A group of Howard County VIPs and representatives from the Maryland Women’s Business Center recently celebrated the grand opening of the MWBC Shop Local Powered By The 3rd, the new retail incubator at the Columbia Lakefront. (Howard County Government photo)

For economic developers, incubators are a popular option when nurturing new businesses. Locally, the Howard County Economic Development Authority operates the Maryland Innovation Center, in Columbia Gateway; the University of Maryland, College Park features MTech Ventures; and three incubators are in operation at UMBC.

While incubators have been more rumor than reality in the retail industry, that may be changing with the Rockville-based Maryland Women’s Business Center’s launch of its second in central Maryland. Formally known as MWBC Shop Local Powered By The 3rd, the new location in Downtown Columbia opened in January in partnership with the HCEDA.

From the early returns, it looks like the effort is paying off.

“It’s bringing new people into The 3rd,” said Laura Bacon, its executive director, “as well as giving consumers new options to spend their dollars locally with our five small businesses. Despite a very small footprint, we’re already averaging 30 to 40 customers every weekend day.”

‘Proof of concept’

The parameters at the incubator are set to accommodate two cohorts with five tenants each, twice per year. The first cohort runs through the end of June, at which point the next cohort will start for five more startups and run to the end of 2024.

Bacon is on hand during the week with entrepreneurs that include PEACES & Threads, Queen’s Temple, Regally Insane, The Perfect Shirt and Yaachic; each pays $250 per month in rent. She has deemed them to be “masters of conversion. They help new shoppers learn about the program, their grants and put meaning behind their products.”

Bacon offered this for instance: “Someone from the state of Maryland came on site to do maintenance work,” she said, “and our clientele had him sampling the men’s shea butter. He left with a bag of products from the shop for himself and his girlfriend.”

What’s standing out to Bacon is that “We’re already making progress. There were many energetic thoughts shared before our opening and this effort didn’t require any big upfront investment from the HCEDA or elsewhere.”

The opening of the Columbia incubator amplifies the MWBC’s Shop Local programs. “We give them a proof of concept as they build around the state,” she said, “as they’re looking for spaces wherever the commercial real estate companies, such as The Howard Hughes Corp. in our case, are invested in this mission.”

Trending

Calling the partially SBA-funded MWBC Shop Local “the signature program” of Rockville Economic Development, its executive director, Danette Nguyen, said the effort started in 2019 in Rockville Town Square and has generated $400,000 in gross revenues.

“This is something different,” said Nguyen, “and we’re investing in women’s businesses and small-scale manufacturing.

“What’s unique about The 3rd is that it provides an opportunity for shared space with all five companies and incorporates our program components, such as an intensive training series to analyze financial projections for each participant. They can also attend classes on social media and marketing, then get one-on-one counseling.”

But there’s more. “All five companies are overseeing work schedules and event planning, as well as developing retail management skills. That gives a sense of place to the companies and their clientele,” she said, “while providing synergies, peer-to-peer communication, best practices,” etc.

As for the concept of a retail incubator, Nguyen said she’s seeing a trend of niche incubators in general.

“They’re a proven tool for creating new businesses,” she said, “and we want to be sure to provide these opportunities in various neighborhoods.”

A new face

Stephanie Amponsah, owner of tenant company Yaachic, concurs. Her budding business manufactures West African-inspired clothing and accessories “for the woman who is bold in style and bold in purpose.”

The products Yaachic sells are generally made in Ghana from her designs and those of her team of artists. “A 10-piece collection can run several thousand dollars,” Amponsah said, “because we use all raw materials, shipping,” etc.

As her company just celebrated its third anniversary, the MWBC has shown up on Amponsah’s radar screen at a key moment in time. “It’s been great for me to learn to manage the store,” she said, “as well as to interact with customers, especially since we’ve usually conducted our business online. It’s given our brand a face and as we prepare to host events every month at The 3rd.”

And that’s the idea. “This initiative works to lower barriers facing underrepresented business owners so they can sustainably launch and grow,” said Jennifer Jones, CEO of the HCEDA. “Howard County thrives when everyone has the chance to fully participate in building our business community. I look forward to the economic value these incubator participants will create.”

To Bacon, opening the incubator also provides proof of concept with her idea of bringing different parties together about a year ago when she opened The 3rd.

“These types of partnerships make it easier to operate,” she said, “mainly because people share the heavy lifting.”