How Young Entrepreneurs in Chattanooga Are Making a Splash
Organizations & People
According to a 2021 study by Guidant Financial, 87% of business owners fall into the Baby Boomer or Gen X age groups – leaving only 13% of the category to Millennials and Gen Z. Venturing into the world of entrepreneurship can be intimidating to younger generations for a number of reasons, and it’s often difficult for them to know where to start. However, resourcefulness and passion can help people go far, no matter their age. Here, we’re shining the spotlight on young founders in Chattanooga who’ve managed to get their own businesses off the ground and thriving.
By Anna Hill / Photography by Lanewood Studio
Founder, Cocoa Asante
For Ella Livingston, her business is a way of extending her family’s legacy. “I was born in Ghana, the country where the world’s best cocoa beans are grown, and my family has been a part of the cocoa industry for several generations as farmers,” she explains. Livingston’s business, Cocoa Asante, is a premium chocolate company selling handcrafted chocolate bonbons and bars that are made with cocoa beans sourced from her home country. Her chocolates can be ordered online, but you can also find them in local shops and establishments around town.
Livingston certainly experienced a learning curve when starting her business – not only because of her young age, but also due to her lack of experience as a professional chocolatier. After diligent research and lots of trial and error, she honed her craft, which in turn was good for business. “As I improved as a chocolatier, so did my confidence as an entrepreneur. I knew I had developed an incredible product that people would enjoy,” she shares.
Cocoa Asante began as a one-woman business, with Livingston doing everything herself. However, doing everything herself didn’t necessarily mean she was alone. “I was lucky to have access to a network of individuals who mentored me in all of these areas so that I could become a jack of all trades,” says Livingston. “Now I am at the stage where I am learning to replace myself with other qualified individuals and delegate tasks so that I can focus on growing my business.”
These days, Livingston is thriving as a self-employed entrepreneur. Not only is her time spent working on something that’s dear to her heart, but she can also craft a schedule that works best for her as a wife and mother. “Despite working even more than I did as an employee, having the freedom to decide how and where I will invest my time is one of the best things about owning my own company,” she says.
As for advice to other young people who dream of starting their own business, Livingston leaves us with this: “Sometimes belief in yourself and your idea or product is the only thing that’ll keep you going, especially when you are continuously told no. Stay motivated, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and understand that failing is an integral part of the process because it allows you to learn.”
Lead Designer & Owner, Blades Creative Design Studio
Though Gabrielle Blades never imagined one day owning her own business, she’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit. “When I was a kid, I would pretend to have a greeting card business in our sunroom and tried to sell art classes at recess,” she explains. Early in her career in design, Blades supplemented her employment with contract work, which made her realize her passion for helping entrepreneurs build and visualize their dreams. Eventually, Blades realized that she had reached the point where she was working full-time for herself. “It took a long time to even realize I was a business owner, but when I got my own office space, it felt real, and I was ready to grow,” she shares.
Now, Blades is the owner and lead designer for her own business – Blades Creative Design Studio. She and her team offer branding and packaging design to businesses of any size and pride themselves on the creative partnerships they maintain by collaborating with their clients.
As Blades’ background is in the field of design and not business, her ability to problem-solve really helped her go places starting out. “Using that skill, I was able to teach myself how to run a business. I had to learn to create project proposals, invoice my clients, implement contracts, and take on administrative tasks as I went,” she explains.
To Blades, taking control of her business also equated to taking control of her life. “I get to have full control over the business, molding and shaping it into what it needs to be over time. Knowing that I have built something from the ground up and that I can continue to do so without having to stay the same is so incredibly satisfying,” says Blades.
She’s also grateful for the confidence she’s gained from running her own business. While she used to doubt herself often in the beginning stages of her career, she’s learned to trust her own intuition and decision-making at an earlier age than most.
Blades’ words of wisdom for other young aspiring entrepreneurs center on the importance of hard work and empathy. “It’s a lot of work. You have to go through really hard work and hard lessons for several years before you get to relax,” she advises. “However, if you’re doing your best work and being kind, then you will always be okay.”
Founder & CEO, Izell Marketing Group
Becoming an entrepreneur at 27 wasn’t something Kate Izell necessarily set out to do – it just happened gradually. “I actually started as a digital marketing freelancer, but the operation naturally developed into a company as I continued to get new clients and didn’t want to turn away businesses that I knew I could help,” she explains. Izell’s initial inspiration for her work was a desire to help small businesses afford high-quality marketing services that they might not have had the budget to secure from larger agencies. Now, Izell is the CEO of Izell Marketing Group, which works to provide digital marketing strategy as well as ongoing marketing and analytics services to clients.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Izell faced as a young entrepreneur was learning how to combine her passion and values with the nitty-gritty of operating a business. “I spent a lot of time learning everything I could early on about business finance, operations, and growth. I generally tried to bridge all the gaps in what I knew versus what I needed to know,” she shares. As her clientele grew, Izell also learned the importance of making good hires. “I had to figure out how to not just build a team of intelligent, competent people; I needed the team to balance out and work well independently and collaboratively. This dynamic can get complicated as more people get brought on,” Izell explains. “Having a leadership team in place that I can trust unequivocally has been key.”
