By Debbie Adams
Annette Patterson, founder of the Gauntlet Business Program and Competition, is well-known for her use of the term “pivot” as a strategy that entrepreneurs need to master as they start or expand a business—the willingness to change course, shift to a new strategy, and refocus when circumstances necessitate an adjustment.
The Gauntlet staff and students have certainly had to employ that technique this spring in coping with the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The Gauntlet is a 10-week, community-focused, comprehensive business development program and competition catering to the needs of local entrepreneurs by providing innovative strategies and regional resources. Entrepreneurs participate in weekly business training sessions, meet and network with successful entrepreneurs, fellow Gauntlet participants, and mentors, and develop business strategies that provide a roadmap to success—the key words being “meet and network.”
The much-acclaimed Gauntlet Program kicked off its 2020 session on February 4—this year in four locations: the Vinton War Memorial, at Dabney Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge, at the Buchanan Community House, and at Dabney S. Lancaster Rockbridge Regional Center in Buena Vista.
Classes were meeting up until mid-March on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 7:30 in each of the four locations.
“Twenty-two days ago, we went to an online platform, unsure how it would go,” said Patterson, but the transition from in-person to online was “virtually seamless.” She commended the Gauntlet Class of 2020 for their “real grit in sticking with the program” in these unsettling times.
Patterson describes the weeks since as a whirlwind. She herself appeared online from her master bath—the “quietest spot” in her home—and her only haven available from children and pets.
The Advancement Foundation (TAF), founded by Patterson, introduced the Gauntlet in 2015 with just “an idea.” The program has grown by leaps and bounds, impacting innumerable individuals and communities along the way.
Now in its sixth year, the program has grown from 15 entrepreneurs in its inaugural year with $12,000 in cash and prizes awarded, to 170 participants in 2020 involved in 110 businesses with over $300,000 in awards to be distributed, along with other resources. The Gauntlet is now Virginia’s largest business program and competition. Over 200 local leaders in business and government have served as mentors to the entrepreneurs.
About 350 entrepreneurs have completed the business program over the years with a total of over $815,000 awarded in cash and prizes, along with $760,000 in grants and loans. Each Gauntlet participant receives a prize of some sort at the end of the sessions each year.
In order to receive prizes, businesses must open and operate in the Alleghany Highlands, Botetourt County, Roanoke City, Roanoke County, Vinton, Rockbridge County or the City of Salem for one year.
The 2020 classes reached their conclusion yesterday when participating entrepreneurs turned in their required business plans. Plans will be judged by a panel from each geographic area.
The 2020 program was to conclude on May 14 with the Gauntlet Awards and Graduation Ceremony at the Vinton War Memorial. Logistics are still being worked out for that event, given the ever-changing nature of COVID-19 requirements.
Kathleen Carr, Director of Small Business Development for TAF said, “The Advancement Foundation team made efforts to swiftly move the remainder of Gauntlet classes online due to COVID-19. This once in a lifetime experience is our opportunity to witness the value of our ability to “pivot” as we discussed the first night of classes back in February. We have been utilizing online tools such as Zoom to host live classes where entrepreneurs can listen in by computer and/or phone.
“Our first virtual class conducted was an adapted version of our speed networking activity. The cool thing about this activity being virtual was that participants from across the region were able to connect and interact with others that they normally wouldn’t have if classes were still meeting in person. We also had numerous mentors participate that provided additional feedback to entrepreneurs.”
For their second virtual class, the topic was budgeting.
“As you can imagine this is a tough topic to do virtually; however, with the help of the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center, Bank of Botetourt, BB&T, Coeus Research, and Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, we made it work,” Carr said. “At the beginning of class Tom Tanner, from the Small Business Development Center, presented to everyone and then we broke out into smaller groups for a Q&A. This was all done by using Zoom.”
The online Gauntlet classes have continued to provide Entrepreneurial Showcases featuring small business owners—many of whom are Gauntlet alumni—sharing their stories.
“These small business owners are beginning to record their stories so we are able to share with all participants,” Carr noted. “This is something we are excited to still provide as it proves the true grit that small business owners have, especially during this crazy time.
“We can’t thank our entrepreneurs, mentors, and partners enough for pivoting and continuing to be a part of this program,” Carr said. “The entrepreneurial spirit is stronger than ever!”