What dreams are made of: 5 stories of locals turning their passion into their business

Adam and Nicole Goerge of Elevate Training Studio (Photo Credit: Amy and Jackson Smith) Adam and Nicole Goerge of Elevate Training Studio (Photo Credit: Amy and Jackson Smith)

If thinking about your passion keeps you up at night, while your job leaves you snoring, it may be time to see if you can make a living doing what you love. The Charlottesville area is home to plenty of small business entrepreneurs— and dreamers. Albemarle County, and much of central Virginia, has a self- employment rate ranging from 10-20 percent, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2019 state profile. And local initiatives, like the Community Investment Collaborative and the i.Lab at UVA, are here to help. So as you contemplate transforming your dream into a business, let these five stories inspire you to take the next step.

Adam and Nicole Goerge | ELEVATE TRAINING STUDIO

Adam Goerge and Nicole Yarbrough met as trainers at ACAC, where they both continued working after their marriage in 2006. But they always dreamed of opening their own training studio. “We wanted to be our own bosses,” Nicole recalls.” We wanted to develop a community of clients who supported our style of training—not like a big-box gym, more like a family.” Adam says they talked about the idea for seven or eight years. In September 2017, they agreed the time had come—and 14 months later, they opened Elevate Training Studio.

In preparing to make the leap, the couple spoke with colleagues at other gyms—“all different styles, from big gyms to boutiques,” Nicole recalls. They cruised small business websites (see sidebar), worked out the space and equipment they needed, and estimated expenses, from rent to taxes and salaries. They even had a color scheme (royal blue and grass green) and a mascot (their goldendoodle Velo).

While still working full-time, the Goerges took on everything from finding a location to figuring out financing—as independent contractors at ACAC, they couldn’t show a steady monthly income, which made it hard to qualify for business loans. They went through four possible sites before settling on a space on Berkmar Drive off Route 29 North, close to town and convenient for clients.

But that was just the beginning. When their contractor fell through, Adam, who had construction experience, stepped in as subcontractor for the renovation. They hired independent contractors for specialized tasks, but handled everything from demolition to drywall themselves, with their son Caden, inlaws, and friends pitching in. Handling a business license, a LLC application, rezoning, permitting, and building inspections was an education. Adam recalls spending a lot of time on the Albemarle County website.

Not everything went to plan, says Nicole: “It was all about doing what needed to be done at that moment.” Because they were both still employed—and because, as Nicole notes, “Charlottesville is a small town, especially in our field”—the couple kept the idea quiet until they were ready to launch. In the meantime, Caden was making the transition to middle school and the family moved into a new home.

Now, as they enter their second year, was it worth it? Absolutely, both agree. “We’ve been able to create our own space,” says Adam with satisfaction. Nicole says, “I walk in, and this is where I belong.”

Heather Hightower | THE CENTER FOR VOCAL STUDY

Heather Hightower had a passion for singing and performing from an early age. But her journey to becoming founder and owner of The Center for Vocal Study took a roundabout—and often serendipitous—path.

After majoring in voice at UVA, Hightower applied to graduate schools, but “my intuition told me that this was not the next step for me,” she recalls. Instead, she took a more winding route: teaching music in Guatemala; taking a series of corporate jobs; and working retail back in Charlottesville. With friends urging her to put her vocal and coaching skills to work, in 2012 she began a side gig teaching voice students in her home.

In 2013, Hightower was hired as choir director at The Field School. “It was a total adventure,” she says. “I was starting the program from scratch.” As she was developing the school’s music program, Hightower’s private lessons were outgrowing her home. In 2016, another voice teacher mentioned renting space together, “so I opened an Excel spreadsheet and started crunching the numbers,” she recalls.

In 2017, Hightower took the plunge, signing a lease on space on the Downtown Mall, and—with lots of cleaning and furnishing help from her family, friends, and students—The Center for Vocal Study opened. Soon, a group of voice teachers was using the space to collaborate, and The Center began to offer expertise in other aspects of singing and performing, from Alexander technique to auditioning.

