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Inside Track: Keeping aspiring entrepreneurs on track
Linda Johnson Otterbridge’s Hook a Sista Up organization provides support and teaches accountability.
First-time entrepreneurs are a lot of fun to work with, according to Linda Johnson Otterbridge, because “you never know what they’re going to come up with.”
However, to get a business started and keep it going, many entrepreneurs would benefit from a support network and an accountability coach who follows up to make sure they stay focused.
That’s what Otterbridge does as the owner and founder of Hook a Sista Up (HASU), an L3C company in Grand Rapids that celebrated its first birthday in June. An L3C is defined under Michigan law as a low-profit, limited-liability company organized around charitable or educational goals.
Otterbridge is also the owner of LMJ Strategic Coaching, which she founded in 2008, but neither is her day job. That’s at Cherry Street Health Services.
LINDA JOHNSON OTTERBRIDGE
Otterbridge says HASU now has about 40 members — all female — and at least three of them started a small business during the organization’s first year. Some members are experienced entrepreneurs whose role is to “pay it forward,” she said, by serving as mentors to the newbies trying to break into business.
Otterbridge knows from past experience it’s very tough to start a business. She started HASU, she said, because of her passion for helping other women who want to start a business.
“Women start businesses at a rate that is just crazy,” she said with a laugh. “We start businesses just because we like doing something.”
But she saw something missing from the process.
“I thought that the missing part — and this is the main reason I started HASU — is that we were running all over the place, starting businesses in silos, getting nowhere. And I thought that if we all came together to support each other and hook each other up, it would make starting a business faster and that business would sustain longer,” she said.
The tagline at HASU is “From Competition to Collaboration.” Business is all about competition, but in this case, Otterbridge said, it is “more about collaborating to make sure we all succeed.”
And there’s another factor.
“A big piece to this is accountability,” she explained, “because without it, you just do what you want. But if you know you’re accountable to the sisterhood of women entrepreneurs — and you know we’re going to ask you: ‘What are you doing on your business? Are you following up? Have you checked into this or that?’ So we’re going to follow up and see how it’s coming.”
In fact, HASU has an “accountability check-in” at its regular monthly meetings.
Otterbridge’s career has evolved to the point where today she can be called an accountability coach.
Born in Baton Rouge, La., her family moved to Saginaw when she was an infant. After high school she earned a two-year degree at Delta College, near Bay City. Her first “real job” was at MSU Extension Services in Saginaw, working with parents whose children were facing potential removal by the Department of Social Services. The goal was to help the parents get back on track as a family.
Later, Otterbridge moved to Grand Rapids where she landed a job in 1996 as a parenting educator at Spectrum Health’s MOMS Program. MOMS is Mothers Offering Mothers Support, a state-certified Maternal Infant Health Program. The goal is to help women be healthy and effective mothers, with home visits and phone calls provided throughout the client’s pregnancy to make sure both mother and baby are healthy.
At MOMS, Otterbridge worked to educate and train pregnant women in prenatal and postnatal care. She also provided help in receiving community resources and referrals for medical, food, utilities and other resources as needed.
In 1998, Otterbridge completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in family life education at Spring Arbor University near Jackson. She started looking for work as a case manager and found it at The Recuperation Center in Grand Rapids, a 24-hour facility that helps people recovering from medical conditions and substance abuse. She was there until it closed in 2003.
“I loved that job,” said Otterbridge. As a case manager, she helped clients secure employment and housing, and helped them transition back into the community. Within a year, she was promoted to program director, supervising the HR management and case management staff of more than a dozen full-time employees. She was also responsible for the hiring process and performance evaluations of staff.
Something happened at The Recuperation Center that became the catalyst for her decision to found LMJ Strategic Coaching, and later HASU. When she was promoted to program director, she was assigned an executive coach, who worked with her for six months to help develop her supervision and leadership skills.
“That led me down this path,” she said. “I wanted to be an executive coach. And that’s what I do now.”
After the closing of The Recuperation Center, Otterbridge was with D.A. Blodgett for Children in Grand Rapids from 2003 to 2008, working as a recruitment and retention specialist. She provided customer relationship management to volunteers, staff and other collaborative partners, and worked on developing programs and training of staff. She also became a public speaker to recruit volunteers, and facilitated regular recognition events for volunteers and staff. She also wrote a monthly column for the Grand Rapids Times on adoption issues and Blodgett programs.
Otterbridge earned a Master of Arts degree in organizational management in 2008 at Spring Arbor. That year she resigned her job at Blodgett and moved to Charlotte, N.C., to join her fiancé who had moved there for a new job.
In Charlotte, she found work at Goodwill Industries as a career development specialist, helping people achieve goals related to meaningful employment, résumé development, interviewing skills and salary negotiation.
Upon her return to Grand Rapids in 2011, she began working at Cherry Street Health Services, where she supervises patient registration specialists who schedule appointments. She also develops procedures to minimize errors and keep the office workflow efficient.
Otterbridge has Wednesdays off from her “day job” and devotes that day to HASU and her other business activities.
HASU meets one evening each month at Choice Business Center on 28th Street and East Paris Avenue. There is a $75 fee to join HASU, but aspiring entrepreneurs are making an investment in their future because one of the key issues HASU tackles is how to find financing for a business venture. Otterbridge said the organization raises funds through workshops and its speaker series, and is always looking for small businesses and corporations that are interested in sponsoring its activities.
Otterbridge has an intern who helps with press releases and is now revamping the HASU website. The organization relies on help from volunteers — individuals such as Tami VandenBerg, executive director of Well House, who has served as a mentor. Other sponsors include Mercantile Bank and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women. Deb and Ed Bates are the owners of Choice Business Services and the Choice Business Center, and Otterbridge describes Deb Bates as “the main lady who really helped move HASU once I moved back to Grand Rapids.”
Otterbridge said people often ask her where HASU is headed next. The answer should be obvious: taking care of business — and that means continuing to work with the members.
“I want to emphasize: We do follow them and make sure they stay on track,” she said, because there are so many kinds of support women entrepreneurs need.
“It’s been a busy first year.”