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VOL. 46 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 24, 2022

42-year journey comes to ‘Aught’

Biddix finds fulfillment in creation of space for women entrepreneurs

By Nancy Henderson

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Erika Biddix was 5 years old when her dad took over the family owned bar in downtown Indianapolis and began transforming it from a one-room lunch counter into one of the country’s premiere blues venues.

Buddy Guy, Rick Derringer and other artists performed there over the years, and the popular hangout reportedly attracted show-biz heavy-hitters from Harrison Ford to Jimmy Fallon.

“I saw entrepreneurship the majority of my life, and I saw what it meant and I saw what it took,” says Biddix, 44, owner of Aught, a shared workspace for female business owners that provides personal and business development programs, networking opportunities and access to local resources.

In addition, she runs Biddix Meetings and Events, a planning company. “It was always a part of my story. I just didn’t think of it as the word ‘entrepreneurship.’ I just thought of it as our family’s place.”

It’s not that anyone blatantly discouraged Biddix from starting her own venture. She just never considered it a possibility. “I think back to when I was in college and I wish somebody would’ve told me then that entrepreneurship was an option. Part of what I hope to do is spread that message to younger people so that they can see that as an opportunity, that they don’t have to go into working for somebody else.”

Biddix describes herself as a Type-A “get-shit-done kind of person. If I see something that needs to get done, I do it. [Other people] call me aggressively helpful, because if you tell me somebody canceled on doing your niece’s hair for her wedding this weekend, I will literally send you a text message with the five places I just called that I found openings for. I just really believe in serving others, so I do it all the time, aggressively sometimes. And Aught allows me the ability to do that and also know that it’s making a difference in other people’s lives.”

Not surprisingly, the fast-talking Biddix is always in motion. “If you sit next to me, it’s like a danger zone because I never am not moving. I’m always at this speed. … And I don’t drink caffeine, which is hysterical.”

Erin Reece, who launched Bear Financial Solutions in 2019 and now runs a second Aught space in downtown Knoxville, joined the group after working remotely for several years. She missed the regular human interaction and sense of community that is sometimes lacking from solo employment.

“She has helped me tremendously by talking me through so many issues I’ve had in my business,” Reece says of her landlord and mentor. “She’s [listened] when I have a question as simple as what to wear for a video interview or complex questions like hiring decisions.

“She is resolute in her decision-making, and she tackles projects and obstacles with tenacity and grit. When she is passionate about something, no matter what is going on around her, she absolutely does not quit.”

The Indiana-born Biddix grew up mostly in Texas, leading her high school student council, editing its newspaper and catching the journalism bug. “Writing, reading and leadership – those would be the three words to describe my pre-college life,” she says.

After earning her journalism-advertising degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia, she traveled North America as ambassador for Kappa Alpha Theta for a couple of years before joining an ad agency. She enjoyed partnering with meeting planners under contract with the company, but the advertising part, she admits, “was just not really my bag.”

Erika Biddix is founder of Aught, a co-working space for female entrepreneurs with two locations in Knoxville.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

So when the St. Louis-based meeting planning company offered her a remote job, she said yes. “My strengths aligned very strongly with meeting planning, logistics management, the ability to see a big picture and all the tiny little details. I am a project manager at heart, I think, for anything – travel, meetings, my family’s schedule, all of it. I like to keep things organized and on track. So I’m glad [meeting planning] found me.”

Biddix and her husband Patrick, a professor, moved to Knoxville in 2011 when he accepted a post in educational leadership and policy development at the University of Tennessee. But their increasingly intense workloads left them exhausted. “We called it the hamster wheel,” Biddix says. “We were both working 50-plus hours a week, and we had three children. It was a crazy time in our life.”

In 2015, Patrick won a Fulbright scholarship and the family embarked on a semester-long sabbatical in Canada. Biddix voluntarily dialed back her job duties to handle only administrative tasks for her employer of 12 years. “All of [the overload] stopped, which was the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to us,” she says. “We were both able to just completely hit a reset button, and there are very few ways in today’s world where you can do that.”

It was there that Biddix decided to strike out on her own. “It became apparent that it was time for me to finally do what people had been encouraging me to do for years, which was to start my own meeting planning agency. So Canada was life-changing in more ways than one.”

After seeking advice and finding encouragement from her entrepreneur dad back in the states, she launched Biddix Meetings and Events in early 2016, working out of the UT campus apartment where her family had moved after returning from the Great White North. But after a couple of years, she found herself longing for the camaraderie of co-workers.

Something else bothered her, too.

