Story by Alison de Grassi
“We educate and advocate for small business so that local entrepreneurs receive the information they need to launch and expand their business.”
—–West Center Mission
Mention the name “West Company” and you’ll get a nod of recognition from residents and business owners alike throughout Mendocino County. The original WEST Company—Women’s Economic Self Sufficiency Training—was founded more than thirty years ago by an intrepid team of Mendocino County women. Today West Enterprise Center, Inc.,\a.k.a. West Business Development Center, has morphed into a twenty-first century no-cost small business consulting and training center that reaches every corner of our rural county.
West Center, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, is recognized within our rural region for developing no-cost innovative programs that educate and train individuals to launch sustainable businesses, raise family incomes, and provide economic stability and mobility in their communities. The organization has grown from providing small business technical assistance exclusively to women to becoming an economic development hub for growing a sustainable rural economy. In 2022, West Center was able to expand services into Lake County with the addition of a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) hub office in Lakeport.
From its beginnings as an organization focused on lifting women out of poverty, West Center’s reach now supports all genders with services that include comprehensive business training programs, one-on-one business advising services, an intensive startup training program, all-Spanish-language business services, and leadership in the county’s economic development strategy.
West Center is one of only two Women’s Business Centers in Northern California, and it also serves as the Mendocino-Lake SBDC. West is very proud of the community trust they have built over the decades, solidified by our impact in the region. Their unique approach of developing the whole entrepreneur—through culturally effective and compassionate counseling, relevant and timely training, mentorship. and innovative programming—has made West Center the go-to agency for rural business development. As evidenced by hundreds of client support letters, West Center has helped many business owners achieve their goals.
“The journey I have been on with my business would not be successful without West’s support. Each connection with a content-area expert has helped me develop my knowledge, skills, and abilities. I am a more confident and knowledgeable business owner because of these experiences.”
—Amy Collins, Village Sock Shop
Staying the Course
Over the span of more than thirty years, just three women have led the organization as the need grew for an expansion of business services in the county: an extraordinary testament to West Center’s stability and resilience in the communities it serves.
The current director, Mary Anne Petrillo, has been at the helm since 2017 when she finally realized a long-held dream: that of living in Mendocino, a place she first saw as a starry-eyed teenager. Having worked in the Silicon Valley tech industry and elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area as a marketing executive, she brought marketing expertise and tech savvy to the organization. She recognized that West Center needed to reinvent itself as it adapted to new technologies and ways of learning and that the organization needed to rebrand itself to clearly express its expansion into the areas of business and economic development. Thus, West Company became West Business Development Center.
The second in the triad was Pamela Patterson who steered the organization for twelve years through a brutal downturn in the county’s economic fortunes due to precipitous declines in both the timber and fishing industries. Pamela was instrumental in securing West as the host for a federal Small Business Development Center—now Mendo-Lake Small Business Development Center—and the Mendocino Women’s Business Center, each with services at no cost to county residents. The founding director of West Center was Sheilah Rogers whose tenacity and hunger for finding the tools to pull women out of poverty established WEST as a force for change. Sheilah looks back at her time starting up WEST fondly, “The job was even more fulfilling than I knew it would be. I got to meet women from all over and see their success—from their business to their personal Iives—it was just fabulous to see them getting there.”
Numbers Don’t Lie
Taking the entrepreneurial path is an exciting and challenging adventure. West Center’s clients have an idea for a business but often don’t know how or where to begin their journey. For many, the first step is to contact West where they will speak with one of the generalist advisors and, often, be referred on to a specialist advisor who will bring their experience and expertise to bear. The West Center team of advisors are experts in a wide range of business practices, with experience in many different industries—from finance and marketing to social media and SEO—and they are primed to guide clients as they begin their journey.
Success and change are evidenced by the numbers. In the year 2007, West Center’s advisors counseled just forty clients but by 2016 that number had grown to two hundred, sixty-eight and by 2022 it had more than doubled to 877! West’s advisors spend hours (yes, we counted 7,133 hours over the years!) helping their clients achieve the success they deserve.
