Karen CarterInfinite Hands Initiative, launched in 2013, creates self-sufficient women and small business owners through hands-on workshops at local shelters in the Houston, Texas metroplex.

‘Ah ha’ moment that led to launching this business: I was volunteering as an instructor at several shelters and discovered many women needed more than business training. They needed someone to walk with them and offer guidance on the simplest to the most complicated of things. How could they get a phone or access the Internet? What paperwork did they need to file? What kind of business would — or should — they operate? Those questions and the needs of these women fueled the creation of Infinite Hands Initiative.

Ideal customer/target market: My “ideal customer” is the women I serve. Every woman is different. One likes to cook; another makes jewelry or sews. I take the time to get to know them so that they can start and sustain a business suited to their interests and talents.

First customer or client: It wasn’t easy to get started. Shelters have different regulations, so I’d first have to go in and find out if I could even offer a workshop program. If I could, the rest was easy since most of the women are seeking ways to improve their lives for themselves and their children.

Measuring success: For me, success is the 17 women who are still in business. Two of them actually are in the process of expanding their businesses. They’ll be taking a microfinance class so that they can improve their operations and processes. One of my other success stories is a woman who sews and embroiders for clergy members. She’s become so well known that she has clients in Chicago.

Biggest struggle: Limited funding is always a struggle. The IHI board members and I do our best to minimize overhead costs. We are very, very much a “lean” organization. We typically work from home and share a digital work office. We buy supplies in bulk and run off copies at Kinko’s. One of the board members has access to a large printer, so we turn to her when we need to print marketing materials. By doing that, we’re able to give more of our dollars to the workshop program and the women who attend them.

Surprise!: The surprise always is what happens after the women complete a workshop program. We hold a graduation ceremony and invite board members and local small businesses. It never fails that one of those members or businesses amazes me. At our last graduation, one of the board members was so impressed with a woman’s custom jewelry business that she asked the woman to show her wares at an upcoming event. Something like that always happens. Things like that keep me going.

Promoting business: I’m a persistent woman, so what I do well is write letters. I send letters to businesses. I send email newsletters to supporters. I contact other, local organizations. I use flyers, too. I know it might be outdated, but it lets me make a personal connection with a business owner or shelter director — and that’s really important.

Two things you wish you would’ve known: The first is that your word is your bond. The women at the shelter don’t usually trust me at the get-go. They’ve all heard people say, “I’ll be back next week.” Those people never come back. So when I say I’ll be back next week, I make sure I am. I keep my word. Second, money isn’t the source of all happiness. It might help get you there, but the money itself won’t make you happy. What makes me happy is meeting the women where they are and helping them. It’s hard work, but it fills me with such joy.

What keeps you up at night (business-wise!)?: If anything does keep me awake it’s excitement. When we’re having our annual Koats4Kids drive, I keep thinking about the kids and their moms — their faces when we give them new coats, hats, and mittens.

Ever tempted to throw in the towel and just get a job? I’ve never thought about throwing in the towel because I know it can take up to five years before a business has solid footing. I’m focusing on building relationships that will keep IHI around — maybe even in other cities — five years from now. I also know to expect hard, lean times. You just have to ask for help and be open to opportunities. Prayer helps me a lot, too. I think it keeps any thoughts about giving up at bay.

Biggest goal over the next year: My goal is to have five long-term supporters/donors by the end of the year. They could be a one-time gift or ongoing. But, honestly, what I’d really like to see is those five people get involved in some way. When they know the women, they can’t help but fall in love with them and want to do more.

Pricing/advice on getting it right: My main advice is to learn from others. Talk with people who have similar businesses. Learn about their payment structures. Take classes, too. I’ve guided many women through pricing. We inevitably end up finding a local small business owner and asking for their advice and insight.

Funding: Pursuing funding takes persistence and determination. Also a knowledge of paperwork and people. I’m not afraid to send solicitation letters, either. I have learned to keep those local. The women I teach buy from and work with local businesses and families. If I contact them, I’m more likely to get a response than, say, from someone located in Los Angeles. IHI is a participant in Give Local America, a campaign celebrating organizations and nonprofits that give back to their local communities.

A few tips specific to your industry: 1) Learn about the business classifications before deciding on which one’s right for you. 2) File the right paperwork. Get someone who’s familiar with the forms to proof it. You can save yourself a lot of grief and frustration that way. 3) Try out your business before going full-time. That’s what I did with IHI. I was a volunteer at another organization before deciding to start mine. You learn a lot that way, both things to do and not to do. 4) Be teachable. I expect I’ll still be learning twenty years from now. I’m a sponge! I always tell the women in my programs, “Learn, learn, learn. Never stop.” 5) Evaluate your program in comparison to others. I evaluate my classes against ones I take. For example, I compared my financing class against the one offered at the community college. It turned out I was teaching exactly the same things — just to a completely different set of people.

Must-read online resource: My best subscription is the National Council of Nonprofits’ email newsletter. I receive information about new legislation and regulations in Texas as well as other news. I think it’s important to stay up-to-date. It helps me help my students and fledgling business owners.

The absolute best part of owning my business is making a positive difference in the lives of others.

If I had to start over again, I would have involved board members.

I never imagined fundraising would be so difficult. It takes time, usually time I’d prefer to spend planning workshops and mentoring women.

If standing on a rooftop facing crowds of aspiring or struggling small business owners, I would shout, “Keep dreaming! Now work toward it. Turn your dream into a reality.”