The third annual Gauntlet Business Program and Competition is underway with classes at the Vinton War Memorial on Tuesday nights and at the HIVE Business Incubation Center on Thursday mornings with the intention of assisting fledgling entrepreneurs to establish or expand their businesses.
(This is the first in a series of articles on the Gauntlet program, following several entrepreneurs as they progress through the process.)
The classes will culminate in the Gauntlet Competition which last year awarded approximately $100,000 in cash and prizes to participants.
The Gauntlet is the brainchild of The Advancement Foundation founder and president, Annette Patterson.
Last year the program focused on Vinton businesses. This year the concept has expanded into a regional venture including Botetourt and Roanoke Counties.
Entrepreneurs like Lois Fritz hope the program will help develop successful businesses
Over 65 entrepreneurs are participating in the sessions, “studying the feasibility of their proposed business, exploring business models, and developing business plans.”
“The Advancement Foundation is committed to providing comprehensive support for our entrepreneurs,” said Patterson. “We have partners in Botetourt and Roanoke County Economic Development Departments, the Small Business Development Center, Virginia Tourism, Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development and many local businesses.”
Entrepreneurs Heather Oltmanns, Lois Dawn Fritz, and Holly and Jonathan Hart are among those who have signed up for the program, and The Herald will be following their progress over the next few weeks.
Oltmanns plans to establish a children’s clothing consignment shop. Fritz hopes to make her existing non-profit New Freedom Farm in Buchanan sustainable. The Harts are holding their business plans close to the vest until the actual competition.
Lois Fritz describes herself as “the founder/director/chief stall mucker/veteran supporter and horse lover of New Freedom Farm” that’s located on Lithia Road within the Buchanan Town Limits.
“My vision started when I heard of veterans not wanting to sit in traditional therapy settings and there were so many hurting veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Fritz, a United States Navy veteran. “Twenty-two veterans a day in the United States commit suicide. I had a vision, mission, passion, dream, to find a place to have our veterans come to a safe, neutral, natural setting to heal their invisible wounds.”
Fritz says that she and her husband searched for over two years “to find the perfect piece of land to build this dream.” They chose Buchanan mostly because of the “feel of Buchanan” they encountered from their realtors and town hall employees.
She moved to Buchanan in November 2015 with “an air mattress, Keurig Machine, scrubs, barn clothes, three dogs, and five horses.” She had a barn full of hay, shavings, and feed, but no outside lights and only $17 in her checking account.
Her husband continued to live in New Jersey and work in Manhattan until their house was sold and he could find employment in the Roanoke Valley. He is now employed by MB Contractors.
Fritz says she had “zero business experience” when she established New Freedom Farm in May 2016. After serving in the U.S. Navy, she became an Emergency Room RN and has been a forensic nurse examiner for the past 20 years. She works full time at the Carilion Trauma Center.
“As a forensic nurse, there is no business experience in my background,” said Fritz. “I can collect crime evidence off your body and testify as an expert witness, but know nothing about business.”
Fritz says she discovered the Gauntlet while she was renewing her business license at the Buchanan Town Hall, where the Gauntlet postcard was on the counter. Town Manager Mary Zirkle urged her to participate.
An email from Annette Patterson was “encouraging, loving, and kind” and used the key word “sustainability.” Her dream is for New Freedom Farm to be sustainable for many years to come; she believes the Gauntlet will help her learn how to make that happen.
Eventually she plans to be at the farm full time, available to veterans and their families six days a week, perhaps adding temporary housing in the long run.
“New Freedom Farm’s mission statement is to ‘Heal Humans Through Horses,’” says Fritz. “We are a non-profit running solely off donations. Veterans and their families come to the farm free of charge to heal through the equines that are residents here. They have either been donated or rescued from horrible situations. The pain and trauma these horses have experienced can be felt by the veterans.”
Oltmanns has lived in Virginia most of her life. She is mother to five children and a Roanoke County teacher. For a time the family lived in Tennessee.
“While living in Tennessee, I was able to see not only your typical thrift stores and Once Upon A Child’s, but also stores that were kids’ consignment shops,” says Oltmanns. “Here we have the semi-annual kids’ consignment sales that pop up in various locations–churches, the civic center, etc. People in our area do not have the opportunity to sell their children’s clothes for a decent amount of money on an ongoing basis. Kids grow so fast, especially when they are younger; parents need to have more affordable options for clothes more than twice a year.”
Oltmanns says she “toyed with the idea of starting this business for years, but never knew how to go about learning how to start a business.” Someone recommended she go over to the HIVE and talk to them.
“I did that and the ladies there told me about the Gauntlet; classes were beginning the very next day, so I signed up,” said Oltmanns. “I am hoping to gain the information that I need to open this business and, of course, to win the Gauntlet to help me make this business/dream a reality.
“I love this community and would love to open the business here and see it grow so that I can give back to a community which has done so much for my family and myself,” added Oltmanns. “The goal is to be open full-time but may have to start out part-time. I still plan on working and using my income to pay for the business expenses. As far as business experience, I have had years of experience in customer service; I was also an assistant manager of a 20-plex movie theater for several years.”
Holly and Jonathan Hart are both from the Roanoke area. He works as a project manager for Enquist Enterprises. She has her doctorate in nurse anesthesia and works for Centra Health.
They returned to Roanoke after several years in Colorado and “were thrilled about all the growth and advancement in the valley– especially about the growing interest and development in the outdoor opportunities available.”
“Neither Jonathan nor I have much of a background in small business,” says Hart. “However, we both have the desire to create and build something successful of our own, that incorporates our passions and offers us the ability to do what we love.”
She says that in attempting to create a business plan, they quickly realized the process was “a bit overwhelming.” Their momentum stalled.
Mutual friends tagged them via Facebook in a post advertising the Gauntlet Competition.
“What was even better was to learn the competition was for the Roanoke County/Botetourt area, both areas in which we are hoping to conduct business,” noted Hart. “We were excited to participate hoping that this 12-week class would help overcome the hurdles that had been holding us back.”
The Harts plan to begin their business as a part-time venture which will evolve into a full-time opportunity that they can run as a family– a small family business which will become a legacy.