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Incubator Hatches Businesses

The Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce is helping local entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.

Nestled in a small office in the back corner of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce, Meenakshi Bangad and Sezen Uysal were hammering out code Tuesday for their software development firm, Simena.

"Basically, we get to use free services from the chamber members," said Uysal, the technology company's owner. "Legal help, accounting, you name it. Being here has also let us network with other businesses."

Simena is one of a handful of small businesses participating in the chamber of commerce's incubator program, which offers entrepreneurs cheap office space and partners them with a network of experts in marketing, accounting, and just about anything else a budding small business owner might need to get her feet off the ground.

"We help these businesses grow and help them become independent," said Andrew Sterling, spokesman for the chamber of commerce. "The goal is to get them going and let them go off and do their own thing."

THE CHAMBER'S incubator program was started four years ago and remains one of the few incubators in the country that are attached to a local chamber of commerce.

The incubator program is intended to contribute to Northern Virginia's business prosperity and create jobs, while promoting economic diversity by assisting small and minority business owners, Sterling said.

"If a company needs help or mentoring, that's what we're here for," he said.

So far, 32 firms have participated in the program and 19 have graduated on to their office space and outside success. The network of experts has contributed more than 900 hours to the emerging businesses, translating into an estimated $135,000 in donated professional services.

Also, the incubator businesses have created more than 75 jobs in the Reston area and have secured more than 22,000 square feet of office space in Fairfax County.

"We support small business and we realize that small business is at the core of the job creation engine," said Gregory Pickett, a senior vice president at Access National Bank and chair of the incubator's advisory board. "If they're a new, emerging business, we can help them."

SEVERAL NOTABLE businesses and business owners have graduated from the program.

Joe Watson, who founded the minority executive search firm StrategicHire, was among the incubator's first graduating class. Watson went on to assist Gov. Mark Warner locate minorities to diversify his gubernatorial campaign.

Another graduate, Chuck Mills, founded Salera Capital Management, an asset management and private equity firm. Mills went on to become director of the Virginia Department of Business Assistance, a state agency that serves as a resource for businesses in the commonwealth.

Abrakadoodle, a company that provides art education programs for preschoolers and elementary school students throughout Northern Virginia, is another of the incubator program's success stories.

The company started with only a few employees in a small suite in the back of the chamber, but is now opening franchises across the country, said Rosemarie Hartnett, Abrakadoodle's vice president.

"The incubator program offered us some very convenient space here in Reston and it offered us some very good advice to get us going."

THE INCUBATOR program would not be possible without the established Reston business community's willingness to assist emerging firms, Pickett said.

"People in this community seem really willing to step up and help each other out," he said.

Pickett said he has traveled and worked throughout the country, but Reston seems to have more of willingness to create a new business and give it a chance to grow.

"The entrepreneurial spirit in this community exceeds just about everywhere else I've been," he said.