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With Hearts Connecting LLC, Tahirah Jannah Taalib-Din Is Turning Grief Into Service

Tahirah and her husband, Antar Jannah.

January 12, 2022 | Like many entrepreneurs, Tahirah Jannah Taalib-Din started her business after identifying a problem that she could solve. Unlike most entrepreneurs, Tahirah’s business journey blossomed from the call to transform grief into a vehicle for healing in her community. The passing of her husband, Antar Jannah, in July of 2020 led Tahirah to found Hearts Connecting LLC, to offer virtual funeral services for families unable to meet in person, as well as faith-based grief counseling and support. After working with the California Capital Women’s Business Center (WBC), Hearts Connecting LLC has expanded their services, and won first place at a recent national pitch competition, earning a $15,000 award. 

A Seed Is Planted

When Tahirah’s husband passed, most of her friends and family were still in New York City, where she lived until 2012. With covid-related travel restrictions in place at the time, they could not attend the funeral. “I was completely devastated, and my family could not be by my side,” she explained. Luckily, a friend recorded the proceedings, and Tahirah was able to share the video with her loved ones. “Sharing the video brought so much comfort to my heart,” Tahirah says, explaining that the first seed of a business idea was planted then. 

Four months later, when a friend of her husband in New York passed away, Tahirah organized a virtual component to the funeral. Though her intention at that time was simply to “pay forward” the support she received, a funeral director in New Jersey let her know that they were in need of virtual services. That, says Tahirah, is when the seed started to sprout. 

Putting Ideas Into Action

Hearts Connecting LLC placed first in the Launch + Grow Pitch Competition.

She started doing market research, and learned that there were no options for faith-based virtual services. Around the same time that she was beginning business research, Tahirah was in a virtual grief support group for widows, and identified another need in her community.  

“The experience was so beneficial, and I learned a lot,” explains Tahirah. “But I was the only woman in my thirties in the group, the only African-American woman in the group, and the only Muslim woman in the group. I knew that women who reflected me needed the support, too.” With this in mind, she created a Women of Faith Widow Support Group. The group offers support to widows free of charge, and works to attain sponsorships to cover any fees.   

After identifying her target market and an accessible price point, Tahirah envisioned exactly what her business would offer. She created a spreadsheet describing what her services would be; who she should serve; how the process works, and how to hire her. To solidify her vision, she completed a business development course, and worked with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to establish Hearts Connecting as an LLC and open a business bank account. With this foundation in place, she invested funds from the first few funerals she operated and created a website. 

Inspiration, Guidance, and Results

After a referral from the SBA, Tahirah connected with the California Capital WBC. With guidance from WBC business consultant, Danielle Marshall, Tahirah completed the self-paced DreamBuilder business plan creator. Several months later, Tahirah participated in the WBC’s Pitch Competition during Small Business Success Series 2021. Hearts Connecting LLC’s pitch placed fourth–for Tahirah, that was the perfect opportunity for feedback. 

“I connected with Danielle and asked her two questions,” she says. “Why did I make it to the top five, and why didn’t I make it to number one?” The feedback provided by Danielle helped Tahirah to refine her pitch for future funding opportunities, and ultimately was instrumental in her success at the Launch + Grow Pitch Competition, hosted by Operation Hope and CIT. Hearts Connecting LLC placed first, earning a $15,000 grand prize sponsored by the Francine A Lefrak Foundation, which Tahirah plans to use to achieve her business goals. 

Planning for Success

Throughout the year, Tahirah will continue to work with the WBC–from whom she receives information on available grants and other funding opportunities–, as well as the California Capital Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), who is assisting her in completing the requisite paperwork to begin winning government contracts. In 2022, Tahirah hopes to strengthen her connections with local hospitals and funeral homes; hire on-call facilitators for virtual services; launch a monthlyadvice column in Muslim Journal; facilitate 395 funerals; serve 100 widows in the Women of Faith Widow Support Group, and to provide monthly online classes to the general public in the area of pre-, during, and post-death preparedness. 

In all of this, says Tahirah, she is staying true to the core of her mission. “It’s paramount that as a business owner, I stay in the space of inspiration and intuitive guidance,” she says. “Coupled with an undertone of urgency and knowing that my next decision in business is divinely inspired.”

