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Interview with Audra Aja from Clearwater Business SPARK

At Lunchpool, we think that connecting with the people around you helps build new relationships, improve communication, and ultimately builds stronger, more productive communities. Aside from being the Chief Lunch Break Enforcer at Lunchpool, I also manage the Startup Digest Tampa Bay – a weekly look at all the best events and resources for other startups and entrepreneurs. Being co-located between Tampa Bay, FL and Knoxville, TN, I started the role to stay connected and looped into all the awesome growth happening in the Tampa Bay community.

Being new to the role, I reached out to the mailing list to try and speak with the various members of the Tampa Bay Startup Community. In doing so, I linked up with one of the most passionate and exciting advocates of small businesses in the Tampa Bay area, Audra Aja. Audra works for the City of Clearwater Economic Development Division and serves as the Program Coordinator for Clearwater Business SPARK – a collaborative business network of organizations in North Pinellas County that help small business owners and entrepreneurs get access to the resources and connections they need to succeed.

Audra Aja - Clearwater Business Spark / City of Clearwater, FL
Audra Aja speaking at a Clearwater Business SPARK community event.

 

There are a ton of great resources being provided in Tampa Bay through Clearwater Business SPARK, and it’s really another example of just how connected and collaborative Tampa Bay is. In this interview, we discuss network weaving, community building, collaborative partnerships, and why Tampa Bay is the best place to live, work and play!

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
Hello Audra! Happy Friday!! Tell me a little bit about what you do. I understand that you are the Economic Development Coordinator for the City of Clearwater Economic Development and Housing Department. If I got that right off of your email?

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
Yes, that is correct. I work in the Economic Development Division for the City of Clearwater and part of my role is marketing and communications and the other part of my role is entrepreneurial and small business development.

With that part of my role, I serve as the program coordinator for a network called Clearwater Business SPARK. This is a network that we that we formed with eight partners in the community to make it easier for anyone looking to start their business or grow their business to connect to the resources that they need to succeed.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
Very cool and who are the partners in that?

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
First, the City of Clearwater itself, our economic development division, is a partner.

Also from the city is our library system. Our library system has Maker Studios in our downtown main library, and that has been a great way for the community to be able to come and tap into some hands on tools to create, explore and experiment with.

We have things like 3d printers, arduino boards and just a whole host of technologies that the public can try at a very entry level and experiment with. They also do small runs on the 3d printers to create things for the community so they can test these technologies out.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos - Clearwater Business SPARK event
Mayor George Cretekos at the Clearwater Business SPARK community launch in 2016.

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
That’s amazing. Yeah, I wish and I would imagine this probably one of the problems is that not enough people know about these resources. I lived in Tampa Bay, not in Clearwater, but in the area for about six years. And I didn’t even know that existed. It sounds so awesome.

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
Yeah, it is. It’s really cool. And they’ve taken it even further. They’ve developed a media creation studio. They have green screens, video cameras, high quality, photography-grade cameras that the public can come and use for free.

So they can go in there, take pictures, shoot videos, etc., and to coincide with that they’re putting on workshops to train what the next steps are. For example, now you’ve done this video, how do you get it on YouTube? How do you start a YouTube channel?

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
The best video in the world is not going to do much good if nobody sees it!

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
Exactly. So they’re doing a whole host of training to supplement the creation with marketing and outreach. They’re also doing workshops on things like Etsy – how do you start a business on Etsy?

They’re combining the actual tools that you could use and the training. They also do series of business workshops with another one of our Clearwater Business SPARK partners, which is Pinellas County SCORE. Pinellas County SCORE travels all over the county, but on a monthly basis, they’re at our downtown Clearwater main library delivering a workshop specifically for business-related purposes.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
Very cool. Wow, those sound like some great resources. Now how can the audience of Startup Digest get in touch with get looped into all the different entry points into the SPARK community.

