Inside a south Thurston County barn late Sunday afternoon, amid windy conditions and scattered sun breaks, a graduation ceremony offered a glimpse of the future.
And the future looks bright.
That’s because 16 people graduated Sunday from Enterprise for Equity, the longtime Olympia nonprofit that gives low-income residents a chance to pursue their dreams as business owners by gaining skills through a three-month program.
The program, which meets twice weekly, grounds participants in business basics, such as writing a business plan, and then those business owners — some with less experience, others with more experience — are eligible for small loans up to $25,000 through Enterprise for Equity.
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At the helm is Executive Director Lisa Smith, the most optimistic and supportive person a fledgling business owner could ever want to meet.
She spoke about the program and then turned it over to the new crop of graduates. Each gave a short presentation about themselves and their businesses before an audience of about 60 people. Among those in attendance: Congressman Denny Heck, who spoke about the importance of entrepreneurs, as well as Port of Olympia Commissioner Bill McGregor and Thurston County Commissioner Bud Blake.
“You are part of the solution,” Heck told the graduates about the importance of strong, fair, sustainable and long-term growth to help the U.S. economy.
Among the graduates Sunday was Julianne Panagacos, 26, who quickly stole the show by talking about her business, Acrojules, a combination of yoga and acrobatics, while also demonstrating some acrobatic-like moves.
With her business, Panagacos wants to teach both active and therapeutic forms of acroyoga, as well as perform.
Gina Vitale Syrja of Fair Portia, a jewelry business, talked about how far she’s come since deciding to start a business that would work for a single mother raising her 18-month-old daughter in 1993. That daughter has since graduated from the University of Washington.
“It wasn’t always graceful,” Syrja said about her early days in business, “but I knew I had something.”
She announced that she’s secured her first business loan and is set to launch a new website next month.
For those unfamiliar with Enterprise for Equity, Smith had a checklist of local businesses that have emerged from the program: Obsidian, a downtown Olympia bar, music venue and restaurant; Oly Kraut, a seller of raw sauerkrauts; Psychic Sister, a downtown retailer of vintage clothing; and Nineveh Assyrian, a popular food truck selling Assyrian food in downtown Olympia.
Another is Evan Mulvaney, 22, the owner of Steamboat Junction Farm. His presence largely explained why Enterprise for Equity had its gathering at the Scatter Creek Farm and Conservancy. That’s where Mulvaney has taken advantage of Enterprise for Equity’s 33-acre incubator farm for his business.
He started with a 3,000-square-foot plot of land and has increased to five acres, selling his produce wholesale to grocery stores and restaurants. His next step is to acquire land in Grays Harbor County to raise pastured pork. He has raised $350,000 so far and is looking to raise another $100,000, he said.