In becoming a business owner, operations and hiring aren’t the only things Izell has learned a lot about. “One of the big things I’ve learned is who I am as an entrepreneur and what my role means to the company over time,” she says. “I need to stay focused on what’s ahead, which makes it challenging to focus on some of the finer details of our current operations. Consequently, I recently decided to promote my first hire to be our Chief Operating Officer so that all of these critical processes could be handled by someone other than myself.”
Six years of business have helped Izell learn where she fits within an organization and taught her what’s important about being at the helm. “Effective leaders are those who understand the value of what others do for you and your business,” she advises.
CEO, Shelly Cove
Matt Schroeder has always had a passion for entrepreneurship, and with his brand, Shelly Cove, he’s channeled that passion into a business that gives back. Shelly Cove is a company that sells women’s apparel, bags, and accessories directly to consumers with a mission that primarily supports sea turtle conservation. “To date, we’ve donated over $300,000 to good causes,” says Schroeder. You can see the brand’s dedication to conservation in action simply by shopping with them. Every time you place an order, you’ll receive a unique “turtle tracking code” that allows you to keep up with a rehabilitating sea turtle.
While to many, founding a business while you’re still college-age may sound next to impossible, Schroeder says that there were both pros and cons to getting started at such a young age. “When you’re that young and naïve about business and life, there can be a bit of a ‘gung ho’ attitude toward starting and growing a company. This can either cause you to fail fast or succeed quickly. Thankfully, I think we fell into the second bucket,” he shares. Even today, Schroeder still faces some challenges due to his young age, such as achieving lines of credit at the bank. “A 25-year-old is naturally going to be a little more of a risk,” he adds.
One of Schroeder’s favorite things about owning and running his own business is the opportunity to be creative and try new things constantly. “Those things aren’t a perk of the job – they’re actually a requirement. But I love that, so that works in my favor,” he explains. He also appreciates how much running Shelly Cove has improved his leadership and problem-solving skills. Schroeder shares, “I’d like to meet high school me once more, because we are now completely different people.”
In hindsight, Schroeder can say that one of the most important components of starting a business at a young age is just that – getting started. “It’s so easy to let the wheels spin and never actually begin,” he says. He advises younger generations to drop the guru books and the how-to videos online and be more proactive. “Go door-to-door if you have to,” Schroeder recommends.
Co-Founder & Partner, Dynamo Ventures
In 2016, Dynamo Ventures emerged on the scene as one of the first – if not the first – supply chain and mobility seed stage investors. “It was obvious to our partnership that we should invest in and support the entrepreneurs digitizing the backbone of the global economy – the supply chain,” says Santosh Sankar, co-founder and partner at Dynamo. Supply chain accounts for 10% of GDP, and the last year has emphasized how important supply chains are to our daily lives, as short stock of daily necessities and the logistics of vaccine distribution have affected nearly everyone. “Our mission is three-fold,” Sankar shares. “We believe that we can be an amazing partner to the founders of our portfolio companies, generate excellent returns for our investors, and have fun pioneering the investment of innovation in a heritage industry.”
Sankar is aware that being such a young partner in venture capital can create a different dynamic compared to what he might experience if he were older. “It requires extra patience, humility, and self-awareness when dealing with peers, LPs, and founders,” he explains. “Over time, one’s reputation among founders, LPs, and the broader market tends to galvanize your position in the industry.”
As his career has progressed, Sankar has honed numerous professional skills, but perhaps one of the most important ones thus far has been communication – more particularly, conversations he has to have with companies to better ground them in reality. “Without a doubt, one of the skills I’ve had to develop is the communication and delivery of difficult news. As a venture investor, the least favorite part of my job is saying no to 99% of the companies that pitch us – it comes with the territory,” he says. “Equally, I have to regularly ground optimistic founders to the realities of the world. It’s important to be mindful of their personality and to deliver the message in a way that is sensitive to their emotions but still direct and not sugar-coated.”
To other young people looking to start up their own companies, Sankar advises that they first seek some experience via the excellent training they can receive at a high-growth company, then commit fully to their own idea. “Building a business is hard work and cannot be done with 100% excellence unless the founders have total focus,” he says.
The inspiration for Briana Garza’s business was not so much a what, but a where. “There’s just something inspiring about the buzz of productivity in communal workspaces like coffee shops,” she tells us. Garza had always wanted to pursue her own projects, but she was pushed to take the plunge when her mother suffered a stroke. “So many ideas and concepts she wanted to pursue but no longer had the opportunity. This gave me the confidence to take the jump,” Garza explains.
