The director of Leesburg’s business incubator is calling it a career.
Susan Henson, regional director of the Mason Enterprise Center, has announced her retirement effective Jan. 24. Henson has been the director for the entirety of the incubator’s existence in Leesburg, and over that time has assisted dozens of businesses in graduating from the program.
The Mason Enterprise Center, a program of George Mason University, opened in downtown Leesburg to great fanfare in 2011. Three years after its opening, the Small Business Development Center co-located in the space, and for a time Leesburg’s economic development staff also had offices there.
Henson joined the MEC following 20 years in Missouri where she worked at the Missouri Small Business and Technology Development Centers in Kansas City and served on the faculty at the University of Missouri in Columbia as the coordinator of the Missouri Textile & Apparel Center. The Blacksburg native, who received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Virginia Tech, said the move back to Virginia was an opportunity to be closer to family, as well as to oversee the growth of the new business incubator.
Henson said the announcement of plans to close the incubator was a factor in her decision to step away. The incubator will cease operations at its Church Street location at the end of the current fiscal year, June 30. Both the Loudoun Board of Supervisors and Leesburg Town Council decided late in 2021 to no longer fund the operation as over the years it had become more of a place for businesses to take advantage of its location in a HUBZone, as opposed to its originally stated mission of being the county’s center for entrepreneurship. The proliferation of co-working spaces throughout the county in the past few years, not to mention the rise in remote work since the dawn of the pandemic, also posed considerable competition.
Two hundred and forty small businesses were served by the incubator in its 10 years of existence, with more than half choosing to remain in Loudoun County post-graduation.
“It certainly has been a journey,” she said, both of her own time at the MEC and of the incubator itself. “We were really brought in to kind of help spark that entrepreneurship support scene in Loudoun County and the Town of Leesburg. Those that came before me in the town and county that envisioned the gap that was there in business community really were looking forward to entrepreneurship as something that’s going to continue to grow. George Mason has a contract with SBDCs that had already started incubator programs, and that was sort of cutting edge at that time of what you could do to support entrepreneurs.”
She acknowledged that much has changed in the incubator’s decade of existence.
“When we first started the Mason Enterprise Center, it was like we were kind of paving new ground for entrepreneurs in Loudoun County. Since then a lot of things have changed in the landscape. The pandemic has caused new challenges for businesses. George Mason goes into local communities to support them as they need support. It now appears that the county and town are going in a bit of a different direction, which is fine. All of those things were factors [in deciding to retire]. I’m going to rest on my laurels and move on to something else,” she said.
The “something else” is to be determined.
“Part of my exploration is going to be looking at opportunities to utilize my strengths in a role that’s maybe more consulting or some things that are project base—go in and help organizations with key things around my skillset and not have to be tied to a full-time second career. There’s things I’d love to do that I haven’t had as much time to do in an artistic realm completely unrelated to my career. I want to reach out to key people that I might want to connect with as well as exploring completely different interests,” she said.
As she looks back at her 10 years at the Mason Enterprise Center, she highlights some of the things she is most proud of–the birth and growth of the 1 Million Cups speaking series; and the successes of those businesses that have left the incubator. She cites as two examples: The Building People in Leesburg, which has now grown to a second building, and LynkerTechnologies, which now has 300 employees nationwide.
As she rides off into retirement and the incubator nears closure, Henson said she is happy to pass the baton on to local partners to continue building an environment of success for entrepreneurs.
“I feel good about the path we have paved for the county to really fulfill entrepreneur support,” she said. “ I think it’s a good time for me to leave it to the local partners to continue to grow and support that community.”