Celebrating Women Beyond Women’s History Month

Posted on March 19, 2024
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By Viktoria Capek

For Arkansas business owners Samantha Stewart and Sarah Heer, investing in the success of the women in their lives isn’t just a March trend, or a 10-photo carousel post on Instagram for International Women’s Day. 

Both women have spent much of the past two years learning from and uplifting other women in their network alongside The Venture Center’s VCWoman Achieve program, first as “mentees,” then as “mentors.”

Now in its third year, VCWoman Achieve has propelled more than 40 women entrepreneurs to the next level of their business journey thanks to the guidance of some of the most accomplished women in Arkansas. The statewide program does this by connecting emerging women entrepreneurs (mentees) with experienced professionals (mentors).

“The time I heard about Woman Achieve, I actually was in a real dark space,” Stewart, co-owner of Certified Pies pizza restaurant, said in an interview at The Venture Center. “I had just lost my corporate job, my cushion.”

Stewart is one-third of the team behind opening the Certified Pies’ brick-and-mortar in West Little Rock in fall 2023. Making its name as Arkansas’ first Black-founded and Black-owned pizza company, Certified Pies started as a hobby turned part-time job, then full-time job, between Stewart and her husband. In 2020, while Stewart was still working as a consultant for Verizon, the couple partnered with a friend and ran their cooking business out of a community kitchen on weekends until they opened their full-service restaurant 3 years later.

“I was excited to be the sponge,” Stewart said about becoming a mentee in the time leading up to opening her restaurant. “I was excited to be the one that got to just listen and learn from everybody.”

Heer, meanwhile, found herself in a similar place of uncertainty with her content creation company, “Arkie Travels,” when she applied to be a mentee for the VCWoman Achieve program. 

“I joined it because I needed help with the back end of my business,” Heer said over a Zoom call. “So the financials, the accounting, the bookkeeping, all of those numbers—things that I didn’t know how to do.”

The digital nomad began creating travel content in 2019 when she booked a tiny homestay for her husband’s birthday and posted about it on her personal social media pages. Heer’s posts were met with comments and questions about where the couple stayed and how much it cost to stay there. This prompted Heer to record and post about her and her husband’s visit to all 52 Arkansas state parks in 2020, which got the attention of the Arkansas State Parks and Arkansas Tourism departments. They were interested in paying Heer to create more content.

This opportunity transformed content creation from a hobby to a job for Heer, who today posts for a combined audience of more than 215,000 followers across social platforms.  

“I’m a very firm believer of when you make space for things, it allows other things to step in and bloom and grow,” Heer said. “The space happened, I quit my [full-time] job and went all in.”

Both women credit VCWoman Achieve for their business and personal growth in 2023. Stewart’s guidance from mentor Anika Dixon made her feel seen and heard as a dynamic business woman facing an array of challenges.

“The first thing she said was, ‘You’re not just an entrepreneur, but you’re a mom and you’re a wife, and you wear all these hats, and you need to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself,’” Stewart recalled. “It really helped me to have that person I could talk to.”

And Heer leaned on a number of women who gave her guidance, such Liz Russell, who’s helping her write a children’s book.

“She’s editing my book,” Heer said. “That is something tangible that I can say came from Woman Achieve. Actually making the time to sit down and write a book, having people push me to do it, and having that accountability was a result of this program.”

Following the successful opening of Certified Pies and the continued growth of Arkie Travels, what’s particularly noteworthy about Stewart and Heer’s involvement in VCWoman Achieve is that both women have returned as mentors for the 2024 cohort. They’re eager to pour into the current group of mentees the way they were poured into last year. They’re also equally as excited to continue growing in their own business ventures.

“At some point in your journey of entrepreneurship, you can always be a mentee. You can always learn from somebody,” Stewart said. “Now, even though I’m a mentor, I know that I’m going to be able to learn from some of the other mentors and maybe even some of the mentees.”

Heer echoed Stewart’s excitement about being a mentor, stating she’s ready to be a part of uplifting women across Arkansas, starting with VCWoman Achieve.

“I firmly believe that breathing into other people will do nothing but raise the level for every woman in the state,” she said. “I think one of my favorite things about Women Achieve is the diversity and how there are women from every background, from every skin color, every culture. I love that every part of our state is represented in this program. And I think that it helps other women be able to say, ‘Wow, if she can do that, then so can I.’”

Learn more about Samantha Stewart and Certified Pies, here.

Learn more about Sarah Heer and Arkie Travels, here.

To learn more about VCWoman Achieve, or to get involved, click here.