Who Says You Can’t Dream?
Some of West’s clients have achieved enormous success beyond Mendocino County with a little bit of help from their West Center friends. Steve Heckeroth dared to dream big on his land on Navarro Ridge. A tinkerer all his life, Steve saw a tractor demonstration at a county fair and the light bulb went off. He realized that the weight of a battery could be an integral part of an electric tractor that can do everything a diesel tractor does except without pollution or noise. More than thirty years after his revelation, West Center helped Steve launch a highly successful crowdfunding campaign that raised more than a million dollars and enabled Steve to ink a deal with Ideanomics, a global giant in sustainable transportation.
Training for Success
Another key aspect of West Center’s work revolves around providing clients with training in relevant business practices that are designed to help them succeed. Training topics range from fundamentals like business basics and financial literacy to specialized offerings such as West’s Artists in Action series that gives creative entrepreneurs a grounding in how to make art a full-time business proposition. All the trainings are currently conducted via Zoom, making them accessible to people beyond Mendocino County and now anyone interested in watching a training program can sign up on West’s website (www.westcenter.org) and brush up their skills!
In 2021, West Center delivered 106 training events attended by more than 2,700 participants from around the world. Impressive numbers for a small organization in rural Mendocino County!
The Elephant in the Room: Covid-19
The Covid-19 pandemic brought the county, the country, and the world to a screeching halt. Overnight, lives were upended, businesses closed, and futures were cloudy at best. Mary Anne recognized that in our rural area, the businesses with the most needs would be the small entrepreneurs that make up nearly 90 percent of the business community in the county. When West Center’s offices in Ukiah and Fort Bragg closed overnight, the entire West Center team rallied to become an organization operating in a virtual world. There was much to learn and no time to waste!
The advising team was accustomed to seeing clients in the office, either by appointment or as walk-ins. This practice moved to phone and Zoom calls, both of which had an unforeseen benefit: no one needed to drive, thus saving both time and money for gas. Advisors and clients quickly adapted to this method of interaction and now, three years on, the trend continues, making it easier for clients and advisors to connect.
West’s in-person trainings, which had been held in both the Fort Bragg and Ukiah offices, switched to Zoom webinars. There were some stumbles and struggles with adjusting to new technology but now the team at West has realized that online training has opened up learning to a far wider audience. The program’s team has successfully created learning opportunities on topics that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to hold as in-person events. This has also enabled the team to recruit expert instructors in specialty topics, something that would have been next to impossible prior to the pandemic.
Both the federal and state governments responded to the pandemic with money—for individuals, for small and large businesses—in the form of either loans or grants. For example, in 2020, with the help of the Community Foundation of Mendocino County and the County of Mendocino, West distributed more than $750,000 in grant funds to small business owners. The West team strove to help clients navigate this new terrain by assisting with applications, answering their questions, and generally shepherding them through some steep learning curves. All this required that the West team quickly get up to speed with all of the new programs that were becoming available.
At the height of the first pandemic, no one wanted to venture out to shop for the holidays. So, with the end of the year approaching in 2020, West saw an opportunity to assist small businesses with holiday revenues by creating an online marketplace for local goods and services. (About 20 percent of annual retail sales occur during the holiday season.) West Center supported this by creating a platform and a marketing ad campaign to drive shoppers to the marketplace. The idea was enthusiastically embraced by the community and shoppers and MendoMarketplace.com became a reality. The program has continued to be a success and by the 2022 holiday season, the marketplace’s third year of existence, it had attained its highest level of participation and outreach.
Economic Development and Resiliency
As the fallout from the pandemic begins to abate, West Center continues to respond to the challenges posed by Mendocino County’s long-standing economic issues. The vast majority of Mendocino’s economy is supported by businesses with fewer than twenty employees, which as of 2018 accounted for nearly 89 percent of the 2,465 businesses in the county. This is both a testament to its residents’ entrepreneurial spirit as well as a vulnerability for economic stability, as evidenced by business closures during the pandemic.