Emily Autenrieth is Meeting a Need for Inclusive Community Space in Elk Grove with Grand Opening of A Seat at the Table Bookstore and Cafe

December 15, 2021 | When Emily Autenrieth attended a Facebook Community Summit in February of 2019, she didn’t intend to leave with a business idea. But two encounters led her to a vision for a new business that would meet a need for an inclusive bookstore and cafe in Sacramento County. Now, after building an online and pop-up business, Emily’s vision has come full circle with the grand opening of A Seat at the Table Bookstore and Cafe in Elk Grove. 

A Seat at the Table’s cafe offers local Temple Coffee and Kalani Kakes cupcakes.

INSPIRATION LEADS TO A BUSINESS IDEA

While attending the summit as the administrator of a popular parenting Facebook group, Emily met the owners of EyeSeeMe, a multicultural children’s bookstore in Missouri, and Eden Torres, Houston-based photographer and founder of PridePortraits.Org. Shortly after, Torres, whose work largely focuses on advocating for a more inclusive world for LGBTQIA+ people, shared on   social media that she would like to open an LGBT bookstore in the Houston area. Reflecting on the conversation about the impact that EyeSeeMe was having in their community, Emily connected with Eden’s sentiment.  

“I thought, ‘We need an inclusive bookstore and cafe in Elk Grove’,” says Emily, who immediately began envisioning all that this inclusive space could offer. She pictured a bookstore featuring titles from diverse up and coming authors; a cafe offering fresh, local food to encourage connection; a playroom for children to safely socialize while parents browsed the bookstore; and a quiet room where neurodiverse individuals and nursing parents could find calm and privacy. “My concept was so clear, I realized that I would have to be the one to create it.”  

PUTTING THE PLAN IN MOTION

Emily began her work in January of 2020, with pop-up bookstores at small businesses in Elk Grove like Savvy House Coffee Bar and Neighborhood Market. The community response was strong and positive. Ultimately, says Emily, that’s what has carried the project through the uncertainty of the covid-19 pandemic. “We’ve built a strong community who already believes we will succeed, and it’s given us a chance to get feedback from the community,” explains Emily, whose spouse Ryan has been a key partner while maintaining his full-time job as a school counselor.  

The build out of the brick and mortar space took up much of 2021, with pandemic-related delays and supply chain issues necessitating adaptability. Fortunately, Emily began working with Women’s Business Center consultant, Natasha Palumbo, in November of 2020. Through regular counseling sessions, Natasha played a key role in helping Emily translate her mission into an actionable business plan. Overall, says Emily, the challenges faced leading up to the grand opening were navigable because she was unwavering in her mission to manifest an equitable and inclusive space in Elk Grove. 

PREPARING FOR SUCCESS

Emily Autenrieth says she is “good tired” after business grand opening.

Now, with the bookstore and cafe officially open, the work of uplifting the greater Sacramento community can really take off.  “The biggest overarching success to me was that the community is clearly ready for our movement and mission,” says Emily, reflecting on the grand opening this past weekend. “I met so many people who were very moved by the representation on our shelves, and near tears because they’ve needed this in their life and community.” 

Emily is confident that she has put together a dedicated and passionate team, and they are eager to work with local authors, and to open their space to community organizations to host various events. (If you are an author in the Sacramento area and would like to inquire about author events or getting your book carried, head to their FAQ For Authors page!). Even their cafe is community-focused, offering cupcakes from Kalani Kakes, a local Woman of Color-owned bakery, and a full espresso bar with Sacramento-based Temple Coffee.  

With the successful opening, Emily is hopeful that more folks will catch on to all that they have to offer–a full menu, online and in-person sales, gift cards–and see A Seat at the Table as a resource for books, coffee, snacks, play dates, and education.  

“It was exhausting, but I’m good tired,” explains Emily with a chuckle. “It’s clear that people are ready to learn how to get everyone a seat at the table.” 

A Seat at the Table Books is also featured in the California Capital 2021 Holiday Shopping Guide. Visit them online at bookshop.org/shop/aseatatthetablebooks and in person at  9257 Laguna Springs Dr, Suite 130 Elk Grove CA. 

