EDGE Alexis Willis brings entrepreneurial, coaching skills to job as INCubator head

EDGE Alexis Willis brings entrepreneurial, coaching skills to job as INCubator head

March 1st, 2018 by Dave Flessner in EDGE

Alexis Willis, director of small business and entrepreneurship at the INCubator, poses for a portrait Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 at INCubtor in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

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About Alexis Willis

* Age: 35

* Education: A native of New Orleans who moved to Chattanooga in 1996, she is graduate of Girls Prepatory School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

* Career: She founded Natural Beautiful Me in 2011, worked as a connector at the Glass House Collective in 2013, as a facilitator and director of business support for Launch Chattanooga from 2013 to 2017 and as director of small business and entrepreneurship for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce since January 2018.

* Volunteer experience: Pitch coach for Launch Chattanooga and project mentor for Causeway Chattanooga.

* Civic work: Board member the Virginia College of Business, Stove Works and the Leadership Chattanooga Alumni Association and is a founding member of the Greater Chattanooga Sankofa Fund for Civic Engagement.

* Personal: Willis is a single mother who lives with her 10-year-old daughter in Chattanooga

Alexis Willis ran track as a student at Girls Preparatory School, but she had never swam before she decided in the fall of 2013 to enter the Ironman race in Chattanooga.

"I didn't know how to swim before and you would have never caught me in the deep end of any pool before that experience," Willis recalls. "But I always had dreams of going to the Olympics to run track and I thought it would be cool if an Ironman came to town to get me ready."

Two weeks later, she learned an Ironman contest — a triathlon that includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ridge and a 26.2 mile marathon run — was coming to town in the next year.

So the then 30-year-old signed up for swim lessons at the Y and bought a bike.

"I didn't make it to the Olympics, but I did make it to Ironman," Willis says.

Among more than 2,300 athletes in the 2014 race, Willis was the last athlete to complete her swim, 15 minutes after the next to the last competitor. As Willis exited the Tennessee River, hundreds of fans, including her mom Kim, cheered her on.

"When she sets her mind to something she is very determined," Kim Willis says. "I am just proud of her as a woman and wish I was more like her when I was her age."

An entrepreneurial family

The younger Willis said she gained her determination to succeed from watching her father grow his carpet and floormat businesses, first in New Orleans and over the past 20 years in Chattanooga.

"What I applied in Ironman is what I saw growing up watching my Dad," she says. "I never saw him punch a time clock in his life, but like all small business owners he had a lot of grit and resilience."

Both of her brothers also have started their own businesses coaching and training athletes.

Willis said what kept her going in her Ironman swim was the support she got from other people who cheered her on from the river bank with chants of "Go, Alexis, Go."

"When I finished and got out of the water, it was like the city rejoiced," she recalls.

In competing as a business in today's marketplace, Willis said entrepreneurs in Chattanooga can benefit from a similar cheering squad in a community she thinks is one of the most supportive anywhere for aiding and encouraging business success.

"Just like when I was competing in the Ironman, we have a lot of people here rooting you on and helping entrepreneurs to succeed," she says. "I think we have one of the most successful entrepreneurial ecosystems in the country. There is just a tremendous amount of collaboration and support. When somebody wins, we're all happy."

Willis is one of those at the core of the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. After serving as a mentor and coach at the Company Lab, Willis took over in January as head of the Hamilton County Business Development Center, better known as the INCubator, succeeding Kathryn Menchetti as head of Tennessee's biggest business incubator.

Willis said she hopes to bring her own experience in business and mentoring startups to helping the 60 small businesses housed within the incubator achieve greater success and growth.

Willis heads a 5-person staff at the INCubator, which also houses the Chattanooga office of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center that counsels and aids startup businesses. Since joining the INCubator in January, Willis is spending what she calls "suite" time visiting the small business tenants leasing the suites in the three-story, former factory building.

"I believe we have a gold mine at the corner of Cherokee Boulevard and Manufacturers Road and I want to amplify a lot of what is happening in this building," she says.

Ex-3M factory now hatches new businesses

The INCubator opened in 1988 in the former American Lava Co. (later 3M) factory on the North Shore. The 127,000 square foot structure was renovated with the aid of a $4 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant and support from the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments. The INCubator, which is now operated by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, opened with 10 clients 30 years ago and now houses 60 businesses — nearly half of whom are either women- and minority-headed businesses.

The tenants now housed in the INCubator range from high-tech 3-D printers and international energy efficiency consultants to cake mkers, graphic designers and financial planners.

The small businesses housed in the INCubator enjoy below-market rental rates through one- to three-year leases, and they are aided by limited back-office support and conference facilities. They also get a chance to interact and participate in programs with other small businesses in a variety of programs and seminars conducted at the building.

Over its life, the INCubator has "graduated" more than 500 businesses. An economic impact survey last year estimated that INCubator clients generated $17 million in revenues and investment over the previous year.

"A startup maven"

Like most of the tenants within the facility, Willis says she was always eager to start her own business.

When she graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2011, Willis joined the Company Lab as an intern and started her own business, known as Natural Beautiful Me, which works to promote self confidence and empowerment in women. She hit on the business concept after playing paintball with friends and observing that the men seemed more willing to take chances and ultimately be successful.

The business began by selling messaged T-shirts but it has also hosted workshops, health expos and storytelling events. Her second brand, The Red Lipstick Experiment, launched in 2013.

Her own experience in business taught her that "sometimes the last thing you need is money, and the first thing you need is a good idea."

"I was hiding behind the fear that I didn't have enough money, but once I got started the resources showed up," she says.

As an intern, mentor and ultimately coach in the Accelerator program at Co.Lab, Willis nurtured entrepreneurs to take their ideas and start their businesses.

"Most of those I worked with an Co.Lab were still an idea on the back of a napkin, but the small businesses here in the INCubator are in a different season and I get the chance to work with businesses that have been up and running for a while and are looking for ways to grow their business," Willis says. "This is another challenge for us to move them up to the next level for them to be sustainable."

Felicia Jackson, a physical therapist assistant who started CPR Lifewrap in 2013, met Willis in a book club and Willis convinced her to join one of the LAUNCH classes at the CoLab two weeks later.

Willis aided Jackson through the LAUNCH class and then the Business Accelerator program at Co.Lab before she moved into the INCubator with aid from the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund. 

"It's a great example of all the support and resources that are available here," Willis says.

Charles Wood, vice president of economic development for the Chattanooga Chamber , said Willis' experiences should help the incubator program to continue to grow and adapt as Chattanooga's growing small business scene expands.

"Her energy and enthusiasm will play a critical role in helping move the INCubator to the next level," Wood says.

Willis, a self-described "startup maven," says her own business has been more of a supplement than a primary source of income for her budding career, but she says it has been critical in helping support her and her daughter as many small businesses are for local families.

While many entrepreneurs dream of starting the next Amazon or Apple, many are simply trying to find a niche to help earn extra money for their families, Willis said.

"I believe in entrepreneurship and what it can do for a family," she says. "And in Chattanooga, as I found out, people are going to root for you whether you are the first swimmer out of the water or the last swimmer out like I was."

This story was updated March 13, 2018, at 8:36 p.m. to change CoStarters Class to LAUNCH class and to clarify that Willis had never seen her dad punch a time clock in her life.