Agency Fuels Entrepreneurship in Greater Holyoke

Providing a SPARK

Since its launch nearly two years ago, SPARK Holyoke has become an important addition to the region’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem, providing a learning-and-nurturing environment for a variety of business owners. To sum up its impact, one participant said the agency gave him the discipline to be “both a creator and a finisher.”

Farid Kheloco

Farid Kheloco says SPARK was created to help start-ups get off the ground — and maybe help fill some of Holyoke’s vast supply of vacant mill space.

When asked to talk about the agency known as SPARK (yes, that’s an acronym, but not really; hardly anyone knows what those letters stand for) and how it’s helped her create, shape, and realize a vision for her company, Hot Oven Cookies, Sheila Coon found it necessary to do a little comparing and contrasting.

And the other subject in the discussion was a close cousin among organizations that are part of what is now being described as an ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem’ — Valley Venture Mentors, known for many things, but especially its high-octane, extremely intense accelerator program, with which Rivera also participated.

“VVM … I love it because I’m kind of a high-action person,” she told BusinessWest. “With VVM, you go the edge of the cliff, they hand you a prarachute, and tell you to jump. And as you go down, they tell you ‘jump this way’ or ‘jump that way.’ It’s very high-paced.

“SPARK, on the other hand … kind of has you sit back, and think, and analyze things slowly and more methodically,” she went on. “It gave me the opportunity to slow down and think things through. And it was very intimate — there were 10 people in the class; we had more time to think and talk things through. It was amazing.”

Though perhaps not intentionally, Coon used this exercise to not only point up the differences between the two organizations, but also spell out, in an effective manner, why SPARK Holyoke, which has the Hispanic community as one of its main focal points, has become an important addition to the entrepreneurial landscape in Western Mass.

In short, since being launched in late 2014 as part of a Working Cities Challenge grant, SPARK Holyoke has enabled a number of aspiring entrepreneurs to sit back, think things through, and, hopefully, go into business for themselves.

It does so through a 15-week course that, according to Executive Director Farid Kheloco, has a number of moving parts and objectives and is designed to help a wide range of individuals, from start-up owners to those who have been operating for several years and, for one reason or another, are trying to change how they do things. In other words, people like Coon.

“We want to hold your hand so you can take your idea and turn it into a bullet-proof business plan,” he said while smashing the mission down to a simple phrase.

The current series of classes started earlier this month, said Kheloco, noting that the one that ended during the summer featured 42 participants and 31 businesses.

Since it was launched, SPARK Holyoke has provided assistance to individuals involved with a wide variety of businesses, from cookie making to motorsports sales; from home remodeling to sock-manufacturing; from event planning to window-tinting.

Sheila Coon, seen here with her husband, David

Sheila Coon, seen here with her husband, David, says SPARK helped her create a vision, and a game plan, for her venture, Hot Oven Cookies.

Overall, SPARK is part of a series of initiatives undertaken by Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and his administration to spur entrepreneurship, create jobs, and generate more interest in Holyoke, especially with the younger populations.

Those efforts have been successful enough to earn the city placement on Popular Mechanics’ list of the “most entrepreneurial” cities in the country.

And while the goal is to encourage entrepreneurship and help businesses get off the ground, there is another, very practical element to the agency’s existence. That would be the roughly 2 million square feet of vacant mill space in this former industrial powerhouse, and a desire to fill it, said Kheloco.

He doesn’t expect SPARK to make a huge dent in that inventory any time soon, but the agency’s work can certainly be a factor in bringing more life to the old paper and textile mills that gave this city its identity and providing another spark (there’s that word again) to broad efforts to revitalize the city.

“SPARK is helping to put us (Holyoke) in the game when it comes to promoting entrepreneurship,” said Kheloco, as he spoke with BusinessWest in the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce offices (where the agency is housed) on High Street. “SPARK has a definite role in that perception of Holyoke, and that’s important for our city, because we have a lot of open space.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at SPARK Holyoke and how, despite the fact that it doesn’t issue parachutes to participants, it does help them get off their ventures off the ground.

Igniting Passion

For the record, SPARK is short for Stimulating Potential, Accessing Resource Knowledge. Kheloco and others involved with the program can probably recite all that (again, that’s probably) but most participants wouldn’t care to try.

But they do care about trying to take ideas they have a product or service and advancing them in the form of a new business. Or not, if they determine that said idea is not really viable, and SPARK Holyoke can help with that, as well.

It’s all part of that ‘thinking through’ concept that Coon mentioned, and while there is quite a bit that goes into it, the agency’s broad goals are to simplify the many matters involved with a business as much as possible, said Kheloco, who can speak with experience as he goes about working with aspiring entrepreneurs.

“I’ve been entrepreneurially minded my whole life, and growing up here I was told that you should leave the area if you want to be an entrepreneur,” he said, adding that while he works today to dispel such notions, at the time, he took that advice.

He went to New York and then Dubai, before relocating to the western part of this country and eventually for working for several different IT companies.

He returned to this area a few years ago, soon became program  manager of TechFoundry, and found himself immersed in the work of VVM and other agencies involved with entrepreneurship.