ICYMI: Small Business Success Series 2021 Highlights and Small Business Award Winners

October 29, 2021 | The California Capital Women’s Business Center’s second annual Small Business Success Series wrapped up today with the Small Business Awards & Recognition Ceremony. The series featured five days of business celebration, advice, and friendly competition. If you weren’t able to attend, check out the highlights below, and get excited for next year.

Monday 10/25: Get to Know Your Women’s Business Center Team

During this hour-long session, the counseling, program, and communications staff of the California Capital Women’s Business Center (WBC) introduced themselves and shared their “Top 5” tips and words of encouragement for entrepreneurs. 

Recurring themes included the importance of resilience, networking, and making use of free resources and services offered by California Capital FDC and other business development groups. To become a WBC client, click here


 

Tuesday 10/26: Small Business Owner Panel

The Small Business Panel featured entrepreneurs from a variety of industries in conversation with moderator and WBC business consultant Danielle Marshall. Panelists discussed their reasons for getting into business in their particular industries, the challenges they have overcome during the covid-19 pandemic, tips for keeping customers engaged, and their advice for aspiring business owners. Key takeaways included the importance of networking, the constant redefinition of “success”, and how large accomplishments can result from momentary failures. 

Click here to view the full panel


 

Wednesday 10/27: Pitch Competition Winners Announced 

The 2021 WBC Pitch Competition wrapped up on Wednesday, with five finalists selected for prizes ranging from $100 to $1000. The winners were: 

To learn more about each winner and tips for a successful pitch, watch the recorded session here.


 

Thursday 10/28: WBC Virtual Marketplace

The WBC Virtual Marketplace allowed small business owners to showcase their products and/or services to buyers and procurement specialists from boutique retailer Marshall Retail Group (MRG) and the Sacramento International Airport (SMF). 

The Virtual Marketplace featured six vendors, who are currently being highlighted on the California Capital website, (click here to view and get a head start on your holiday shopping!) and a live session during which representatives from MRG and SMF shared about upcoming opportunities and the process of doing business with them. 

View the full session here


 

Friday 10/29: Small Business Awards & Recognition 

The Small Business Awards & Recognition Ceremony capped off the week of celebrating the resilience and success of California’s small businesses. The title of Small Business of the Year was given to businesses across eight categories. Join us in congratulating the winners of the 2021 Small Business Awards! Click here to view the full awards ceremony.

 

Start-Up/Entrepreneur of the Year: Clutch

Founders: Anne Descalzo and Rachel Zillner
About: Clutch provides event management, project coordination, and staff management services. They connect organizations to the resources they need to achieve their goals including staffing, strategies, business services, and project management.

Website: clutchontracts.com

Community Engagement Business of the Year: Kaplan Solutions, Inc 

Founders: Glenn and Jill Kaplan
About: A small business focused on international trade and chemical distribution and expanded with the help of PTAC as an SB Vendor supplying Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sanitizers, and disinfectants to State Agencies.
Website: kaplansolutionsinc.com

Small Business Community Impact Award: Resilient Families 

Founder: Jillian Van Ness

About: Resilient Families connects new and growing families through classes and discussion groups—outdoors and on Zoom—through touch, sound, and movement.

Website: growresilientfamilies.com

Small Business Expansion of the Year: Wear Your Love 

Founder: Jillian Lotz

About: Wear Your Love sells custom made wedding dresses all over the world via the internet. Each dress is made to order based on each bride’s measurements. Their gross sales grew significantly from $10,000 in 2015 to $550,000 in 2020. 

Website: wearyourlovexo.com

 
Veteran Owned Small Business of the Year: Words Unite Bookstore 

Founder: Ashley Booker-Knight 

About: Ashley Booker-Knight is a US Army Veteran and bestselling author. Words Unite Bookstore It is a traveling bookstore that operates as a pop-up bookstore that presents signed copies of books written by independent authors. She partners with AAFES Military Exchange to operate pop-ups.
Website: wordsunitebookstore.com 

Sustainable Small Business of the Year: All Events & Management Group

Founder: Lisa Montes

About: Formed to specifically benefit service, non-profit and local organizations that are community oriented. They pivoted during the pandemic to offer covid-safe events and support community organizations. 

