Serena Williams said, “The success of every woman should be the inspiration of another. We should raise each other up. Make sure you are very courageous. Be strong, be extremely kind, and above all, be humble.” Vonesha Mitchell embodies this ideal, and you can hear it in her voice. Among the greatest Memphis happenings of 2021 was the opening of the Women’s Business Center South (WBCS) in Crosstown Concourse, and not far behind was the naming of Vonesha Mitchell as the WBCS Executive Director.
This organization serves the Southern territory by offering resources and training for women looking to start or sustain their own businesses. Vonesha brings 15 years of experience to the table and has been described as a “powerhouse.” As we admired Vonesha’s gentle intelligence and beautiful confidence, it was crystal clear why she had been named to this position, which marries heart and the bottom line. She has the human depth for such a challenge, and Memphians will benefit from having her at the helm of this organization. Meet our newest FACE of Memphis, Vonesha Mitchell.
How would you describe the key objective of the Women’s Business Center South?
Our main objective is to provide support for women in business. We offer sustainability resources for women who want to start and/or grow their businesses.
You have been described as a “powerhouse.” What is your reaction to that description and what would you say is the biggest contributing factor to that persona?
I am humbled and honored that someone would think of me as a powerhouse. I know I am very passionate, which fills my efforts, and that can be powerful. I embrace that description.
Your grandmother owned a shop in the heart of Byhalia, Mississippi. What is the most important thing you learned from watching her?
Definitely the notion that women are powerful, capable, and vital to the community as leaders. She was doing something many people, period, weren’t doing back then. So I learned from her that I can do anything! She just turned 93, and I want to record her answering some questions about her entrepreneurial experience. She saw it as just running a store, but it was so much more.
A lot has been said about how COVID impacted children as they were out of school, and men as they were home from work. What would you say about the pandemic’s impact on businesswomen, and what elements were most critical to their success?
Something interesting that I have observed is an uptick of women entrepreneurs during the pandemic. By necessity or nurture, women identify gaps and problems that exist, and we come up with solutions. Women often don’t have access to resources or help in certain situations, and efficiency is often born out of those moments. We know we have to get it done, and we know the buck often stops with us. So, I think the pandemic compelled women to take action, solve problems, and live out their dreams. They started realizing tomorrow isn’t promised, and they took on a carpe diem mindset, which is the most critical pivot I observed — a new mindset.
Historically, men have been nurtured to be risk-takers, and women have been taught to do safe things. There was a shift in that thinking. There’s no time to do something safe anymore. We just need to get out there and do it was the collective mindset. If I’m going to take a shot, I’m going to take it now.
When you look at social media, you see someone who looks like you doing the thing you want to be doing. Now, though, through social media, those people are accessible to you — you can direct message them. You can be in community with them, and that community can support each other. Historically, women who have started businesses have thought, I have to do everything myself. But that’s not the case. Now, because of social media, your network can be bigger than your granular circle of people. Things that seemed like insurmountable obstacles before are no longer that way. Now, you can find someone on Fiverr to do the job, and you can clear that hurdle with 15 minutes and $20.
Family and children seem to be the biggest logistical “hurdle” for women who want to start a business. Do you think that’s true?
Access to capital is the biggest logistical hurdle for women who want to start a business. The historical patriarchal structure of families can be a hurdle, but the mindset shift is a powerful tool against that. It’s not to say a woman’s place isn’t in the home, because many of us want that as we desire families, including me. But a rethinking of the allocation of time and the definition of what success looks like is important for everyone. Does a 50-hour workweek define success for men or women? Is there time there to spend with your family in there?
Overall, the way the world sees the family as good, nourishing, and vital for having personal balance is really important. Because of the pandemic, people worked from home, and in the background on the screen, co-workers saw children, spouses, pets, hobbies, art, and books. They started to see, “This person is a whole person,” and [started] realizing people can’t bring their best selves if they aren’t bringing the whole person to work. What makes them valuable is all of those parts of who they are.
You are on the Board of Directors for Advance Memphis (AM). How do you use what you do at WBCS to impact the decisions you make at AM, and vice versa?
Advance Memphis works to support entrepreneurs, and the most natural intersection for me to serve them is for me to bring resources to women. I love making sure that women know there is a Small Business Development Center, paid for by tax dollars, available to them. I like for people to know that there are strategic alliances around, as well as workforce development capital, and financial and human capital that can be funneled towards their business effort.
I was personally drawn to Advance Memphis because of their mission. I am a Christian, and faith in action really compels me. Even when I taught school, this missional thinking was important to me, but that’s the standard at Advance Memphis — doing things that are pleasing to God. That benefits everyone.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
I have been given so much good advice, but right now, I’m thinking a lot about being kind to myself and giving myself grace. We can often treat others so much better than we treat ourselves. We might be inclined to say, “Don’t do that to her,” or “Don’t say that to her. She’s wonderful!” We need to use that same thinking with ourselves.
Outside of faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Music, good food, and laughter or things that make me smile.
Thank you, Vonesha! All photography provided.
Read more interviews with inspirational Memphis women in our archives!