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
The Clearwater Business SPARK website gives a high-level overview of the resources and services we provide and who our partners are. We have a form on there that they can fill out for more information. That form goes directly to me so I will call anyone who fills it out to get a better understanding of their needs and can refer them to one of our partners. If one of our partners can’t assist them, then we reach out wider into the community to make that connection for them. Or they can call the 727-443-0217 phone
number which goes right to my desk.

I do the intake for those calls, and then make those referrals out in the same way.

Another great thing is that our partners provide reciprocal referrals as well, because everyone in the Clearwater Business SPARK network is well-versed in what the other organizations do. So any entry point that you go through any of our partners are able to get our clients to the resources that they need.

When we formed this network, we realized that our partners were all going out in the community and working with people, but we weren’t working collaboratively and weren’t aware of what each other were doing. We found that establishing Clearwater Business SPARK was the best way for us to gain a better understanding of what we all do, and increase our ability to really support the community more strategically.

Another one of our partners is St. Petersburg College. They have the Workforce Institute, where they provide training and certifications so we can connect our employers with them. They also have The Collaborative Labs where they facilitate strategic planning sessions for businesses. They provide some incredible programs for the community in addition to their other offerings through the college.

We also have the Florida Small Business Development Center through Pinellas County Economic Development as partner. They have certified consultants that will sit down and discuss business plans, marketing strategies, and provide one-on-one coaching and mentorship on business operations, importing and exporting, and a variety of topics. They provide workshops and training as well.

Florida Small Business Development Center at a SPARK event
Florida Small Business Development Center supporting the community at a SPARK event.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
Nice.

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
We have a large Hispanic population in Clearwater so we partner with Prospera, which is a an economic development, nonprofit organization specialized in providing bilingual assistance to Hispanic entrepreneurs trying to establish or expand their business.

Our Regional Chamber of Commerce is one of our partners. They’re filling in that gap for networking opportunities and business advocacy. Being a Regional Chamber, their membership extends beyond just Clearwater. Through them, we’re able to really tap into a lot of businesses and support North Pinellas County. There’s a lot of support in St. Petersburg/South Pinellas County through the Greenhouse and organizations like that. Tampa has the Wave, and they have a lot of things going on there. But in North Pinellas, we really didn’t have a whole lot of resources. So we found that this was the best way for us to be able to support the community and let them know that they’re not alone, and that they have someone they can go to to figure out where to go.

Prospera and Clearwater Business SPARK
Audra Aja from Clearwater Business SPARK with Claudia Johnson from Prospera. Foto: Juan Carlos Chávez

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
That’s awesome! One of my passions is something I stumbled upon doing research for our startup called network weaving. It’s an amazing field, and it sounds like you guys are engaging in it. Basically, it’s being aware of the networks that you operate in and actively trying to bridge connections and be more inclusive and align on goals and build collaborative partnerships. What’s the point of everybody doing their own thing in a silo when we can all work together, right?

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
Absolutely.

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
Also, our final partner is the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation. They provide micro lending opportunities to the community, and in conjunction with that they provide CATCH, a 12-week training series for people that are exploring starting a business or who are currently in business. They bring in a variety of speakers and carry them through that process. And at the end, they can be awarded a grant to get started and they also provide loans.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
Amazing! So it sounds like you guys do a lot of work amongst the 8 partners. How long have you been doing this?

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
We formally launched the network in 2016. We started kind of exploring what was in the region in 2014. Around that time, we started going out and visiting all of those other incubators and support centers to see what they were doing. Then we started reaching out to community partners, and formed an executive committee to talk about how we could work together developing the brand and all of that. So we formally launched to the community in 2016. So it’s been a couple years now.

We definitely have seen a large increase in the people that are taking advantage of the services, and the referrals that we’re making in the community. This year, we opened an office in The Ring co-working space in downtown Clearwater. This is where our partners can have meetings with clients (by appointment) directly in Clearwater. The Ring’s vision is to create the healthiest workspaces in the world, optimal for human performance, productivity and wellbeing, and it is the only one like it in the state of Florida and one of just a few in the country.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
One of my co-founders showed me the website for that and a news article about it and it looked amazing. We are all about finding that balance between productivity, performance, and well-being.