In 2020, West Center was central to an effort called MOVE 2030: Mendocino Opportunities for building a Vibrant Economy. This public/private agency collaboration convened meetings to explore what is needed to better support economic development in Mendocino County. The effort concluded with an Economic Development Analysis report, issued in 2020, that contains a series of recommendations for the county and other agencies to act upon to stabilize and grow economic development and resiliency.
In May 2022 the County of Mendocino named West Center as the Economic Development Liaison for the county. Economic development is the creation of wealth from which community benefits are realized. It is an investment in growing the economy that increases revenues for jurisdictions and agencies so they can provide services, amenities, and opportunities for their residents in a way that aligns with the community’s vision and values. For its initial year, West has been contracted to provide services in three strategic areas: economic development capacity, business recruitment and retention, and workforce development. Each of these areas is critical to building economic resilience in the county and creating a welcoming environment that can support business attraction, development, and expansion, and implementing policies and practices to make it easier for businesses to start up and expand.
West Center is also supporting the expansion of the Blue Economy as a strategic economic program for the Mendocino coast and county. According to the World Bank, the Blue Economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.” The concept of the Blue Economy emphasizes the importance of using ocean resources in a way that balances economic benefits with the need to conserve marine biodiversity and protect the ocean’s ecosystem. It aims to create a future where ocean-based industries are sustainable and contribute to the overall well-being of coastal communities, as well as the global economy.
In 2022, West Center became part of the Noyo Ocean Collective, a unique partnership among the city of Fort Bragg, Noyo Harbor District, Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, Mendocino College, and the Noyo Center for Marine Science. In May of that year, the Collective held its first Symposium and Learning Festival in Fort Bragg, an event that showcased local harbor entrepreneurs, conservation, and commercial aquaculture leaders from throughout California. West will continue to work with the Noyo Ocean Collective to partner with the Noyo Marine Science Center in developing its own sustainable business model and to serve as an information clearinghouse connecting Mendocino County stakeholders with one another, as well as local, state, and federal resources for the purpose of supporting restorative ocean-facing economic development.
StartUp Your Business
Inspired by business bootcamps and business accelerator programs that were sprouting up around the United States and in other countries, Mary Anne hosted a screening of the documentary Generation StartUp at Mendocino College in 2017. That event and the subsequent discussions spurred Mary Anne to collaborate with Jeffrey Parker, the former Executive Director at KZYX/Z, to create Mendocino Works, a community radio show. On one of their shows, they talked about an entrepreneurial startup program called Angel Challenge Norway, a program to help entrepreneurs in rural Norway get ready for business by putting them through intensive training, and training residents to become early-stage investors. During the discussion, the proverbial light bulb went off with Mary Anne asking, “Why can’t we do something similar here?” And with that, StartUp Mendocino was born.
With state and local grants in hand and the generous support of sponsors, Mary Anne and her team created a business bootcamp workshop series of intensive visioning, marketing, and financial training with a team of field experts. With the program ready to roll, West opened the door to applicants and from the pool of eighty-eight, selected twelve to go through the program and compete for the grand prize of ten thousand dollars at the program’s finalé, a start-up pitch competition. As Mary Anne said at the time, “We’re a big, rural county, with shifting economics. It is crucial we support and foster our businesses because small businesses are what make our county a place people want to live, visit, and return to time and again. The economic development of small businesses can lift people up and make us stronger, together.”
On a very hot summer night, August 25, 2019, more than two hundred people gathered at Mendocino College to hear business pitches from the five finalist competitors and cast their votes for the winners. A local mushroom business, The Forest People, walked away with the top prize of ten thousand dollars. StartUp Mendocino was off to a great start and West Center began plans for a reprise in 2020.
As we all know, in March 2020 the pandemic shut down just about everything—except for West Center. StartUp Mendocino was postponed for a year and then for another as the pandemic continued to rage.