He was looking to launch his own venture — one that would produce wooden sunglasses — in Holyoke, but wound up launching SPARK instead.

“The market is pretty much saturated with wooden sunglasses,” he joked, adding that the opportunity to run SPARK — a career path recommended to him by Katie Stebbins, who was then overseeing Holyoke’s Innovation District and is now working in the Executive Office of House & Economic Development — sounded like much more of a winning proposition.

Felix Santana, owner of Northeast Motorsports

Felix Santana, owner of Northeast Motorsports, says SPARK has given him the discipline to be “both a creator and a finisher.”

Initially, his work centered around getting the agency started, honing its mission, and developing its curriculum, he said, adding that now, he spends more of his time getting the word out — in essence, filling seats for the classes — while also achieving sustainability; the grant that funds the program is three years in duration, and this is year 2 of the initiative, so new funding sources must be attained.

“We’re kind of in our teen-aged years,” he said of the organization. “We’ve identified a little of what we are, but we need to mold that and solidify what’s needed to survive for the long term.”

Kheloco’s various outreach efforts drive home the basic point that SPARK is a community organization to help what he called “every-day entrepreneurs.”

That’s certainly not a technical term, but one he summoned to describe “neighborhood projects” — small ventures, mom-and-pop operations that may or may not scale.

“We want to work with them to give them the guidance they need to get started,” he went on. “So we take a lot of the competition aspects out of the equation, and we take a lot of the business jargon out of it; we try to make it team-oriented and say ‘now you’re part of this group, the SPARK starters, and how are we going to help each and work together?’”

SPARK carries out this work with a host of partners, which include VVM, the chamber, SCORE, Holyoke Community College, Easthampton Savings Bank, and Nuestras Raices, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote economic, human, and community development in Holyoke through projects related to food, agriculture, and the environment.

“Predominantly, we deal with concepts, and we work on taking the idea and turning it into a business model,” he went on. “We like to say that we work with anyone’s who’s stuck.”

Getting Down to Business

‘Stuck’ might not be the best term to describe what Coon was when she encountered SPARK and its curriculum, but it’s in the ballpark.

To be more precise, she was at a crossroads of sorts, or transition phase, and in need of some guidance and perhaps technical help with regard to where she could and should take her venture — as well as ‘how’ and ‘when.’

Backing up a bit, she said Hot Oven Cookies was enjoying decent success and had developed a solid following (one fan called this the ‘Ben & Jerry’s of the cookie world’) with its 100 flavors — some staples, or “classics” and other varieties rotated in weekly — and a business focused on gifts and catering, all delivered.

“That keeps it fun,” she said of the large inventory of flavors. “It’s good for the customers, but it’s good for us, too — we get to keep creating.”

This first phase of the venture, as Coon described it, helped pinpoint demand and identify need, and with regard to latter, what emerged was a desire to enable customers to buy a cookie or two or three, and not a full dozen, the minimum she set for deliveries.

And this led to talk of putting a food truck on the road and bringing the product directly to consumers. It’s a big step and a sizable investment, and she credited both SPARK and VVM with helping her bring it all the fruition; the truck makes its debut next month.

She was in the second accelerator cohort, which wrapped up its work in the spring, and through that experience was introduced to Kheloco and SPARK Holyoke, and took part in both programs simultaneously.

She credits VVM with helping her take an idea off a napkin, as she put it, and take it forward, but she said SPARK provided that more-intimate, slower-paced environment that enabled her to stop and work things through.

“We talked through all of my phases,” she said of the SPARK experience, adding that the experience not only helped her conceptualize her ideas, but pitch them in a more-effective manner.

Felix Santana wasn’t exactly stuck, either. But he did need some help with his venture, Northeast Powersports, which seeks to become the largest provider of Chinese-made motorsports — primarily scooters, dirt bikes, and go carts — in the region.

The company has become an authorized dealer of Cao Cao products, offering both sales and service, he said, adding that he graduated from SPARK’s first class.

He said it provided him with both support, in the form of mentorship, and technical guidance.

“I went in there with a really solid business plan — it was a matter of getting the numbers and the data to back it up,” he explained. “They helped me get my business plan focused and connect with the right people, like SCORE, and get organized.”

He noted that he’s a serial entrepreneur of sorts, but one that doesn’t “finish,” as he put it.

“I was one of those entrepreneurs who was a really good starter, but when I got to the middle point, I never knew how to finish and would usually sell whatever idea I had at that point,” he explained. “SPARK helped give me the discipline to be both a creator and a finisher.”

Seeing the Light

Searching for more words and phrases to describe what SPARK Holyoke is and what it does, especially with regard to the proverbial ‘big picture,’ Kheloco said it acts as the glue that binds the many organizations and agencies promoting and facilitating entrepreneurship in Holyoke and the communities surrounding it.

And in that capacity, it is not only helping to create new opportunities in Holyoke and fill some of that vacant mill space, but also taking on an important role within a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem.

SPARK is technically an acronym, but mostly it’s both a noun and a verb, and as such, the word effectively describes what the agency is, and what it provides.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]