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WNC Business

Education and support for WNC's tourism-based businesses

Apr 16, 2023 12:09PM ● By Randee Brown

Create Bridges, a Wal-Mart funded initiative that began to help people in rural areas bounce back from Covid, helped Elissa Hashemi begin We Speak WNC.

“During Covid, I created a Facebook group to talk about where to find supplies like toilet paper and hand sanitizer,” Hashemi said. “The group slowly morphed to learning what businesses offered what services, and then business owners started reaching out asking about resources. One business owner thought that the Small Business Center was for startups only, and after being in business for 10 years, the owner needed some help and found some guidance. Now, there are many testimonials of business owners who used this resource and got help.”

Hashemi said that she wants people to know what resources are out there. “We want to hear and share stories of their successes so that others can see what the possibilities are in action,” she said. We want entrepreneurs to know that they have a literal army of support behind them, all at no cost to the entrepreneur.”

One of the reasons that We Speak WNC was created was to house Got Your Back – a program that Hashemi said helps people become better employers and connect people with resources to those that are working hard to find them. 

The Got Your Back Online Academy consists of free online training that provides tools that employers can use to help find and retain the right employees, learn effective leadership strategies, how to handle a variety of challenges, ways to improve workplace training, and more, all helping business owners to become the best employers possible. 

Business owners who complete this training receive recognition, and Hashemi said that this recognition will help job seekers to know that these business owners will have their back. “Not only will employees just entering the workforce know that leadership in that business will be supportive and have their back, it also helps parents trust that their teenagers or young adult children are working with businesses that will stand up for their kids.”

Another main idea of We Speak WNC is that staff working in the hospitality industry can be ambassadors for the region. This is a place for front line workers in the industry to gather information about what there is to do in the region, and therefore pass that information along when connecting with their guests and visitors.

“We Speak WNC has become a local voice for what is really here and available for people visiting Western North Carolina,” Hashemi said.

On a mission to find out what people working in businesses like hotels, restaurants, and retail shops really know about the region, Hashemi said that she worked with a class at WCU to ‘secret shop’ 120 regional businesses. She said their data showed that owners and managers are like tour guides in the region when asked for tips on what to do while visiting the area, but in general, the staff was not as knowledgeable. 

After the student’s presentation, Hashemi said that she also discovered there was a huge disconnect between the college’s faculty, staff, and students and the utilization of what’s around them. 

They came up with a WCU bucket list for both staff and students to learn about local businesses, activities, and resources in the area. This bucket list can be distributed to new students to help introduce the area, and used by the students in the College of Business to help connect with area business owners.

Further building connections between students and business owners, through an initiative with Create Bridges, Hashemi organized a field trip for 25 Macon County high school students to visit several local businesses at locations like the farmer’s market, a local restaurant, and the Smokey Mountain Theater. 

After a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of these businesses, Hashemi said that the students were fascinated by the stories the owners told of their business journey, as well as the work that goes on behind the scenes to produce the results that visitors see. She said that two of the students later got jobs at one of these businesses.

“When I asked the kids what they learned on this field trip, one shy teenager quietly responded ‘You don’t have to be rich to start a business’,” Hashemi said. “This field trip showed them that there are limitless possibilities here in WNC, and they realized they could be business owners too one day. That’s really powerful.”

We Speak WNC recently hosted its first Workforce Conference at the Cherokee Convention Center at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in February. The goal of the conference is to connect businesses in the retail, hospitality, accommodation, tourism, and entertainment industry to each other, potential employees, and resources that are available in the region.

“We are driving awareness of career opportunities right here in our region,” Hashemi said. “We want kids to meet owners of these businesses, hear their journey, and learn about the windy road to business ownership and how these business owners got to where they are now.”