Now, Garza is the owner of Chatt Taste Food Tours, which offers a unique way for people to experience the Scenic City through food. “All tour guides are trained in Chattanooga history and are very passionate about food culture,” she shares. Each food tour includes meeting the executive chefs of the restaurants, and the meals are curated to match the preferences of each guest. Guests are treated to original small plates crafted just for them, making the tour an exclusive experience for the individual.
Garza has found running her own business for the first time to be a learning experience in many ways. She shares, “In order to combat not being taken seriously, I utilized two key strategies – being confident in the skills I have previously harnessed in my life and being open to advice.” Garza has also learned the importance of being able to pivot. The initial vision of Chatt Taste was simply focused on food, but today, the mission of the business is to tell the story of Chattanooga by bringing people together to learn about the city’s history, transformation, and perseverance, particularly through the lens of the restaurant industry.
Since the business’s inception, Garza has proudly watched it grow and evolve, and she’s grateful for all the support that she’s had. “The confidence to take the leap came from the support of strategic partnerships, mentors, friends, family, and my 9-year-old daughter, who believes that her mommy can do anything,” she says. Now that she’s gotten some experience as a business owner under her belt, Garza believes that being new to entrepreneurship can be an advantage. “There is nothing better than the feeling of taking the leap – the energy that comes at this stage is unparalleled. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, be okay with being told no, and accept mentors,” she advises.
Founder & Co-Owner, Adelle’s Creperie
“I fell in love with cooking from watching The Food Network and started experimenting in the kitchen long before the Creperie opened,” shares Adelle Pritchard. As for the answer to the question “Why crepes?” it turns out that Pritchard has long associated them with family, friends, and comfort. “Growing up, my family celebrated Pancake Day every year – a tradition my dad brought with him from England,” she explains. (The English refer to crepes as pancakes.) On this day, her family would cook up hundreds of crepes at large family gatherings, which has become an incredibly fond memory for Pritchard. So, naturally, when it came to conceptualizing a business, a creperie made complete sense.
Pritchard is now in high school, but she opened Adelle’s Creperie with her parents when she was just 12 years old. A breakfast, brunch, and lunch spot, the Creperie serves crepes along with other fresh, healthy dishes such as rice bowls, salads, and omelettes. The restaurant also has an accompanying food truck, which they take out for local events as well as private parties. At Adelle’s Creperie, they believe that a restaurant’s environment is just as important as the food, so the space is decked out with local art, antiques, and plants to create a cozy, welcoming ambience.
Though Pritchard had the expertise of her parents, Ken and Carla, to lean on while opening a restaurant at the age of 12, the process certainly wasn’t without its own unique set of challenges. Pritchard faced obstacles that other entrepreneurs often don’t, such as navigating a schedule that balanced school and the restaurant, as well as the mental demands of being a teenager working among adults. “I learned early on that some people have a hard time viewing service workers, including restaurant staff, as human. I grew up quickly, but I don’t regret any part of it,” she says.
Though it hasn’t always been easy, opening a business at such a young age has given Pritchard the gift of confidence. “Now, I trust myself enough to know that a setback doesn’t define me,” she explains. “If I quit every time something went wrong, the restaurant would have closed a long time ago. Opening your own business means putting a lot of yourself on the line, so confidence in yourself and your brand is key.”
Founder & Owner, Southern Squeeze
Kelsey Vasileff has always had a passion for making healthy choices and helping others do the same. For her, opening Southern Squeeze was following this passion on a community-wide level. “In 2014, I decided to take matters into my own hands, form an incredible team, take some risks, and try my hand at being my own boss,” she says about starting her own business.
Southern Squeeze is a healthy food destination café that features a 100% organic, plant-based, gluten-safe, dairy- and refined sugar-free menu. They prioritize food and drink that’s always fresh, house-made from scratch, and free of any artificial ingredients. “We strive to provide a menu that offers the highest-quality, most nutrient-dense plant-based food options in the world,” Vasileff shares. Offerings at Southern Squeeze currently include salads, toasted sandwiches, healthy bowls, and other light meal options, as well as smoothies and drinks.
Vasileff has learned a lot since starting up Southern Squeeze at such a young age. “It’s been thrilling, but it’s been hard, too,” she explains. “It was really challenging being the same age and sometimes younger than some of the team that worked for me. Learning to manage people and team dynamics has been a huge part of the journey so far.” It’s important to Vasileff that she maintains a wonderful work environment at her café’s location – which is soon to be expanding – so handling different personalities has been a vital skill for her to learn, along with patience, managing accounts, and staying on top of sourcing and ordering for her menu.
“One of the best things about running your own business is the sense of purpose that comes with it,” Vasileff explains. “It feels like we’re offering something that improves the community and that we’re really making a change.” As for parting words she’d like to leave with young, aspiring entrepreneurs, she says, “Don’t let the world or other people’s thoughts and opinions scare you from starting your own business. The best path for you is the one you’ll walk yourself.”