EDITOR’S NOTE: Second in a series on young people in Albany and where they fit in the regional job market.
ALBANY — As an 18-year-old, Rachel Mansfield was focused on job opportunities in the region, much like the students interviewed for the first part of this series.
And even though she knew she loved to write and was pretty good at it, and people often told her she should leave the Albany area to take advantage of that talent, financial obstacles prevented her from leaving.
Because Mansfield had heard her whole life that she couldn’t have a stable job in a creative field, she decided to put away her talent and go to nursing school because that was a career she knew would lead to job opportunities.
“Around here, if you want to go to school for a short time and have a great job on the other end of it, go to nursing school because the medical field around here is thriving,” Mansfield said. “It was my way of forcing myself into a career path, just so I could have a job.”
Mansfield started working at a doctor’s office after graduation. After she had worked there a while, she got the opportunity to manage the office’s social media page and write copy for its website.
“They didn’t want to pay somebody outside the office to do it, so I said, ‘Hey, I’ll do it. I can write. I understand social media. I’ll do it.’ So I started doing it, and I was really good at it, and I really enjoyed it,” Mansfield said. “I started to realize I should probably look into getting better at this. I should probably look into what my options are for this because this is way more fun than anything I’m doing now.”
Despite having a good, stable job in the ‘thriving’ health care industry, Mansfield realized that she wouldn’t be happy as a nurse for the rest of her life. So with the experience she had with social media and copyrighting for a website, she left to work at a start-up marketing company.
“If you’re doing work that you’re not really good at or that you don’t enjoy, especially if you’re a creative type person, you’re going to be unfulfilled,” Mansfield said. “And if you’re unfulfilled, you’re going to be putting out work that is not your best work.”
After working at the marketing agency for a period, Mansfield decided to launch her own design company with Timothy Brock, a co-worker and longtime friend.
The two young business owners (Mansfield is 31, Brock 21) knew that the experience would be difficult, but they both wanted a fulfilling career.
Brock, much like Mansfield, considered himself a creative person, and like Mansfield, he was urged to leave the Albany area with the admonition that “creative people cannot be successful here.”
“The stigma for creative individuals that are really talented (is that they) aren’t supposed to be here,” Brock said. “Because the stigma is that they’re not from here, which is crazy because we’ve had so many famous people, artistic people come out of here.”
Now, in addition to their work with branding, logo and website design as well as content creation, Brock and Mansfield have set out to convince other creative young people to stay in the area and that entrepreneurship can be an option.
Just a few months after they launched Brocksfield Design, they started making presentations at Lee County High School and the Lee County 9th Grade Campus in their business classes.
On a recent Friday afternoon in the last of Ms. Mary Champion’s business classes of the day at Lee County High School, Mansfield and Brock ask the group of students they are presenting to how many times they have been told to leave the Albany area.
More than half of the students raise their hands.
“People who are saying that to you, they’re saying that because they have the best of intentions,” Mansfield said. “They love you, and they see potential in you, and they want you to be successful. They want you to move on and be all that you can be.
“But what happens when the community pushes out all of their young, talented, creative, innovative people is there aren’t any left, so what we have here is a deficit of young, talented, creative, innovative people because creativity requires community in order to thrive.”
Mansfield and Brock explain the carefully thought-out process that they use for each client, why they started the business and the services they offer in hopes of showing the students that it is possible to stay in Albany, be creative, and have a successful and fulfilling career.
At the end of the presentation, after the last bell of the day has rung, two girls in the classroom are so excited and encouraged by the presentation, they get their picture taken with Brock and Mansfield.
Brock said that while there are often students in each class who don’t seem to care much about what they’re saying, there are always a few students who seem to connect with the presentation, including one student at the 9th-grade campus whose response on an evaluation form was “Why (they) keep doing this.”
“I am a digital art hobbyist and only thought that would remain as such, a hobby,” the evaluation read. “This presentation opened my eyes and showed me that I can make a career out of my hobby and gain success. I’m very glad that you brought them in for this presentation. I now have a new look on digital art. Thank you for this new information. I can say that I’ve learned a lot from this class and this day. I now have a new hope for my future when I saw none ahead of me. I now have a reason to continue working hard and doing what I love.”
“We have to teach our young people to let their skills lead them toward a career, not try to lead their skills toward a career,” Mansfield said. “Not try to force something to happen just because they need to get stable, and they need to get a job, and they need to make money. Let’s help them grow in their skills, so they can see a future in what they already have.”
