Local women embrace entrepreneurial spirit

Hidden from the road by thick woods, photographer Liz Cook captures portraits in her bright, scenic home studio in Forest, Virginia.

“I don’t know that I was dissatisfied with the corporate world as much as … I just never embraced it. I just never felt like I fit into it,” Cook said. “I’ve definitely always worked harder when I’m working for something I’m passionate about, versus for somebody else and what they need.” 

According to a 2018 Guidant Financial report, “the top reasons for (men and women) going into business … included wanting to pursue their passions, wanting to be their own boss, a dissatisfaction with corporate America and/or being laid off.” 

Cook has developed her photography business into a recognizable brand over the past 13 years because of her passion and ability to gauge what clients want. 

“I started in weddings. Then, I myself got married. Then, when I started having children, that’s when I had more of a passion to photograph children and babies and give those memories back to moms,” Cook said. “It’s been organic and also intentional in that I’ve received business guidance over the years, and I’ve sort of fine-tuned what I’m doing based on demand as well.” 

Liz Cook | Photo provided

Though Cook said her business started “off the cuff,” jewelry artist Lisa Harrison explained she started her business, Sojourn Well, in 2012 out of necessity. 

“I actually started my business because I needed to raise money for a mission trip I was going on right after I graduated (from) high school,” Harrison said. “Through that, I realized what a great love I have for creating and selling jewelry, and I thought it was so incredible that I was able to use that passion for a greater purpose than just my own benefit.” 

Though her business is no longer used to fund mission trips, Harrison said 20 percent of all Sojourn Well’s revenue is donated to the Big World Project, a Lynchburg-based nonprofit that helps children around the world. 

Both Cook and Harrison are graduates of Liberty University and are established in their businesses. Cook said her degree in communications has helped her journey as a business owner, and Harrison credited her peers and professors at Liberty for much of her success.

“I learned a lot that was applicable, of course, but having professors, such as Dr. George Young, who always took the time to mentor me and fellow students who spent time helping me was what convinced me to make (Sojourn Well) my full-time career,” Harrison said.  

Cook and Harrison’s businesses are just two examples of the 9.1 million woman-owned businesses nationwide, and the quickly-growing Center for Entrepreneurship at Liberty is available to help other young women bring their business ideas to fruition. 

Lisa Harrison | Photo provided

Learning  from the pros

“I’m able to network with people who are interested in hopefully buying my products, but also just people who can give me advice on how to run my business,” Liberty freshman Lillian McSweeney said. “I didn’t know very much about business before I came (to the Center for Entrepreneurship), so I’ve just been picking it up as I go along.”

McSweeney started Happy Lilies Crochet — a crochet business — about a year ago and sells her products on Etsy and Instagram. She got involved with the Center for Entrepreneurship her first semester, fall 2018, and is now a student leader in the program. 

“I attend their student startup meetings on Mondays,” McSweeney said. “I help set up events, (and) I’m on the marketing team. … I am getting more involved as I go.” 

Prior to starting Happy Lilies Crochet, McSweeney gave her creations as Christmas and birthday gifts. However, she said it is fulfilling to rely on her hand-crafted items as a source of income. Currently, she offers crochet flower hair ties and miniature denim backpacks adorned with her crochet flowers. However, she hopes to add other products to her Etsy store and accept custom orders. 

“I want to start a class on campus to teach girls and boys … how to crochet. … It’s kind of a stress reliever … being able to express yourself through art, giving yourself something to do,” McSweeney said. “It’s been really helpful for me, and I want to share that with other people.” 

Lillian McSweeney | Emma Smith

This semester, McSweeney is enrolled in the Center for Entrepreneurship’s Spark! Incubator Program, an 8-week program to help students’ business ideas come to fruition. She was recently paired with a mentor for the program, and is excited at the prospect of pitching her business to Liberty’s spring Spark! Tank event.

Sarah Krycinski, an entrepreneur from Forest, Virginia, and mentor for the Center for Entrepreneurship, said she tries to encourage her mentees by pointing out their strengths and spiritual gifts. 

“I feel like it’s best to work in people’s strength zones,” Krycinski said. “Everybody has weaknesses. … When I’m building a leader, it’s best not to focus on their weaknesses because we don’t do well when somebody is focusing on our weakness.”

Krycinski has also served as a member for the Spark! Tank event and encourages students to use the resources they have available from the Center for Entrepreneurship. However, she emphasized the importance of gaining hands-on experience through internships and work. 

“You can get an education all you want, … but being on the job and learning is your best education, honestly,” Krycinski said.

Krycinski recognizes not all entrepreneurs have access to programs like the Spark! Incubator Program. Krycinski herself did not have access to a program. Rather, she pursued her interests and has dabbled in a variety of business endeavors, including a lifestyle blog, a successful career with Mary Kay, an online store called Soul Sisters Boutique, and rental property management. 

“I feel like the world is at your fingertips. … You really just have to go and learn about what you’re passionate about,” Krycinski said. “God gives each one of us special gifts and talents, and when we use them to glorify him, nothing will stop (us).”

Cook, who also did not participate in an entrepreneurship program, said it is important to believe in oneself and the value of one’s product. 

“If there’s any piece of advice I would give, it’s to … deeply know your value and the value of what you’re providing,” Cook said. “I think that’s going to drive success.” 

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