Website: alleventsplus.net

Small Business Innovator of the Year: Kalbinur Tursunjan, owner of Deluxe Limousines LLC.

About: Kalbinur Tursunjan began working as a limousine driver, and at just was 22 years old, in March 2016 she took over ownership of Deluxe Limousines LLC from the previous owner. In that time, she has grown the business from one to four vehicles.  

Women’s Business Center Business of the Year: Connect Consulting Services 

Founder: Nora O’Brien

About: CCS consults with businesses to help them launch or enhance an emergency management program. They take a holistic approach to emergency management, business continuity and disaster recovery for organizations, businesses and government agencies.

Website: connectconsulting.biz

California Capital PTAC Counselors Earn Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Training Certifications

September 8, 2021 | In a show of continued dedication to serving small businesses across the state with the highest quality technical assistance available, the California Capital PTAC has expanded its capability by certifying two of its counselors as trainers for the SBA-powered Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. As SBIR/STTR trainers, Alex McCracken and Ralph “Skip” Masters are now positioned to lead California Capital clients towards unique opportunities for business growth. 

     The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are highly competitive programs that encourage domestic small businesses to engage in Federal Research/Research and Development (R/R&D) with the potential for commercialization. Through a competitive awards-based program, SBIR and STTR enable small businesses to explore their technological potential and provide the incentive to profit from its commercialization. By including qualified small businesses in the nation’s R&D arena, high-tech innovation is stimulated, and the United States gains entrepreneurial spirit as it meets its specific research and development needs.

     Central to the STTR program is the partnership between small businesses and nonprofit research institutions. The STTR program requires the small business to formally collaborate with a research institution in Phase I and Phase II. STTR’s most important role is to bridge the gap between performance of basic science and commercialization of resulting innovations. This expansion of our capabilities position the California Capital PTAC as a resource for organizations who are interested in navigating the intricacies of either the SBIR and/or STTR programs.

     “This accomplishment increases our ability as a team to respond to the needs of the PTAC clients and to train other team members as needed,” explained PTAC Director Ivor Newman, adding that SBIR/STTR Webinars will be added to the list of recurring PTAC Webinars

     To explore the SBIR/STTR programs, register with the California Capital PTAC  or stay tuned for virtual classes on the SBIR and STTR programs.

Ralph”Skip” Masters has worked with California Capital since 2019.

Alex McCracken joined the PTAC team in February of 2021.

How One Veteran-Owned Barbecue Restaurant Is Looking To Government Contracts As An Expansion Opportunity

Mack Thomas is a father, a Disabled United States Marine Corps Veteran, a Black business owner—and someone who knows good barbecue.

Mack Thomas co-founded MacQue’s Barbecue with his wife, Charlie, in 1986.

In 1986, he and his wife, Charlie, founded MacQue’s Barbecue in Sacramento as a catering business to serve customers across the area smoked meats and sides made from scratch. As a graduate of California State University Sacramento, Mack is passionate about serving his community. Over the past 30 years, The Thomas family have learned the ins and outs of the business and grown MacQue’s Barbecue into a staple of the Sacramento area: in addition to catering, they now boast two restaurant locations, a bottled hot sauce business, and earned the title of “Small Business of the Year” from the Elk Grove Chamber of Commerce in February.

Even with this success, The Thomases have had to adapt to the uncertain business environment caused by the pandemic. As agile business owners, they have looked to enter new markets with their product, and California Capital FDC is helping them get there. 

Experience Drives Expansion

Mack and Charlie began selling MacQue’s Barbecue sauces wholesale since the mid-1990s, with a presence in national grocery chains like Sam’s Club and regional outlets like Raley’s. But with the expansion of their restaurant operations—MacQue’s Barbecue opened a second location in Elk Grove, California in August of 2019, adding to their flagship restaurant in Sacramento—the wholesale sauce enterprise was less of a focus. Plus, partnerships with grocery chains proved challenging to maintain. 