In 2022, with the threat of Covid diminishing, StartUp Mendocino returned with a revised program. Twelve early-stage entrepreneurs were selected to participate in a specially designed curriculum to provide participants with the tools to make their businesses more efficient, effective, productive, and profitable. The program also established a peer-to-peer network to provide ongoing collaboration beyond the program’s timeline. No longer a pitch competition with live in-person workshops and events, the course was a series of Zoom-based courses that participants could complete from their own homes. West Center was thrilled to host a graduation event for the participants in June 2022, paving the way for the program to continue in 2023. Laura Brooks, StartUp Mendocino’s Program Director, stated, “With StartUp 2023, we can keep growing our economy together, one creative, courageous small business at a time.”
Mary Anne is proud of the accomplishments of the program: “West has been able to parlay a big idea to fit the needs of our rural startups. With the solid grounding that StartUp Mendocino provides, we are confident that our entrepreneurs have the building blocks for successful futures.”
Mi Lugar Para Ser “The Best”
A population that has been under-represented is the community of Hispanic business owners. To try to mitigate this, West Center created their Centro Latino West program to be the go-to business hub for the Latino community in Mendocino and Lake Counties. This specialized program offers outreach, one-on-one confidential business advising services, workshops, counseling, access to financial resources, and support—all in Spanish. The West Center team has three fluent Spanish-language advisors who engage with their Latino clients and a robust social media outreach program specifically tailored for the Latino audience.
“Una amiga me dijo que debería abrir mi propio negocio, pero no sabía cómo hacerlo. ¡Ni siquiera sabía inglés! Ella dijo: ‘Sé de esta organización llamada West Center.’ Abrí mi negocio prácticamente sin hablar una palabra de inglés. Pero gracias a West Center, me enseñaron todo lo que necesitaba saber.” —Maria Rodriguez, Elegancia Rodriguez
Fundando mis Sueños / Funding Your Dreams
The success of StartUp Mendocino inspired West Center to create a similar program specifically for a Latino audience and in August 2022 West Center rolled out Fundando mis Sueños. The thrust of the program was to train up to twenty mono- or bi-lingual Spanish speaking pre-venture entrepreneurs to help them start and launch their businesses. This initial program was tied to the California Dream Fund, a one-time thirty-five-million-dollar grant program to seed entrepreneurship and small business creation in the state of California offered by the Governor’s Office of the Small Business Advocate. West Center now had the funds to incentivize small business owners to learn foundational business practices.
Program director Laura Brooks worked with Professor Eddie Landeros-Santana of the School of Business and Technology at the Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista to create a course of study specifically tailored for the Latino business audience. The ten-week course attracted nineteen participants who successfully completed the program and were then eligible to apply for Dream Grant funding in the amount of $107,500. Building on this success, West Center created an online version of the classes, which another nineteen Hispanic business owners completed in time to submit their applications for $110,000 in Dream Fund grants.
This program has been instrumental in helping open the door to the Hispanic business community; a door that West Center plans to keep open with additional programming in 2023 and beyond.
Looking to 2023
This year will be an exciting year for West Center with the launch of new training programs focused on small farmers. Early in the year, West launched Labor of Love, a four-part webinar series focused on training farmers in essential business practices. Later in the year, West Center is expanding its Digital Literacy program aimed at giving entrepreneurs a firm grounding in rapidly evolving digital technology skills needed to compete in the global marketplace. This series will be held in July and August and will be available to both English and Spanish speakers with the goal of eliminating language barriers to accessing West Center’s services.
After thirty-plus years, West Center continues to reinvent itself. As CEO, Mary Anne Petrillo reflects, “Today’s businesses must continue to find ways to be relevant to their customers. West Center is no different. We want to hear the needs of our rural entrepreneurs and from that provide opportunities for their continued growth. The economy cannot survive without our small business owners.”
West Center’s no-cost services are available to anyone looking to start or expand a business. West’s staff can answer all kinds of business questions, and they can refer clients to advisors with specialized training in topics such as food services, restaurants, marketing and advertising, social media, employee relations, and more. Learn more about West Center at www.westcenter.org. REM