Heather Crowley has always had a passion for food.
Whipping up meals or baking sweet treats offered opportunities growing up for her to bond with her parents. Her dad “could throw anything together,” she said, and her mom loved to bake.
After escaping an abusive relationship that had caused Crowley to lose some of herself and the things she enjoys, food brought her home.
“I was very much in the arts scene and doing all of that stuff. Food gave me an outlet to create masterpieces,” she said. “I found my creative skill. I was able to hone that into baking cakes.”
In 2012, Crowley completed Washburn Tech’s culinary arts program. And in 2014, she began showcasing some of her culinary creations on Facebook.
“But never really saw it as something,” she said. “It was just kind of a hobby.”
That started to change a couple years ago after Crowley had the opportunity to participate in the Greater Topeka Partnership’s First Step FastTrac program, which offers knowledge and resources to help budding entrepreneurs get their business ideas off the ground.
According to Glenda Washington, the GTP’s chief equity and opportunity officer, Crowley was one of a handful of people living in Topeka Housing Authority properties that participated in the First Step FastTrac program that same year.
Washington had partnered with THA to survey public housing residents to see whether those individuals were interested in starting their own businesses, and what their business ideas might be.
“We had about 30 to 40 people show up at a focus group to tell us what they wanted,” Washington said. “Our whole thinking on this was there are some gaps in the community. There are some places where there are not services in these areas. They don’t have grocery stores, or they don’t have what you see on Wanamaker.”
If she could partner with THA to encourage some public housing residents with bold ideas to turn those ideas into successful businesses, those residents would have the chance to become more self-sufficient.
People who showed up to the focus group had lots of ideas, Washington said — from car washes to restaurants to places for kids to play and have birthday parties.
The GTP, in partnership with THA, offered residents a chance to move forward with some of those concepts.
“What if we gave you some free training and kind of took you along the way to opening up whatever your dream business is going to be?” Washington asked them.
About four or five people took her up on it. Crowley was one of them.
Those individuals then went through the FastTrac program, Washington said, but that only lasts eight weeks. She and her THA partners knew some of these aspiring business owners would need additional help.
“So we decided that what we wanted to do was design a program where we could embrace these individuals from beginning to end,” Washington said.
The concept was a business incubator program that promised to go further than an initiative like FastTrac to help individuals who are totally new to the small business world achieve ownership.
“We would help them with startup costs, permits. We’d give them extensive training. We even identified two business coaches to walk alongside them,” Washington said.
She met with Trey George, executive director of the housing authority, to explain what they hoped to do. He was on board and offered up THA’s old aquaponics center, at 2701 S.E. 10th St., as the site for the new incubator.
“We will always want to get involved in something that is going to help support the families that we serve,” George said. “We were supportive of it from day one.”
At the Sept. 9 meeting of Topeka and Shawnee County’s Joint Economic Development Organization, Washington secured funding needed to transform the aquaponics center into an incubator space. The $250,000 allocated to the program through JEDO, Washington said, will also help cover equipment, business coaching and startup costs.
Though Washington hoped to get started with the incubator program in April, the coronavirus pandemic slowed things down. Now, she hopes to have the building ready by early next year.
At that point, the soon-to-be business owners will be ready to hit the ground running.
The aquaponics center is where the four individuals in the program’s inaugural cohort will launch their businesses. Washington said they’ll likely remain there for a couple years, as they continue to learn, before branching out. When that time comes, program leaders would help the new business owners identify places in the community to set up shop.
Washington said of the four individuals in this first group, one plans to open a bakery, one plans to open a day care center, another hopes to launch a construction business and the fourth is looking to open a child care center that focuses on things like tutoring.
Sheena Simms, one of those budding entrepreneurs, is opening the day care. It is something she has wanted to do for a while, but she never had the space or resources to make it happen.
The idea, she said, was born from her own experiences as a mother.
“It just really opened up my eyes to the fact that there aren’t a lot of day care options,” Simms said. “I wanted the option for myself, and I never found anywhere I just felt super comfortable leaving my child. So I kept my kiddo at home, and I missed out on career options and schooling options and things like that. I definitely want to help people in the community not miss out on things like that.”
Being able to open her own business, Simms said, is going to be “life-changing” for her and her daughter.
“This is going to really help me and my daughter to get ahead,” she said.
And she hopes to give others a leg up, too, as she plans to hire additional staff once she gets her business up and running.
Crowley is the one opening a bakery. She plans to call her business “Scrumptious Sweets.” Since she started following a “ketogenic lifestyle” in 2018, most of her baked goods will be keto-compliant — though she will still bake traditional sweets upon customers’ requests.
If it weren’t for this incubator program, Scrumptious Sweets wouldn’t be on the horizon for Crowley.
“I would still see this as a hobby, versus making it reality, if I didn’t have the program,” she said.
According to George, giving people “a fair chance” is the whole point of the initiative.
“It shouldn’t matter where you live. It shouldn’t matter what opportunities you’ve had, or may not have had, in your life,” George said. “Having investment, especially in those lower-income areas of town, allows access to programming that may otherwise be out of reach.”
Washington echoed that sentiment, and she said that once individuals in this first cohort have successfully opened their businesses, she hopes to help another four to five people living in public housing pursue their dreams.
“In the housing authority, we’re trying to build a culture of successful business,” Washington said. “The pathway to wealth in public housing is through business ownership.”