“When you’re getting started, you have to do everything—editing the website, figuring out the online scheduling,” Hightower says. She drew on her past experience in business, in fundraising, even in sales and customer service—augmented with the help of a coach she found through a business program. And she did hire both part-time administrative help and an accounting firm.

In 2018, she left her Field School job to focus full-time on The Center—just in time, because soon her lease was up. “We knew it was coming, but I wasn’t quite ready,” she says ruefully. “But again, like with our first location, I just had to leap.” The Center’s new location on Pantops “feels like a retreat center,” she says, “and has me thinking in new ways about what we do here to embolden singers to find their voice.”

Clearly, bringing her dream to life has been both grueling and inspiring. “Making so many decisions—it can be exhausting,” Hightower admits. “Some days are glorious, and others are more like being swept away into the ocean. But I am constantly being surprised at what is being created here.”

Angelic Jenkins | ANGELIC’S KITCHEN

Angelic Jenkins has always loved to cook. “My house is the come-to house for the holidays, because everyone knows I’m going to cook up a feast,” she says.

Growing up, “I was always in the kitchen, under my mother and my grandmother, watching them and asking questions.”

The Charlottesville native also has vivid memories of eating fried fish at summer festivals in Washington Park. “To me, it was just something totally different,” she recalls. “I thought, when I grow up I want to be at the park and I want to sell fried fish.”

In high school, she spent three years studying culinary arts at CATEC, even winning a bread contest. She thought she might become a chef. But instead, she veered into another career path, taking up office technology, and eventually landing a job in HR.

While she was working full-time for DoubleTree, she spent her weekends shopping. “My husband said, there has to be something better you can do with your weekends,” she recalls with a laugh. That’s when she remembered those childhood festivals. “And I said, ‘I want to sell fried fish.’”

Her husband, Charles, encouraged her to go for it, and he rented the equipment she would need. She started off with a tent at the African American Cultural Arts Festival, in Washington Park. The event was so successful that before she knew it she was working festivals as far away as Virginia Beach, selling her fried fish, wings, hush puppies, and onion rings to a rapidly growing fan base.

Jenkins then entered a program for entrepreneurs at the Community Investment Collaborative, received her catering license, and went on to open her own catering business, Angelic’s Kitchen, renting commercial kitchen space at Bread and Roses.

As she continued to sell at festivals, she also tweaked her fish breading, experimenting with different herbs and spices to make her product stand out. Once she got the recipe down, she found a manufacturer through CIC. She had the breading bagged so she could sell it to customers interested in frying at home.

And in 2018, she and Charles bought a food truck: Angelic’s Mobile Kitchen. They sell from a parking lot on Pantops in the summer and at various festivals and other spots throughout the fall.

Now, Jenkins is poised to open her first bricks-and-mortar location, at the new Dairy Market food hall in 2020. Jenkins says her 609-foot stall will focus on soul food—her famous fried fish, but also classic down-home dishes like barbecue chicken, yams, corn pudding, and potato salad.

The biggest challenge, she says, has been the financial strain of growing the business. Because she’s still working full-time, as the head of HR for DoubleTree, she doesn’t qualify for a lot of small grants. At the moment, she has a GoFundMe up to help cover the start-up costs of the new location.

But while she plans to keep working for the first year (covering evening and weekend shifts while Charles mans the stall during the day), she’s hopeful that she’ll eventually be able to work at Dairy Market full-time.

“My hobby has turned into a career for me,” she says. “I never thought I’d end up here.”

Jenny Peterson | PARADOX PASTRY CAFÉ

Jenny Peterson has always had two passions: “From the time I was a little kid in West Virginia, I was either doing gymnastics in the yard, or [I was] in the kitchen baking with my mom.” She built a career as a personal trainer, and while her then-husband was stationed in Europe, Peterson attended the famed Cordon Bleu in Paris and interned at a noted French patisserie.

