Q&A with Jill Sparks, executive director of A-B Tech Business Incubation and Small Business Center

Unlike modern job-hoppers who switch roles every few years, Jill Sparks jokes that she’s a “monogamous worker.” She spent over six years at Appalachian State University, primarily in career planning services, and for the past 16 years, she’s worked at A-B Tech. As executive director of the community college’s Business Incubation and Small Business Center, she helps people develop their small-business dreams into reality.

But Sparks did not always envision herself working in higher education. As an undergraduate at App State, she earned a bachelor’s degree in history. “I wanted to write questions for ‘Jeopardy!’ or Trivial Pursuit,” she says.

Sparks spoke with Xpress about how the local small business landscape has evolved, why Asheville is hospitable to independent stores and why you want her on your team at a quiz night.

Did you always know that you wanted to work with small-business owners?

I actually started grad school for counseling. For me, it was too touchy-feely. I switched to the MBA program at Appalachian State University and was a banker. That was still helping people with their financial future.

I was really involved at App as an alum, and a position in career planning came open. Since it was in the College of Business, they wanted someone who had a business background but also had the soft skills for counseling. I got lucky — it was a perfect combination of my skill sets.

You’ve worked at the Small Business Center at A-B Tech for nearly 16 years. Have the demographics of people starting small businesses changed during that time?

The barriers to starting a business have been reduced. You can do so much on your phone; you don’t have to go to Kinkos to print your business cards. The accessibility of promoting your product or service to a global market, really, is huge.

I’ve seen more women come in and I think that’s a trend that is nationwide. Also, people of color are starting their own businesses. These are all trends that are reflected nationwide. And younger people, too. So many high school students already have businesses.

Really? High schoolers?

Yes. They can make something and sell it on Etsy or do their TikTok video and drive people to their Instagram. You just need a phone for many things. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy and the money will fall out of the sky. Mobile commerce was not really a thing when I came on board in 2006.

What one piece of advice would give to anyone starting a small business? 

The first thing is to ask yourself is why are you starting a business. Some people may hate their job so much that they overromanticize entrepreneurship. Folks really do have to be passionate and understand that being an entrepreneur and having your own business is 24/7.

Also, they have to have a product or service that people are willing and able to pay for. You can have the best chocolate chip cookie in the world. But if no one knows about it, or you can’t communicate that to your target market, you might not be selling anything.

And you have to research cash flow. Understanding the money is probably key — what it costs to make or deliver your product or service to your market, what it costs to advertise for that, what it costs in your time, what it costs for any kind of infrastructure — really understanding the true cost of running a business. That is probably the No. 1 thing.

Have you seen any trends in the types of small businesses people are starting?

Since the pandemic, a lot of people are looking at food manufacturing or craft beverages, and not necessarily alcohol. It can be tea; it can be kombucha. At A-B Tech Enka, we have Blue Ridge Food Ventures, which is a commercial kitchen, and also NC BioNetwork, which is a community college program. They have a test research and development kitchen and a laboratory, which can do a variety of testing for food, natural products and beverages. Having the resources in Western North Carolina helps people realize, “Oh, I was thinking I might want to bottle my hot sauce or make my famous chocolate chip cookies.”

What makes Asheville a hospitable place for small businesses?

There’s a certain sense of independence among folks in WNC — that, coupled with the artistic vibe that is here. Also, for a very long time, there were no chains downtown. Asheville has a great Go Local Card. That’s one of the most important cards I have in my wallet!

Keeping shopping local top of mind is really important, and conveying that to tourists as well. We hope tourists are coming up for the local independent business scene, and making that accessible to them is key.

If you were to ever open your own small business, what would it be? 

A bookstore. I put myself through college working at the college library at App State. Then I worked at an independent bookstore for about five years when I was saving for grad school, the Intimate Bookshop in Charlotte.

You mentioned wanting to write questions for “Jeopardy!” Have you ever auditioned?

No. But golly, history majors have random facts. I’ll see a passcode and I’m like, “Oh, 1588 — the defeat of the Spanish Armada!”