“My clients are large tech companies, and [I was] working out of my bedroom,” she says. “And that just always seemed a little weird.”

She checked out several office spaces, but none of them made sense financially. Plus, she says, “I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew when I was in there that they weren’t what I wanted. I just wasn’t feeling a vibe that I was really connecting with.”

At a conference in the summer of 2019, the keynote speaker said something that powerfully resonated with Biddix: “Your purpose is what happens to others when you do what you do.”

“And the idea just hit me right there in the middle of Toronto, Canada, that I was going to open up a coworking space for female entrepreneurs,” she says. “I had spent years being told and feeling like I was going to do something great with my life and feeling like I was not doing that.

“In that moment, that question … was suddenly answered. I wasn’t going to do anything great. I was going to create a space where other women could do great things.”

Energized, Biddix searched online and found Knoxville’s Entrepreneur Center; a month later she dove headfirst into its CO.STARTERS program. By the time she completed the class, she’d signed a lease on her first Girl Boss Offices location in West Knoxville.

Erika Biddix, center, founder of Aught, enjoys a snack and conversation with Jade Potter, left, RN & lactation consultant, and Erin Reece, right, president of Bear Financial Solutions.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick | The Ledger

In March 2020, three months after the collective opened with 14 workspaces, the pandemic hit and she was forced to close. “I had basically mortgaged everything that we had to open this place and I couldn’t have it open and I couldn’t sell it because we didn’t know when we’d be able to let people back in the building. And we had gotten really good traction at that point.”

Rather than give up, she used Zoom and social media to stay connected with her “members” and the community, sharing stories of other female entrepreneurs, suggesting ways to support them, and offering another valuable commodity: more than 200 rolls of toilet paper, plus paper towels, for those who needed them.

“By the time we were able to reopen our doors in late May, we had accidentally, firmly entrenched ourselves in the female entrepreneurship community in Knoxville,” Biddix says. “We suddenly had this huge fan club.”

But the pandemic wasn’t her only challenge. That fall, her father died from recurring cancer and, within a month, she received a cease-and-desist letter from the Hollywood owner of #girlboss, demanding she stop using the trademarked hashtag. Realizing it would be better to let go than take up a legal fight, she changed the name of her company to Aught, which signifies “anything at all” or “no limits.”

Last October, Biddix opened a second Aught location with 16 seats in a trendy, light-filled building downtown. (She refers to the original site as more “lived-in,” with walls adorned with family photos.) She also announced her intention to sell franchises.

What sets Aught apart, she says, is its sense of community. “There are several coworking spaces here in Knoxville. … You pay your day pass. You walk in. You maybe say ‘hi’ to the receptionist. You sit down at your desk, pull out the lunch you brought yourself. You never talk to another human. You get your work done, and then you turn around and leave. Basically, it’s the same experience you can have at a Starbucks or at a Panera, except that it’s a little bit quieter.”

Each Aught member signs a 3-, 6-, or 12-month lease, plus access to a designated desk, utilities and general office supplies, along with moral support from the other business owners and help with everything from Facebook settings to choosing a professional headshot. “It’s about women taking care of each other personally, professionally, friendship-wise, relationally,” says Biddix, who still runs her meeting planning company too.

“If you say, ‘I’m having a hard time getting such-and-such person to call me back, somebody’ll say, ‘I know a person in their office. Let me give them a call.’ And the next thing you know, you’ve got them on the phone. It’s creating that community that most folks have with their full-time employment that goes away when they decide to start their entrepreneurship journey.”

Reece describes the Aught atmosphere as “both super-productive and super-fun. Aught is just the safest of safe spaces for female entrepreneurs. If you’re having a great, thriving time in business or if you’re panicked because your calendar isn’t booked for the month, members are there to listen and offer both solicited and unsolicited advice.”

Those relationships are paying off. After getting the nudge she needed from other members, a small-business accountant who was hesitant about quitting her full-time job now employs one full-time worker and another part-time. They cover for her two months a year while she travels, something she’s always dreamed of.

“I have a goosebump moment every day,” says Biddix, noting that this year she’ll start offering individual and group business coaching – aka “retreats” – globally, and in person. “Something happens every day where somebody tells me a story or I hear about some connection, something that has happened because of the fact that Aught exists.’”

A while back, Biddix’s 12-year-old daughter called unexpectedly and confided, “I just don’t know what my purpose in life is.”

Though caught off guard, Biddix jumped into booster mode. “Well, honey,” she replied, “I was 42 years old before I found mine.”

“And I really believe it,” Biddix says. “A meeting planner is what I do. Aught is who I am.”

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