When the family came to Charlottesville in 2004, Peterson began working in the kitchen at the Boar’s Head Inn— but “I knew if I wanted to open my own business, I needed to be out in the community.” She became a personal trainer at ACAC, and started building a client base by baking for friends, giving samples to her training clients, and taking on jobs at cost to build word-of-mouth.

Through SCORE, a local business organization (see sidebar), Peterson was connected with Joe Geller, retired owner of the Silver Thatch Inn, whom she credits with helping her develop her business plan. Peterson’s concept: an open bakery. “My idea was based on my mom’s kitchen. She always has someone in, it was a community place. I didn’t want to have a wall between us and our customers—I wanted to see who we were serving, and have them see us.” Thus the name: Paradox Pastry Café, where a personal trainer is making delicious treats, and the bakery becomes a place to convene.

Peterson got a business loan through a small local financial institution. She found her space on Second Street SE– “I signed the lease before I got my loan approved,” she admits—and much of the renovation was done by “me and my friends, and a rag-tag bunch of guys working on another restaurant nearby.” She hired and then fired a business consultant. Meanwhile, she was still working at ACAC, running her home business, raising her two children, and navigating a divorce. “I was 49 years old,” Peterson recalls, “and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be 80 years old and never have tried this.’”

In June 2012, Peterson launched her café—and, almost eight years later, she admits there are still parts of her business plan she hasn’t gotten around to implementing. But her core vision remains: a community place where she and her staff greet the regulars and patrons can linger.

“There are other bakeries in town, but they’re not my competition,” Peterson says. “We don’t make breads. We don’t offer gluten-free—I don’t have the space for completely separate ingredients and equipment. To me, it should be, do what you love and do it better than anyone else.”

Emily Morrison | THE FRONT PORCH

Music has always been vital in Emily Morrison’s life; the daughter of two musicians, she is a skilled banjo player herself. But she also has a calling to teach. When she came to Charlottesville in 2000, her “real job” was teaching high school English. Then she began teaching music and drama at Mountaintop Montessori school.

“It was the first time I had taught music,” Morrison recalls, “and it was so much fun!” She created a musical/ cultural “world folk tour,” recruited local musicians to help start a school string band, and launched a children’s choir. She had found her passion: people making music together—“performance as, not outcome-based, but as experiential.” That’s how the dream of a community music school began.

Morrison and a friend came up with the name The Front Porch because “that’s the place, all over the world, where people gather.” She went to a hackathon at Monticello High School to develop her website, and got a business license to offer music lessons out of her home. In summer 2015, she took part in the i.Lab incubator program at UVA. “This former English teacher didn’t know anything about business,” Morrison says. “That’s where I decided this [venture] should be a nonprofit and learned how to set it up, with a board and everything. That little test model is still what we’re doing today.”

Morrison leased space at Mountaintop for her burgeoning school. The first year’s budget was $50,000, half of it raised on a GoFundMe page. While Morrison was committed to paying her teachers a market wage, she herself was working for free. Among her “success factors,” Morrison credits her husband John, whose steady income and support enabled her to pursue her dream.

By 2016, student enrollment had doubled–and Mountaintop needed its space back. Morrison found a new location, just off the Downtown Mall, that needed extensive renovation. Another “success factor:” Jack Horn of Martin Horn Inc., a supporter of The Front Porch’s programs, whose firm handled (and partially funded) the renovation.

By 2019, the school’s annual budget surpassed $300,000, and “we were finally appropriately staffed,” she says. From hiring staff to recruiting board members, Morrison drew on relationships she had built as a teacher and as a musician. And she kept learning–visiting other community music schools around the country, and cold-calling people around Charlottesville to “have coffee with me so I could pick their brains.”

