SBA Emerging Leaders program helps local businesses expand with inaugural Nashville class

by Erica Rains, CEO, The Chef and I, LLC and recent graduate of the SBA’s Emerging Leaders program

Photos courtesy of: AJ Media Services, LLC


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Last year, the United States Small Business Administration launched its 2015 Emerging Leaders executive-level training series in 48 cities and communities across the country. In Tennessee, Nashville was chosen as a market and I was nominated as a candidate for this intense and important program.

According to Yahoo News and the SBA, the seven month executive intensive entrepreneurship education series includes approximately 100 hours of classroom time per participant and provides the opportunity for small business owners to work with experienced mentors, attend workshops and develop connections with their peers, city leaders and financial communities.

Locally, we began back in April. We were lucky enough to have Walter Perry and LaTanya Channel from the SBA with us every step of the way. Without a doubt, the constant motivation and direction of our instructor, Leigh Ann Roberts, was one of the highlights of the program.

Let’s face it: 100 hours of classroom time and CEO mentoring groups and homework did not seem realistic to me at first. You guys know how busy I am and I was unsure as to how I would be able to do it. When I do something, it HAS to be 100% or not at all. So, I rolled up my sleeves and committed to it despite the fear of the unknown. Boy, am I am glad I did. As are all of my esteemed colleagues.

This program is without a doubt the most beneficial effort I have made for my company and since it cost me nothing, I can’t even quantify an ROI for the cost. But for the time, which we all know is so precious, I’d say that ROI is sitting at around 1000%. Incredible.
According to, these are the key logoprogram highlights and facts:

  • Customized training for “C” (CEO, COO, etc.) level executives with demonstrated business sustainability of at least 3 years in business and annual revenue of at least $400K
  • Participant recruitment begins in February through SBA’s local district offices and classes typically begin in April
  • A three-year strategic growth action plan with benchmarks and performance targets to help the participant emerge as self-sustaining businesses that creates jobs and build communities
  • Includes 100 + hours of professional specialized training and peer-to-peer counseling delivered over the course of seven months
  • Specialized areas of training include:
    • Growth Strategies Plans
    • Financing and Access to Capital
    • Government Contracting
    • CEO Mentoring

Folks, that three-year strategic growth action plan is worth thousands. In my case, it turns out, it’s worth hundreds of thousands. Thanks to the continuous work on drafts of this plan for the expansion of my company, I was able to present it to investors, bankers, CPA’s and other financial and business professionals in our community. It’s not just a class, it’s our life; happening in real time.

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Thanks to those presentations, I was able to set meetings based on the relationships that began in the classroom. And thanks to those meetings, we’re now shopping for our second concept/location and have financials strong enough to be a contender in a loan or investment arrangement. We are still in the process of looking at real estate, weighing our options, talking to different folks who may be interested in jumping on board with The Chef and I, and taking our time to ensure the next important step is the right one. Thanks to this program, I learned how to do that. I learned how to work more ON my business, not IN it. That’s always been so hard for me – you guys know I want to do everything and if you are an entrepreneur reading this, you may be the same way. Many of my classmates were as well. We learned to trust, delegate, get focused, and be realistic while still creating measurable goals together.

We kept each other accountable. We learned about each other’s industries; we learned about different leadership styles and applied them to real world workshops and examples with each other. Leigh Ann took us through so many scenarios and our break-out sessions with guest panelists were just off the charts. So valuable. I would have paid for this, but thanks to the SBA, I didn’t have to.

We are actively seeking our predecessors now. If you feel like you may be interested, let me know. I will be glad to share my experience with you, just as a business owner in Memphis did with me when I wasn’t sure. He had been through the program, and he not only expanded his business because of it, but was able to create more jobs.

I can safely say we’ve grown at a more focused and profitable rate this year as I applied everything I’ve learned, we’ve started to create more jobs at The Chef and I. And with the addition of our second concept, many more jobs will be created. I’ll be spending 2016 applying our three year growth plan, sharing it with my management team, and making sure we stay on track to attain our goals set forth.

Now that our goals are clear, measurable and detailed as far as who is responsible for what by a certain date, we feel like a more ‘grown up’, cohesive company. Chris Rains, my husband and our Executive Chef, has been so supportive and so completely on board to help execute this incredible plan with me, and our team is grateful for the direction and focus it is giving us as a team.

The Chef and I has changed for the better without a doubt because of this program. Those that have been through a Masters’ program likened it to that amount of work and dedication. That tells me that I can handle such a program, which is probably my next step for continuing education and personal growth. I am doing research now on attaining my MBA, and I can say wholeheartedly that I would not be considering such a feat without this program under my belt. It showed me that I am capable of great things. So are you. Let me know if you want more info. I don’t get anything from nominating folks aside from the knowledge that I might get to help someone else in our community grow their business in ways they could never imagine, and catapult themselves to their ideal next level. I am incredibly lucky to have been in class with some of our cities best entrepreneurs.



SBA_EL_Class1_2015 (41 of 46)On Tuesday, November 17th, we graduated. It was an experience I will never forget. We were hosted by Meharry Medical College in their amazing new Cal Turner Family Center, and thanks to our sponsor, HCA, we were treated to a lovely ceremony and dinner with each other’s families. I want to congratulate each of my fellow graduates as the first graduating class of the Emerging Leaders program in Nashville, Tennessee.

Phil Cobucci, Owner and CEO, BAM! Social Business LLC

Alba Gonzalez Nylander, Managing Partner, AJ Media Services LLC

Michael Hamilton, CEO, MCH Corporation

Roberta Pettis, President, Focus Works Consulting Group

Angel Sims, Principal Broker/CEO, Suburban and Urban Real Estate Services

Ken Thomas, Chairman/CEO, Archangel Protective Services

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Here’s to the future. With organizations like the SBA, business like ours will continue to thrive and create jobs and a local economy that is a force to be reckoned with. Thank you for supporting local business. Small businesses are the patchwork of America, and we are proud to be part of the story.

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About the writer:

In addition to being one of the graduates of the first Emerging Leaders program in Nashville, TN with the SBA, Erica is also the CEO of The Chef and I, LLC. Her company is a culinary firm with an interactive restaurant, a large catering division serving about 350 offsite events a year, a teambuilding program called Tastebuilidng and a cooking class program. Rains is also a magazine and newspaper journalist and has been published consistently over the last 20 years. Find out more about her and the company she represents at


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