Growing up with four older brothers, Betsy Neely Sikma had to be tough.
But she also learned the importance of self-expression, as well as how to communicate and connect with people on a deeply personal level.
And it’s precisely those leadership qualities that Sikma, 35, hopes to put to work for entrepreneurs in her hometown of Spartanburg.
“Spartanburg is big enough not to be a small town, but still not too big for people to make a strong impact,” Sikma said. “I’ve lived a lot of places and loved everywhere I’ve lived. Spartanburg’s just got soul. People here care about their community in a way that you don’t see many places.”
On Tuesday, May 30, the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce announced it hired Sikma to serve as director of entrepreneurial development for its Economic Futures Group (EFG), Spartanburg County’s economic development organization.
Sikma will start on June 12.
She will be responsible for marshaling the small business and entrepreneurial programming for the EFG, and leading the Spartanburg Angel Network, which was launched in 2015 to provide funding and support for local startups.
Sikma will fill the role vacated by Meagan Reithmeier, another native of Spartanburg who was chosen earlier this year to serve as executive vice president of OneSpartanburg, the county’s new community and economic development strategy.
The OneSpartanburg plan identified the need for improving the county’s entrepreneurial climate to help complement the success it has had in attracting new industry and the expansion of existing businesses.
“This is a key position and Betsy will be a tremendous addition to our team,” said Ethan Burroughs, EFG’s chairman, in a statement. “We have made significant progress in Spartanburg toward developing an environment in which entrepreneurs can thrive, but with her experience and expertise, Betsy will take these efforts to the next level.”
Sikma grew up on Spartanburg’s east side, the youngest child of the local pastor and writer Kirk Neely, and his wife, Clare Neely.
After graduating from Spartanburg High School, Sikma attended Furman University, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion in 2004.
In 2006, she moved to Nashville, Tenn., to attend the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. It was there she met her future husband, Jason Sikma, originally of Illinois.
Sikma earned her Master of Theological Studies degree in 2009.
The following year, she became director of development for the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation, based in Nashville.
In 2011, she accepted a position as director of communications and development for Protestants for the Common Good and relocated to Chicago.
A year later, she was having a discussion with a friend who worked for Accion, a global nonprofit that supports primarily low-income entrepreneurs with microfinance services, investment initiatives, education, and training.
Sikma’s friend asked her to meet with the CEO, as the organization was looking to expand in the Chicago area.
“This may have been a little rude, but I sat down at the table and said to him, ‘Tell me why I should come to work here,’” she said. “I talked with him and I was sold. I realized that economic development through entrepreneurship was key to community revitalization. It’s all about creating economic mobility.”
In 2012, she became director of development and communications for Accion Chicago.
At Accion, Sikma helped start an incubator for food and beverage incubator in East Garfield Park on the west side of Chicago.
She and Jason, who went back to school to earn his Bachelor of Science degree in nursing at Loyola University, married in 2013.
The couple welcomed their first daughter, Wren. In 2015, they had a second daughter, Rowan.
Simka said that shortly after Rowan was born, she took the family on a trip to Spartanburg and was awestruck by the revitalization in her hometown, particularly in the downtown area.
The couple decided to move to the Upstate.
Jason serves as the clinical operations manager at the Greenville Free Medical Clinic. Betsy has continued to maintain a thriving photography business she started on the side in 2009.
Betsy said the couple has been living in Taylors, but will soon relocate to Spartanburg’s Duncan Park neighborhood.
She said former Spartanburg Mayor and chairman of the Northside Development Group Bill Barnet recently introduced her to Allen Smith, president and CEO of the Spartanburg Chamber.
“It’s a crazy change — not a path I would have ever thought my life would take,” Sikma said. “But I couldn’t be more excited about it.”
She said she believes “everyone has a little entrepreneurism in their blood.” She looks at her parents and brothers as her inspiration.
Sikma’s brothers include the late Erik Neely, a journalist who died in 2000; Kirk McNeil, the owner of an award-winning community bar and restaurant in Concord, N.H.; Scott Neely, co-founder of the nonprofit, Speaking Down Barriers; and Kris Neely, a renowned local artist and owner of art gallery Wet Paint Syndrome.
Kam Neely, is Sikma’s cousin, and owner and operator of the family’s business, Neely’s Windows Doors and More, which started as a lumber company in 1923.
“Certainly there are a lot of challenges yet to overcome [in Spartanburg],” Sikma said. “My brother Erik once said that ‘any place worth living has problems worth fixing.’”
Sikma said she hopes to hit the ground running. She credited past leaders in Spartanburg for helping to “lay the groundwork” for a younger generation of leaders to step up and assume the mantle of responsibility and growth.
She said she is still refining some ideas for her new role, but one of the things she’d like to work out is a network of mentors made up of entrepreneurs who have been able to successfully establish their businesses.
“No one can tell you better than the person who has been through it,” she said.
Sikma said she’d also like to identify a more diverse range of leaders in the community.
“I think we have great soil here,” she said. “Economic development doesn’t happen overnight. Every city in the world is playing the long game. We are trying to grow from within. There’s no formula, no algorithm for solving these problems. It’s about giving people the tools they need. … What we’re trying to do is cultivate the soil, and build a springboard for something that’s going to last.”