Her assessment, after five years? “I’ve mentored people who want to start a nonprofit, and I tell them it’s going to take over your life,” Morrison says. “But there’s still a learning curve, which keeps me interested.” And she’s keeping her dream alive: “The world—all of us—needs more time being together, playing music and being peaceful.”

TOP TIPS FROM FELLOW DREAMERS

We asked our featured entrepreneurs to share some of their hard-won wisdom:

Don’t quit your day job—yet. Finances are the single biggest source of stress, and the main reason business ventures fail. Having an outside job while you test the waters is a good way to prepare. (If you’re lucky enough to have a spouse or partner with a steady income, that’s a huge help too.)

Plan, plan, and plan some more. All these entrepreneurs developed (and kept revising) their business plans, financial spreadsheets, and to-do lists. Work out how much money you need (including your salary), where it’s coming from, and what you will have to charge. At the same time, as Heather Hightower cautions, expect problems—and opportunities—to come up before you’re ready.

Be willing to do everything. Jenny Peterson says on any given day she might be cleaning toilets, training a new worker, or coming in to cover for a sick employee—in addition to baking, running the café, and greeting customers. There is no 35-hour work week for a business owner.

Find the skills you don’t have. While your personal work experience may be helpful, there’s always something you won’t know. Find a mentor, hire a consultant, take a course, search the Internet— and be willing to pay for the expertise you need, whether it’s bookkeeping, marketing, or legal advice.

The buck stops with you. If you have a hard time making decisions or taking on more responsibilities, think twice about running your own business. “The owner is the catalyst,” says Peterson. “We set the tone, the vision—it’s our full responsibility to make it happen.”

It’s also your dream; don’t forget to enjoy it. Every one of these entrepreneurs said their goal was not huge profits or thousands of clients, it was the creation of their dream. Being happy in your work is a perfectly acceptable measure of success.

FINDING SUPPORT

Ready to take the leap and start a business? Here are some local resources that can help:

Community Investment Collaborative (cicville.org) focuses on helping microenterprises with financing support and counseling, networking opportunities, support groups, co-working space and services, and education. CIC’s small business classes range from a two-hour “How to Start Your Own Business” course to a 16-week “Entrepreneur Workshop.”

City of Charlottesville’s Office of Economic Development (Find it on the city’s website, charlottesville.org) has a range of resources for small business owners at any stage. “Cville Match” provides additional funding to companies that have received grants from a range of state and federal programs; once you’re launched, the “Advancing Charlottesville Entrepreneurs” program assists small (fewer than six employees), city-based businesses with grants for advertising, equipment, and supplies.

Central Virginia SCORE (centralvirginia.score.org) offers an online business library, webinars on everything from budgeting to marketing, and assistance in developing a business plan. SCORE also provides access to a stable of retired business professionals who serve as volunteer mentors for fledgling entrepreneurs.

Small Business Development Center (centralvirginia.org/ small-business-development-center) provides free business counseling services and assists with feasibility studies and business planning. SBDC also sponsors seminars and training, often in conjunction with CIC and SCORE —including the monthly Charlottesville “Entrepreneurs & Espresso” at UVA’s i.Lab.

If your dream is evolving in a nonprofit direction, the Center for Nonprofit Excellence (thecne.org) offers its members workshops, training and consulting in areas from financial management, fundraising, and grantsmanship to marketing and advocacy, as well as board recruitment and development. Membership dues start at $100/year and are keyed to the organization’s annual budget.

Don’t forget to check the course offerings at Piedmont Virginia Community College (pvcc.edu) to build skills in accounting, management, business law, IT and marketing.

Once you’re launched, the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce (cvillechamber.com) can help you connect with other entrepreneurs and potential customers and clients. Some Chamber programs, like the monthly Business Women’s Round Table and ProTip Tuesday, a social and learning event, are open to the public; its signature networking event, Let’s Connect, is for members and prospective members only. Note: If your small business (fewer than 11 employees) belongs to the Chamber in a neighboring county, you can become an affiliate member of the Charlottesville chapter at no additional charge.

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