Tennessee Small Business Development Centers Can Help People with Disabilities Start a Business

/ May 2, 2023

By Krista Cashion

The Tennessee Small Business Development Centers are a statewide network of centers that provide assistance to businesses in Tennessee. The mission of the Tennessee Small Business Development Centers is to provide high-quality consulting and training solutions to all entrepreneurs to start, grow, and sustain their businesses. These centers are funded through the federal Small Business Administration and other local partners, which offer all consulting services at no cost to clients. The centers offer a wide range of services, including business planning, market research, financial analysis, and access to capital or funding by connecting clients with local lenders.

Many individuals with disabilities want to work, but they often want to work for themselves. For entrepreneurs with disabilities, the Tennessee Small Business Development Centers offer several specific resources that can be incredibly valuable. Listed below are some of these resources.

Business Consulting

The Small Business Development Centers offer no-cost confidential consulting to help entrepreneurs figure out the challenges of starting and running a business. These sessions can occur as frequently or infrequently as the client would like throughout the lifecycle of their business.

Access to Capital (Funding)

For entrepreneurs with disabilities, finding and getting capital for a new business can be especially challenging.  The centers can help entrepreneurs with disabilities find and secure financing for their businesses. This help includes assistance with loan applications, financial projections, and identifying potential funding sources. The Small Business Development Centers can help connect entrepreneurs to funding sources to support them.

Networking Opportunities

Networking is an important part of growing a successful business. The Tennessee Small Business Development Centers can help entrepreneurs with disabilities connect with other business owners and professionals who can provide guidance and support. The centers can also help entrepreneurs find disability-specific business networks that can provide valuable resources and connections, provide referrals to other services that may be beneficial to entrepreneurs with disabilities, such as disability-related organizations, government agencies, advocacy groups, and Vocational Rehabilitation programs.

Business Plan Assistance

A solid business plan is essential for any entrepreneur. The centers’ staff cannot write business plans, but they will provide assistance with developing a business plan that is tailored to the needs and goals of entrepreneurs with disabilities. This can include help with identifying target markets, developing marketing strategies, providing feedback, and assisting with financial projections.

Marketing Assistance

Marketing is a key part of any successful business. The Tennessee Small Business Development Centers can provide entrepreneurs with disabilities with guidance on developing effective marketing strategies. This may include assistance with creating a brand identity, developing advertising campaigns, and identifying potential customers.

Workshops and Training

The Tennessee Small Business Development Centers offer a variety of in-person and virtual training opportunities that can be especially valuable for entrepreneurs with disabilities. These workshops cover a wide range of topics, including business planning, marketing, financial management, and legal issues. The centers can also provide training on disability-specific topics, such as accessibility and disability rights, navigating government regulations, patents, intellectual property, and industry-specific licensing requirements. There are even programs specific to veterans with disabilities who wish to start or grow a business, such as STRIVE program through the Tennessee Small Business Development Center at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN.

Mark Bays, director of Tennessee Small Business Development Center at ETSU, which is one of the 14 centers across the state, said that his center provides high-quality consulting and training solutions to start, grow, and sustain businesses in the 10-county service area that includes Greene, Washington, Unicoi, Johnson, Carter, Sullivan, Hancock, Hawkins, Grainger, and Hamblen.

“Starting or growing your business can be like entering the dark cave. The TSBDC can serve as a flashlight helping bring light to the darkness and guiding you on your journey,” said Bays.

“Our office has partnered with ETSU’s Master’s of Business Administration capstone class to assist clients with specific strategy issues related to their business. These strategy issues can include but are not limited to marketing plans, expansion, and evaluating new business ventures. This program creates a great opportunity for graduate students to get real-life experience working with a business, and the business owners gets assistance and feedback at no-cost.”

He also mentioned the STRIVE program, a free entrepreneurship training program for veterans, Reserve, and National Guard members. During the program, participants will learn the skills needed to launch a successful business as well as gain post-program support from both the local and national Institute for Veterans Military Families network. If accepted, there is no charge to participants. Graduates of the program may qualify to apply for funding through various agencies.

The next eight-week STRIVE course will be held in Johnson City, TN, on the Veterans Administration campus, starting Sept. 14, 2023.  The course consists of evening meetings and online coursework that is required prior to the first class and during the eight-week timeframe. ETSU’s program is 4 years old, with total of more than 40 graduates. To find more information and apply to the program, please visit www.etsu.edu/strive.

Research and Market Data

The Tennessee Small Business Development Centers can provide business owners with disabilities with access to market research, industry reports, and other resources to help them make informed decisions about their businesses.

In addition to these services, the centers also provide a range of general business resources, including assistance with financial management, marketing, and more.

Overall, the Tennessee Small Business Development Centers offer a wide range of resources that can be very helpful for people with disabilities starting their own businesses. Whether you need help with accessibility assessments, funding, networking, or any other aspect of starting or growing a business, the centers can provide the support you need to succeed.

If you’re a person with a disability interested in starting or growing a business in Tennessee, here are some steps you can take:

  • Visit the Tennessee Small Business Development Centers’ website at https://tsbdc.org/ and find the center nearest to you. You can find a list of all the centers on the website.
  • Contact your local center and schedule an appointment to meet with a business consultant at NO COST. During this meeting, you can discuss your business goals and any challenges you may be facing. The consultant can help you identify the resources and services that will be most helpful to you.
  • Attend workshops and training sessions. The centers offer a wide range of workshops and training opportunities that can help you develop the skills you need to succeed as a businessperson. Most of these workshops are at no cost as well and can be found at https://tsbdc.org/training/
  • Connect with other business owners. The centers can help you connect with other entrepreneurs and professionals who can provide guidance and support.


I have a number of folks to thank for today’s blog post. First, I’d like to thank Dawn Rowe, program director for East Tennessee State University’s Access ETSU inclusive higher education program. Dawn first alerted me to ETSU’s Tennessee Small Business Development Center during a TennesseeWorks Partnership meeting. Dawn then connected me with Mark Bays, who is the director at the ETSU office of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center. Mark was then kind enough to tell me that there was a whole network of these centers across the state, and he introduced me to Kayla Miller, associate state director for the Tennessee Small Business Development Centers, and to Krista Cashion, who was a consultant at the main center, located at Middle Tennessee State University. I was excited to learn about the work these centers do, because so often I hear individuals with disabilities and their families talking about wanting to start a business, but they may have no idea how to go about doing that. Many of us did not go to business school, did not learn about being an entrepreneur or how to create a business start-up. I’m thankful that these centers, their experts and their online training are all available to assist Tennesseans, including those with disabilities, in becoming their own boss, launching their big ideas, and expanding small businesses across our state. Thank you all! If you have questions, you can contact me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thank you, as always, for reading!

Krista Cashion is a former consultant for the Tennessee Small Business Development Center at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. Having just left the position, she is now serving as the Nashville Business Development Manager for Messer Construction. Krista has a background in training and education with both adults and adolescents. She previously worked for the Rutherford County school system as an educator and for the Tennessee Department of Human Services in Vocational Rehabilitation as a behavioral instructor and vocational trainer. Krista is a passionate helper and seeks to provide tools and guidance to all around her to help them in their chosen endeavors. While she is no longer with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, she is still an advocate for local small businesses and the development of business owners in her community.


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