As the newly minted executive editor of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI), Monica Hooks is well aware she has a legacy to uphold. That mandate would shake anyone growing into a new role, but respecting history while looking to the future is a challenge she relishes.
WEI is the only city-funded, women-focused business incubator in the country, now going into their third cohort.
“Atlanta has a legacy of creating business opportunities for the entire community,” the native Atlantan says. “That legacy is some decades in the making. WEI is a continuation of that legacy that is deeply rooted in what makes this city so exceptional.”
Hooks replaces outgoing executive director Theia Washington Smith, who helped strengthen partnerships with investors and spur economic equity growth in the city over the past three years.
With her new role, Hooks is not only building on the history of innovation, entrepreneurship and community in Atlanta, but on WEI’s success.
Her diverse experience in the startup ecosystem, combined with her entrepreneurship background gleaned from years as a local small business owner and corporate stints at Columbia Records and Sony Music Entertainment, made the executive director role a natural fit.
Hooks has been an entrepreneur for over a decade. She’s herself an alumna of the WEI’s inaugural class, where she grew her marketing data agency m-Oracle.
“I’ve had some success and I’ve had some failure,” Hooks says. “I definitely have a unique perspective as an executive director of WEI because I am an entrepreneur. The fact that I’m also an African-American female gives me a level of empathy and understanding for the journey of our WEI entrepreneurs.”
As Hooks orbited the local startup scene in years following, she saw something in the city’s tight-knit and creative startup community.
“I wanted to be a part of that,” Hooks says. “Some of the business leaders of Atlanta approach things in a very progressive and creative and kind of groundbreaking way, just because of the nature of business here.”
“Entrepreneurship is a tool for empowerment and opportunity. There are so many unique things about Atlanta that our program gets to highlight and offer to our entrepreneurs, and that’s a really strong calling card.”
At WEI, Hooks will support the development of early-stage, women-led startups during the upcoming cohorts. Based on what she has seen so far, despite being a WEI graduate, she freely admits she could learn a few things from WEI’s current cohort of entrepreneurs.
“Some of these ladies have incredible business models that really leverage their partners, technology, and experience in thinking about ways to solve customer issues that I never even contemplated,” Hooks says.
“That’s what stands out to me.”
Hooks wants to ensure success not just for WEI, but also for the companies the incubator takes under its wing. For new applicants, the incubator is looking for early-stage startups with a proven business model with a product market fit.
“We want to focus on and target the companies that we can help the most,” says Hooks.
To this end, she plans to implement a four-part program encompassing strategy analysis, leadership development, strategic partnerships, as well as funding and financial literacy. To help these newer entrepreneurs immediately, however, WEI will roll out a series of application tips on social media through December.
On the other hand, once companies get themselves in a position to grow, a plan simply isn’t enough. At that point, Hooks says, entrepreneurs must pinpoint exactly what they need to get what they want.
“As an entrepreneur, you have to know your needs and you have to focus your asks,” Hooks says. “Everything is not for everyone, and every fund or every investor or every grant or every loan is not going to be what’s right for your business.”
“But, if you’ve really done the proper groundwork, internally, you know what you need for this stage of your growth. With that perspective, you’ll be guided to the right sources, the right people, and most importantly, you’ll be able to access them with confidence.”
Hooks’ ultimate goal is to build up a dedicated fund for WEI — to pay it forward.
“Because we are a non-profit organization, there may be some opportunities for us to raise that type of fund and make sure that future cohorts can tap into those funds so they can level up to the next tier of success,” she says.
“That’s a good goal for us — and for me, personally.”