As a new regional director for WESST, an organization that aims to support entrepreneurs, Rhonda Gilliam-Smith said she draws on her past career of 25 years as a pipefitter.
“I’ve still got the mechanical mindset. I got the construction mindset,” she said.
Now she wants to take her skills of creating physical pipelines and instead build connections for women and minorities to gain self-sufficiency by starting their own businesses.
About 15 years into her pipefitting career, Gilliam-Smith sought a different career and got a bachelor’s degree in communication. But she said the sexism and harassment that was in construction was also in office work. So she went back to pipefitting by day and studied for a master’s degree in human resource development. Eventually, she also earned a doctorate.
She had originally approached WESST’s Roswell Women’s Business Center as a client wanting to become a business consultant.
“I wanted to do some strategies to help businesses with all this education I’ve got. How do we build equitable work places, how do we respect workers, how to create systems where people are treated fairly,” she said.
Instead, she was convinced by a member of the WESST team that she would be a good fit for the regional director for the Roswell office, which oversees Chaves and six other counties in southeast New Mexico. That includes the Roswell Women’s Business Center in the Sunwest Centre, 500 N. Main, and a training center in Hobbs.
In the Roswell office, she works with Hope Morones, regional program coordinator, who is bilingual and works with Spanish-speaking clients as well.
Gilliam-Smith said she found WESST’s mission aligned with her own values, and started on the job a couple of months ago. That mission is to be a home to entrepreneurs, providing counseling, training, business incubation and loans.
WESST’s focus is on women, but not exclusively, she said.
“Our vision is to provide sustainable economic opportunities for any New Mexicans,” she said. “We are focusing on women of color, indigenous people, marginalized, disenfranchised, those that have great ideas but need an organization to walk them through it so they can be successful,” she said.
“There’s great ideas out there that could also uplift so many people but they never come to the table because there may not be an organization that will listen to them and inspire them and say ‘We can do this,’” she said.
That might be people who want to run a food truck, or sell cookies and baked goods or hand-made jewelry.
Now is a good time for entrepreneurs, she said, as the pandemic has not just put many people out of work but has caused them to reevaluate their lives.
“The pandemic did something for all of us. It changed us. We see the world differently when family members have died,” she said.
“We’re really moving toward that e-commerce business where people are doing some small things from home. We want to take them to the next level,” she said.
It’s not just home-based businesses that people are interested in right now, though, she said. It’s also people wanting to quit their jobs working for someone else to start a new business or purchase one.
“They see that it’s time for me. If I’m ever going to do what I really want to do, now is the time because life is short and it’s not guaranteed,” she said. “We’re getting this type of energy.”
WESST is gearing up to meet that energy with a new program, A Brand New You in 2022, Gilliam-Smith said.
“As we move, hopefully, to this post-COVID new normal, our clients and our prospective clients need a new you. So we’re asking for organizations that support women to be part of our partnerships,” she said.
That could mean providing information for women to find business-appropriate clothing or a new hair style, learn about finances or overcoming obstacles such as depression. The talks would be virtual and free of charge, Gilliam-Smith said.
WESST also provides funding to get a business started.
“We provide micro loans, and we are also very creative with providing that loan,” allowing more items for collateral than a bank might, she said.
That could be a brand-new refrigerator or a used vehicle, she said.
“Some people have got collateral because they have a flock of llamas or they have cattle or they’ve got chickens,” she said.
Gilliam-Smith said she sees small business playing a role in the greater growth of Roswell and the region.
“People love to come to a small city to have a hometown meal, arts and crafts and food trucks, this is why people visit,” she said.
“I see in the next couple of years Roswell embracing small businesses and supporting them in creative new ways,” she said.
City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or firstname.lastname@example.org.