With all the negative talk in the news of men sexually harassing and exploiting women in the workplace, it was a pleasure to spend Saturday afternoon covering a story about a man who has spent his career empowering women.

As the morning begins, Kevin Rasberry works feverishly to connect a laptop to the projector for the speaker’s powerpoint presentation. After about 5 minutes of tinkering and a dedicated strategy of trial and error, the machine finally comes on and cast its image onto the adjacent wall.

Kevin A. Rasberry, Principal Consultant at LegacyEd LLC

After getting the ‘all good nod’ from Rasberry, Tina Torres the Director of Public Relations for 71Seventy Business Institute announces to the women in attendance that “we had some technical difficulties but, just like women always do, we worked it out.”

Rasberry stares at her with a confused look on his face, as to say, “really.” The women break out into laughter as Torres smiles playfully and beings to introduce the day’s speaker to the group of ladies in attendance.

The group is comprised of several local businesswomen who are participating in the Women in Business Series host by Legacy Ed at 71Seventy Business Institute.

Rasberry, himself, is a professional entrepreneur (a person who starts and develops multiple businesses) and  Business Development Consultant who has helped start over 100 businesses within his 20-year career with about 80% of them being women-owned firms. He says he created the business series to highlight the many women-owned businesses in the community who are doing outstanding things but who may not receive recognition for their contribution to Columbia’s business community.

The day’s speaker is a young businesswoman with a truly phenomenal story that started out on the “wrong side of the tracks,” as she puts it. At the modest age of 35, Raquel Thomas is a published author, a successful entrepreneur with a six-figure income and a professional portfolio that includes four thriving businesses.  

It’s worth noting that today is her Birthday, yeah that’s right, she just turned 35 today. I guess it’s safe to say she had a heck of a ten-year plan. Perhaps the most intriguing parts of Raquel’s story is how she made it out of that neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks and what she really means when she says, “MBA, CEO & LLC are not usually acronyms you would associate with a girl like me.”

Raquel_M_Thomas

Raquel M. Thomas, Owner of Children of Tomorrow Learning Center & Child Care

After hearing her story, it’s still difficult to come to a definitive answer about the full impact of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks had on her life or what it means to be a “girl like her.” I find the use of the phrase ‘definitive answer’ to be ironic, giving that the name of the fashion line she founded is called, DMR which stands for Definitive Movement Rebellion.

Those like me who are moved and captivated by her story can get a brief glimpse into her life by reading her book, “What Becomes of A Broken Soul.” Although the book is classified as a work of fiction, she has admitted the novel is loosely based on her life.

Although Raquel’s story is inspirational, it’s not an uncommon one; especially among African-American women entrepreneurs in Columbia.

Watch Highlights from the Event: Women in Business Series, Brunch with Raquel M. Thomas

In Rasberry’s opening remarks, he stated that some of the most prominent women in the area are not getting the recognition they deserve. This sentiment is proven to be true just by the coalition of women he’s pulled together to conduct the Women in Business Series.

The institute’s Public Relations Director Tina Torres is an accomplished businesswoman in her own right. She’s the President of She Did That, LLC which offers wedding coordinating & event planning services. The company is also responsible for hosting several popular events in Columbia, such as The Purple Gala, Columbia Cutthroat Kitchen, Love Yourself Community Baby Shower and many more.

The event title sponsor for the day is Need-A-Lift Transportation Services owned and operated by Lasenta Lewis-Ellis a prominent businesswoman who is also the President and CEO of LLE Construction Group, LLC, one of the few minority, women-owned, general contracting and management firms located in Columbia. Lasenta also partners with several other local businesswomen to host Beyond the Lemonade Stand Entrepreneur Camp for Girls. The camp is an initiative that introduces young girls ages 9-17 to entrepreneurship.  

A recent State of Women-Owned Businesses Report identified African-American women as the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in America. Nowhere is this more  obvious than in Columbia, “The New Southern Hot Spot.” With the use of social media platforms like Facebook and through a continuous calendar of networking and empowerment events, African-American women entrepreneurs are becoming a formidable force in the business community across the city.  

A fact that makes 71Seventy Business Institute so important. Although the City of Columbia is experiencing a period of economic prosperity, especially in the city’s center, there are, unfortunately, very few African-American business owners in the downtown area that represents the epicenter of the economic boom.

71Seventy Business Institute provides early-stage businesses with affordable rental space, mentoring and other support services needed to be successful. The Institute is in the process of opening a second location in downtown Columbia and gives minority businesses the opportunity to operate and conduct business near the center of the city’s economic boom.  

This is a particularly needed service because, there’s no truer cliche’ in business than, “it’s all about location, location, location” and, often times, city leaders enact discriminatory economic policies and strategies that typically force minority citizens and businesses to the outskirts or into the shadow of the city, away from the most prosperous areas. Case in point, the Bull Street Development and the gentrification that has come with the redevelopment of downtown main street in the city of Columbia.

71Seventy Business Institute is more than an office suite it’s the beginning of an economic empowerment movement that has the potential to make sure business owners that look like me are included in an economic narrative that we’re currently being excluded from,” says Rasberry.

If this Women in Business Series is any indicator of what’s to come, then this coalition of entrepreneurs will be relentless in their pursuit of success and will make a noticeable impact on Columbia’s local economy both within the city-center and beyond.

Michael Bailey
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