Clearwater Business Spark Visiting the Ring
SPARK visit to The Ring with Kendrick Lewis, Operations & Outreach Director for Congressman Charlie Crist. The Ring is Clearwater’s newest state-of-the-art co-working facility, and is unique to the Tampa Bay Region. The Ring serves as an office space where SPARK partners can meet with clients.

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
It is amazing. We are starting to put together  some programs onsite such as Marketing Mondays where people can meet with a SCORE mentor for a free, one-hour consultation. SCORE is also facilitating work groups where businesses can come together to share challenges and successes, ad hold each other accountable through weekly goal setting. This is run by Sheila Neisler, Catalyst – a Marketing Company who also is the co-chair of Pinellas County SCORE.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
How does it feel to be able to help entrepreneurs that may be struggling with building their businesses?

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
It’s really satisfying to help a business that’s either exploring an idea and not sure which direction to go and help get them on the right path. Or you may have a business that’s been operating for few years, and now they’re at a point where they’re hiring employees. They can’t manage it all themselves. They have to learn how to delegate and to be able to hire to grow.

Helping the community connect to mentoring and various educational opportunities that will help them grow has been really satisfying from a network standpoint Now we have people that contact us and are like, “I need help with my business!” We have those connections and it has been really, really satisfying to see it come to fruition.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
As a startup entrepreneur myself, I commend you, and thank you for the service that you guys do, because I’ve had many of those moments where I’m like, “What the heck am I doing? And who can I go to to help?” So having resources like you guys in the community is huge. How long have you been in in the Tampa Bay area yourself?

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
I’ve been in the Tampa Bay area for over 25 years, but I’ve been working for the city for six. I came from the private sector, where I did business development and marketing.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
You’ve been in the area for 25 years and in this role for a good part of the last decade? What do you think about the kind of growth and maturity that the Tampa Bay area in terms of business and startups. What do you think Tampa Bay has going on that nobody nowhere else has?

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
We offer an incredible lifestyle. People travel from all over the world to come to Clearwater to go on a vacation, and I think just having business owners realize that it doesn’t have to just be a vacation. We have the workforce here. We have the business resources, tax advantages, and lower cost of living making it possible for people to start a business or expand their businesses in our community, and also be able to live that lifestyle here that they come to vacation for.

That’s really what sets Tampa Bay apart from these other communities. Our cost of living compared to other larger northern communities or those out west is a lot less. You can come here and you can have a great quality of life. I think that’s what we have to offer, and that’s what sets us apart. You have it all here.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
I love it. I think you’re right, You’re making me even more homesick, but luckily I’m coming back down in September. So I’ll be back. And actually, I don’t know if you guys do any work with KnowBe4, but they are one of our favorites and they are right in your back yard!

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
We know KnowBe4 very well! Stu is great. They are in the building right next to us, you know.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
Nice! I had an opportunity to meet with Stu right after we won the Startup Weekend with my startup, and they are actually piloting our app with their 700+ employees. So, it was like a dream come true. Stu and the rest of their executive team gave us some outstanding advice over lunch when we met at their office. It was one of the coolest offices I’ve ever been too. Clearwater is definitely a great place to live, work and play.

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
What’s the best way for people get involved with Clearwater Business SPARK?

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
Sign up for our mailing list or request more information at our website: https://www.clearwaterbusinessspark.com or call 727-443-0217. Follow us on Facebook, too!

 

Alex Abell, Lunchpool:
Thank you Audra! You are truly a strong member of the Tampa Bay Startup Community, and a big reason it’s thriving and growing – it’s all about people like you! Keep up the
great work, and let’s grab lunch soon!

 

Audra Aja, Clearwater Business SPARK:
Oh most definitely! We’ll use your app and make it happen!

 

Audra Aja - Clearwater Business SPARK

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