And while some people reading this will likely say “That’s unrealistic,” Mansfield and Brock said they heard that many times and having done what was “unrealistic,” they don’t see it that way.
“I think you’re confusing unrealistic with difficult,” Mansfield said. “It’s difficult, it’s hard, it’s going to take a lot of hard work, but it’s not unrealistic. What we’re doing is unrealistic, what we’re doing, people would have said is impossible, and it’s been hard. People told me it was impossible, and we’re bound and determined to do it.”
“They told me I would fail,” Brock said. “That I would end up moving away, but here I am. I haven’t yet. I don’t expect to.”
While Brock and Mansfield are currently making presentations only in Lee County, they both said they would love to branch out to Dougherty County schools as well.
Both Mansfield and Brock said that while they know that entrepreneurship is not for everyone, they are very big believers in creating what you don’t see.
Justin Wesley, the 25-year-old owner and operator of Wesley Solutions, has a different story than Brock and Mansfield. But he essentially lives by the same principle.
“I know a lot of people out here have certain talents and skillsets that they don’t necessarily use or develop because (they) have to work a job,” Wesley said. “In my opinion, if people were more willing to step outside of the box, step outside of what they’re used to, we would not have so many limiting beliefs about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Then they would see the different opportunities and resources there are out there.
“Now, with that being said, it’s not for everyone. But if you can push through, start your business and don’t quit, I feel like eventually you’ll hit the gold mine that you’re looking for.”
Unlike Mansfield and Brock, Wesley is from Camilla and actually moved away from the area to go to school in Athens. He then moved out to California for a position as a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual.
And while that opportunity didn’t work out, Wesley saw the opportunity to work in financial services back in southwest Georgia.
“I felt like in California the market is saturated with both financial services and real estate, just because of the population,” he said. “I felt like, one, it would be more beneficial for me to be back home, and two, there is an underserved community here when it comes to financial services. Most people don’t know about the whole home-buying process.”
While Wesley said he would like to see more diverse and constructive entertainment options in the area, overall, he said he saw opportunity here.
“I feel like people are stuck on the inside looking around instead of stepping back and seeing what (they) have here,” Wesley said. “This is amazing. This is the hub of southwest Georgia. … You have to create what you don’t see.”
One of the benefits Wesley saw to being an entrepreneur in the Albany area was the resources available to start-ups like the Microbusiness Enterprise Center in downtown Albany, which offers subsidized office space.
“I’m in the incubator program, which is good for me,” he said. “I have been in the business of financial services and real estate for about a year and a half now, but I needed an office location. … I definitely think that this (incubator program) is a blessing to the entrepreneurial community in Albany, kind of like a hidden gem.”
Steven Henry, the program coordinator with the MBEC, said that while he thinks there would be opportunities for entrepreneurs in Albany without the microbusiness center, the venue shows that the city of Albany supports small businesses and young entrepreneurs.
“Young people can see that there’s not what they want here, and they might think to go to Atlanta or to go to Tallahassee or something and find a vibrant community where that’s already there, and they can join it,” Henry said. “But if they put the effort in, and they have that entrepreneurial spirit, then they can make that here and be the one that’s leading the charge here.”
Tonita McKnight, the business development officer for Albany Community Together Inc., which is also housed in the MBEC, said she also saw a lot of opportunities for young entrepreneurs in the area as well.
“I do think that a lot of entrepreneurs, especially younger ones, if they don’t find what they’re looking for they can create it here, and there are avenues to do so,” McKnight said.
Albany Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Bárbara Rivera Holmes offered a similar observation.
“Albany is a community where you can be anything,” Holmes said. “I would say that this is a healthy environment for entrepreneurship, and part of that is because of the relationships within the community, the support.”
Holmes also noted the low cost of doing business in the area, which Wesley said was something he considered.
Cost was something that several of the students we talked to said they consider as well. Both Ka’Myah St. Rose and Ayanla Dudley said they would consider opening up some sort of medical practice.
“I think the Albany area has a lot of potential for growth,” Quadre Curry-Wilkerson said.
So while the young people may not see the job opportunities they want in the area, some of those same young people might have the desire to create it, which most would agree is truly what Albany needs.
And with things like the Microbusiness Enterprise Center, both with its subsidized office space and seminars, and the UGA Small Business Development Center, which started offering lunch-and-learns a few weeks ago, there are resources available for those with the entrepreneurial spirit and desire to make Albany a better place.
Jahnae Nelson contributed to this report.