Hope Harris-Gayles knows Southern Virginia. Born and raised in Charlotte County, she now lives in Halifax. Her understanding of this rural region — paired with a comprehensive foundation in marketing and firsthand knowledge of what it takes to run a small family business — makes her the perfect fit for the Longwood SBDC.
“This region does have challenges,” Harris-Gayles said. “Historically, we don’t have the resources other areas have, so having a place like the SBDC to provide support and education is critical.”
Harris-Gayles noted that the Longwood SBDC has been a staple of Southern Virginia for as long as she can remember. Over the past 16 years, while watching the center grow a strong reputation, she built a successful career at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, where she currently works as director of communications and outreach. In 2021, she joined the SBDC team as a part-time marketing consultant with a goal of helping rural entrepreneurs succeed.
“My husband is an entrepreneur, and so I’ve seen the behind-the-scenes, the ups and downs,” said Harris-Gayles. “It’s hard to be an entrepreneur. You’re doing your craft, but then you also have to do your financials and your marketing and everything else. It’s a lot.”
Harris-Gayles noted that when she joined the SBDC, entrepreneurship had recently skyrocketed. This increased interest, due in part to pandemic job loss, also rose from a shift in people’s perspective.
“The uncertainty of Covid really shook everyone,” she explained. “We saw our lives upended, and I think some people thought, ‘You know, I’m going to go for it. Life is short. I’m going for my dreams.’”
Now, Harris-Gayles plays a key role in helping people achieve those dreams. She teaches a regular online SBDC workshop called “Marketing on a Budget,” completes marketing audits and works directly with clients to create marketing plans. She also chairs RISE Collaborative’s minority engagement workgroup, the Grapevine Entrepreneur Network, which supports black-, brown- and women- owned businesses in Southern Virginia. The organization provides monthly virtual meetings as well as Facebook and LinkedIn groups that focus on sharing resources, networking and providing local updates to foster regional connectivity.
“We have found that, a lot of times, underserved entrepreneurs connect and share resources and information through word-of-mouth or nontraditional channels — it goes through the grapevine,” she said. “We want our group to honor that heritage and make it a safe space for entrepreneurs and resource providers to ask questions, ask for help or share resources.”
In all of her many roles, Harris-Gayles works as a “pollinator,” passing information along so that entrepreneurs can access the free support and training they need to be prepared with a strong business plan and pitch when their moment comes. She knows that this increased access uplifts our entire region.
“The SBDC can be that equalizing force that levels the playing field and really helps everyone rise together,” she said. “What I’ve found is that we don’t necessarily need more resources. We just need to plug people in and connect them to what already exists.”
For new business owners, Harris-Gayles believes that establishing a relationship with an SBDC consultant is key. From there — linked to Southern Virginia’s rural small business ecosystem — resources, support, and information are only a connection away.
“Small businesses are truly the backbone of our communities,” said Harris-Gayles. “Being able to support them is very rewarding, and it’s helping to build the community, which I love.”