veterans, innovation and technology, and government contracting. Services include comprehensive business education, personalized one-on-one coaching, access to capital and more.
In 2018, the nonprofit partnered with Redstone Federal Credit Union and Neighborhood Concepts to offer a new microloan program for small businesses. The initiative allows local startups, early stage businesses, and established small businesses to take advantage of microloans of $5,000 to $25,000 to help grow their companies.
“We can’t be one-size-fits-all, so we customize our services to each and every client who comes through our door.”
The Catalyst also launched a HUBZone Accelerator last year to assist and empower small businesses in underserved communities. The program, created in response to the HUBZone Empowerment Act drafted by Congress in 1998, has already helped several area businesses succeed.
“It’s doing by far more than we ever dreamed it could do,” Randolph said.
Although Randolph will step down from her role this year, she is optimistic about the future of The Catalyst in Huntsville. With city leadership that understands entrepreneurship and the importance of small businesses to the community, Randolph believes the economy will only continue to move forward.
She encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to ask for help from seasoned professionals before it’s too late.
“Those who do don’t make the critical mistakes in the early years and fail,” she said. “When they come to us at the beginning, we can certainly set them on the right path.”
The Catalyst, previously located at the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce in downtown Huntsville, now operates at BizTech’s campus on Sparkman Drive. Pammie Jimmar, vice president of small business and events for the Chamber, said The Catalyst is an excellent resource for entrepreneurs looking to start or expand a business.
By providing tools and resources to help local companies grow, Jimmar said The Catalyst will continue to play an integral role in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“The Catalyst has a proven track record of offering beneficial programs, such as their business coaching program, to help small businesses achieve their goals,” she said. “This organization has truly been instrumental in helping small businesses succeed within this community.”
For more in City Blog’s four-part series on Huntsville’s growing ecosystem of entrepreneurship, read: