Perspectives on Coastal Virginia’s Small Business Scene

From the Hampton Roads Small Business Development Center

by Jolie Spiers

From your favorite ice cream shop to your local auto shop, small businesses provide the products and services that we rely on for fun and function in our daily lives. But small businesses are also major drivers of economic growth in Coastal Virginia.

Job Creation
Approximately half of the private work force in Virginia is employed by a small business. In Hampton Roads, My Eye Lab is one of our newest firms creating new jobs.

With a mission to make eye care easy with the help of technology, My Eye Lab offers walk-in, same-day eye exams. In addition, same-day prescription eyewear will also be available at each store.

My Eye Lab currently has three locations across the Southside and Peninsula, creating 18 jobs to date, with plans to open three more locations in the coming months. Forrest Hull, CEO, says that he is excited to build out the team and wants employees to be able to grow with the company. Opportunities for growth within the company are important, Hull says, like the sales associate hired in November already being promoted to assistant manager and on track to become a licensed optician before year end.

Also adding jobs is Grizzly Underground, an underground utilities business which started earlier this year. The award of a large sewer project out of Exmore will result in the hiring an additional crew of four to six members.

Owned by Tonya and Rudy Fifield, Grizzly Underground uses horizontal drilling, technology that prevents open cutting. “It’s environmentally friendly because we go underground, avoiding wetland destruction or traffic issues,” says Tonya Fifield. “Without the open cutting there is little mess to clean up.”

Rudy Fifield is considered an expert in the field and has served on the Trenchless Technology Board. Rudy says the technology has been around for about 30 years and continues to grow in popularity because it’s more cost effective in most cases than open cutting, particularly across highways and airport runways.

Innovation & Market Disruption
As important to the economy as job creation is innovation. Hampton Roads has an incredible amount of local, state and federal talent due to our universities and institutes of higher education, military installations, federal contractors, Jefferson Labs, NASA Langley and Wallops. This innovation and technology can be commercialized and transferred to small business and entrepreneurship activity for our region.

A great example is Rob Bryant, Senior Materials Engineer with NASA Langley Research Center, who is working on a business model to disrupt composite manufacturing. Composites are engineering materials used to build automobiles, aircraft and spacecraft. They compete with metals and perform higher in terms of lightness and physical properties but are more expensive to make.

Bryant’s idea is to build a modularized and portable plant for automated composite manufacturing or ACM. Instead of making and shipping the composite product, ACM will enable anyone from enthusiasts to businesses to automate their composite process to design and print on location.

“By automating, the benefits are increased part-to-part consistency which decreases scrap thereby lowering the cost,” says Bryant. “I hope to be able to give people the ability to manufacture their own parts into markets that are so far out of reach, either by design criteria or due to the costs of production that their current customers cannot afford to pay.”

Tiffany Richardson is using technology to disrupt her own business. “The advancements in AI have revolutionized the way I run Artisan-Preneur Consulting, she explains. My business operations have become much more streamlined and cost-effective and I’ve trained my team to leverage AI to speed up processes and workflows, which has resulted in increased productivity and overall effectiveness.”

When asked if AI potentially jeopardizes jobs by being too efficient, Richardson says no. “On the contrary, integrating AI into my business has not only created new opportunities but also enhanced the skill sets of my team members. For instance, in our content creation department, we use AI to assist writers in generating high-quality blogs efficiently. This doesn’t threaten their jobs; instead, it empowers them to grow as writers and stay up-to-date with the latest technologies. By leveraging AI, team members can develop new skills and expertise, making them more attractive to businesses in general.”

Jolie Spiers. Photos Courtesy OF SBDC

Jolie Spiers Photos Courtesy OF SBDC

The businesses featured in this article vary by product, service, size, ownership and location. But common to each of them is the current and potential impact on the economy and community in Hampton Roads. And at one point they have all taken advantage of resources offered by the Hampton Roads Small Business Development Center. Covering 18 localities, from Williamsburg to the Eastern Shore, the Hampton Roads SBDC exists to advance our region’s diverse economy by providing small businesses the expertise and resources to succeed. To learn more visit

Jolie Spiers is Executive Director of the Small Business Development Center of Hampton Roads and Vice President of Small Business for the Hampton Roads Chamber. She can be reached at

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