“The company’s buyers would change and we no longer had a relationship, so we would get dropped as a client,” reveals Mack, who would spend hours each week sampling sauces at the stores, “or a larger brand would see our success and edge in with a lower price.”

When Covid-19 caused many office workers near both MacQue’s locations to transition to remote work, and the restaurants lost much of their reliable lunchtime clientele, the need for diversification became clear. It was time to find new wholesale opportunities for MacQue’s sauces, and Mack had an idea that felt more promising than relying on grocery chains. 

“I knew there were opportunities to sell to mess halls and commissaries on military bases from my time in the Marine Corps,” Mack says. “So I was interested in government contracts, but I wasn’t sure how to get in.” 

The Promise of Contracting Opportunities

MacQue’s BBQ Hot Sauce can be purchased at both MacQue’s BBQ restaurant locations.

Like many government agencies and operations, mess halls and commissaries—essentially the cafeterias and general stores on military bases—source their products from private business through a fine-tuned procurement process. Businesses must have the proper certifications, know how to search out contracts and bid on them, and ultimately have the capacity to perform on the contracts. 

Contracts can be particularly impactful for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) owned businesses. Data for businesses of color indicate that they are highly concentrated in the retail sector, where sales volume is relatively lower—which can cause disparities in overall business growth. 

Moving from retail into business-to-business or business-to-government sales is a huge opportunity to grow, especially for diverse businesses” explains Clarence Williams, Chairman of California Capital’s Board of Directors. “But it is one of the most difficult things for a business to do.” 

In search of guidance on navigating the procurement process, Mack turned to California Capital’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC). Working with a PTAC counselor, Mack has been able to take the first steps to bidding on and securing government contracts. MacQue’s Barbecue has become certified with the Systems for Award Management (SAM), a necessity for any business hoping to sell their goods or services to the Federal Government. With that foundation laid, Mack is now focused on recertifying his Disabled Veteran Business Enterprise (DVBE) status, which will allow him to take advantage of programs that cater specifically to veteran-owned small businesses. 

“The fact that California Capital operates a Procurement Technical Assistance Center is extremely important to the way that our continuum of services is able to help businesses, particularly those owned by people of color, expand and succeed,” explains Clarence. 

Procurement as a Catalyst for Equity 

Seeing more businesses owned by people of color pursue procurement opportunities is reason for hope, says Clarence. Income and revenue inequality for BIPOC-owned businesses in retail spaces is prevalent at national, local, and regional levels. 

When you look at the data, the reality is that small businesses of color are still very small in terms of revenue relative to total sales,” says Clarence. 

Mack Thomas at the original MacQue’s BBQ Stand

As Clarence explains, procurement opportunitieslike those with the Federal Government that MacQue’s BBQ is pursuingare key for addressing that disparity and building equity in the business landscape.

“[Procurement] is an avenue for them to grow their revenue in a way that can be more impactful than retail expansion,” says Clarence, “California Capital’s services are designed to build that capacity for business owners and create more inclusive opportunities for disadvantaged businesses.”

Procurement can be, in many ways, an expansion of business owners’ view of what is possible. When entering into a contract with a government agency, small businesses also gain access to networks that can lead to even more opportunities, and the fortuitous cycle continues. Building the ability of disadvantaged and diverse businesses to pursue and be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities is where the expertise of California Capital’s business counselors lays.

“You Have to Have The Best Opportunities”

Knowing this, Mack and his family are determined to take advantage of procurement opportunities, and use them as an avenue for growth. MacQue’s Barbecue is a true family operation, and with their son Michael Thomas at the helm of the restaurant locations, Mack and his wife Charlie are able to continue envisioning the future of the enterprise. 

“I’ve improved myself,” Mack says, reflecting on his decision to pivot away from traditional wholesale ventures. “I’m being more strategic with the growth opportunities I pursue.” 

MacQue’s journey is proof that even with years of experience in your industry, searching for unique opportunities and continuing to learn is crucial to expand and thrive. With decades of wisdom acquired, Mack has learned to be patient while working towards a goal. 

“You may have the best product, but you have to have the best opportunities,” Mack says. “We have the capability to make great hot sauce, now we’re just building the capacity to get it out there.” 

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