Former Nurse Takes Leap, Forms Catering Startup

catering company: PearlFlower

For this Cleveland chef, the journey to entrepreneurship begins with a taste

Cleveland is known for rock-n-roll, its many museums and of course, its sports teams. In fact, The Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team is so popular it has an iconic mural down the street from the Quicken Loans Arena. So, for former nurse Tiwanna Williams, ending up in the Cav’s “Test Kitchen” was a dream opportunity for her growing startup. Here’s how this entrepreneur went from hospitals to hometown food hero with PearlFlower Catering.

“I graduated and knew I would be working as a nurse. For me, catering was something I just stumbled upon, initially,” said Williams. “I didn’t necessarily know it would turn into my full-time job, but it was something that I enjoyed doing. At first, I would just cater small things, like parties or baby and bridal showers for friends and family. Soon demand grew, and I knew at that point this was something I could make into a business.”

Of course, the road from nursing to entrepreneurship wasn’t an easy one — Williams juggled health benefits and Crohn’s disease while raising her daughter with her husband. Where other entrepreneurs might have jumped right in to a new venture, Williams let her passion organically unfold, working hard on skills she knew would grow her business.

“Even when my husband was able to take over some of the health benefits, I still wasn’t sure I could afford to do catering full-time,” explained Williams. “I was a registered nurse with 10 years’ experience in the cardiothoracic surgical specialty. But there was something drawing me to catering that I really loved, even though it wasn’t a stable situation. They’re both really demanding professions, but I liked knowing that catering was something I had built and nurtured myself.”

To help Williams with the next steps, she began working with the ECDI’s Women’s Business Center and JumpStart’s Core City: Cleveland Impact Program, a partner of Ohio Third Frontier which helps local small businesses identify key goals and set a plan for achieving them. Williams also connected with the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, which advocates for minority members, to begin training for her food service license and work on strategic planning.

“Running my own business is a whole new world for me,” said Williams. “I’m looking at other catering businesses, other food service providers, and I’m planning things out beyond the day-to-day tasks. Core City Impact was a great experience because it forced me to devote some time each week to my company. I had never pitched myself to anyone. I didn’t go after any capital or funding, so I hadn’t presented a business plan to anyone either. All of this was new to me. Core City was a big ‘a-ha’ moment.”

Empowered after winning a competition hosted by Core City, Williams began to work on expanding her operations by applying for a business license, buying new equipment and staffing PearlFlower.

“The experience also forced me to think about my impact on the communities that I service,” said Williams. “When I hire and train my staff, it’s more than just PearlFlower gaining customers or gaining employees. It’s really helping the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem flourish in northeast Ohio.”

Although Williams’ path to Quicken Loans arena wasn’t as simple as jumping at her first chance to start a business, her catering company has been a slam dunk in the community and beyond. Her biggest piece of advice? Connecting with the startup community from the beginning.

“If I could do it all over again, I would have started working with JumpStart day one,” said Williams. “I would pair up with someone who knows more than I do. Reach out to someone: business development, hubs in the Cleveland area, Chamber of Commerce and then watch yourself achieve more than you ever thought possible.”

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