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Starting a business isn’t what’s hard — it’s starting it well that is hard, she said.
“I don’t want people to feel like it’s not for them because they don’t know what the steps are,” she said. “That’s not knowledge just for rich people. It’s not knowledge just for bankers,” she said. “It’s knowledge for everybody. We’re here to help people do that.”
Outside of the office, Keener describes herself as nerdy. She enjoys reading and is active in her book club. She loves science fiction and can talk to anyone about Star Wars. She has a son who attends Syracuse University, has two cats and a dog and said her favorite part of living in Lynchburg is the historic architecture.
She also enjoys the annual Batteau Festival held on the James River each summer.
“I love that the community is diverse and it has crazy people in it and they make it fun,” she said. “People on the outside have this one idea of Lynchburg; that’s really too bad because it’s a really interesting community.”
Originally from Kentucky, Keener holds a master’s in Appalachian Studies and has special expertise in heritage asset development, rural development and transitional economies.
In Lynchburg, she worked as the director of events and communications for Lynch’s Landing, which is now the Downtown Lynchburg Association.
“So all my thinking is really about things like, how do we improve local economies, or what is the history of this industry in this area,” she said.
Keener understands what will sell and what will work in certain communities and enjoys sitting down with businesses to talk out ideas.
The SBDC is a program under the U.S. Small Business Administration and is available to provide technical assistance to any small business starting up or already existing. After seeing corona virus' impact on her parents in China, Randolph tennis player Keyu Jin now dealing with effects in US Keener said any business with less than 250 employees can take advantage of the free services offered by the SBDC, which she said qualifies most Lynchburg businesses.
She said the SBDC is whatever its community needs it to be.
“In our community there are only a handful of businesses we can’t serve,” she said. “We’re the organization that will get down in your business plan and help you think about what kind of loan is really good or I’ll literally sit down and talk to you about your branding. Like if you want to schedule a two hour meeting with me and just talk about how your branding is good or bad, I will sit down and that is free. Those are one-on-one services [that] are 100% free, we do not charge for the services.”
Keener said she doesn’t understand why businesses aren’t beating down her door.
“People can’t believe it’s free and because it’s free they feel bad for asking a lot of questions,” she said. “We want you to come in a lot, ask lots of questions, you know, we’ll walk through the whole process, whatever the process is.”
The Virginia SBDC Lynchburg Region serves Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell and serves between 100 and 150 clients a year as well as hundreds of others who attend training events throughout the year.
Its offices formerly were located at Central Virginia Community College before moving to the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance 18 months ago.
Four years ago, Keener helped launch Create Virginia, an arts and business conference that provides artists and makers opportunities to learn from one another.
Anna Bentson, assistant director for the Office of Economic Development and Tourism, said Lynchburg is fortunate to have a professional such as Keener leading small business development efforts.
“She has worked closely with our office on numerous initiatives, perhaps most importantly as co-founder of Create Virginia conference, a statewide conference to equip and empower artists and makers to build sustainable small businesses. She brings a big picture approach, listening and creatively working with individuals to connect them to exactly what they need to grow,” she said.
Keener’s close friend, Jennifer Woofter, said through Keener’s leadership at SBDC, she is instrumental in helping grow Lynchburg’s small business community and she’s also a great neighbor and friend.
“The thing I love most about Stephanie is her enthusiasm about connecting people,” she said. “She was one of the first people that I met when our family moved to Lynchburg, and she immediately helped me connect to a book club, find other small business owners, and navigate the city’s economic development landscape. Basically, she is a fabulous person and I find myself mentioning her to random people that I meet throughout the week. ‘Have you met, Stephanie Keener? She’s someone you need to know.’