A Publication of WTVP

Turner: Small Business Advocate of the Year

by Laurie Pillman | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Kathleen Kelly is president and founder of Lifting Up
Kathleen Kelly is president and founder of Lifting Up

Started a business and don’t know where to go next? Lifting Up, LLC can help you get there at little to no cost

When Kathleen Kelly decided to establish her own small business, her biggest hurdle was getting the right information for what to do next in her business journey.

She took professional growth classes and consulted with local organizations. Having spent years helping others navigate the confusing space of public service systems, she knew the information was out there. The problem was knowing where to find it.

“I was really struggling with the actual experience of starting a business,” said Kelly. “And I realized that the social service ecosystem and the entrepreneur ecosystem are very similar. If you don’t know where you’re going or who to talk to, or if you don’t have a strong network, it can be really difficult to find who to help you at the right time and what steps you need to take in what order.”

Kelly turned to her brother and now business partner, Alec Johnston, for advice. Together they founded Lifting Up, LLC in 2019. In 2021 the two focused on lowering the barriers for people wanting to start small businesses. Kelly took their idea through the Turner Center’s Brave Launch Business Accelerator Program, graduated, and won the program’s “Best Business Model Canvas” award. Now, Lifting Up LLC has won the Turner Center’s Small Business Advocate Award for 2023.

Smart Start

The brother-and-sister team created the Smart Start Dashboard, a digital tool that offers entrepreneurs a customized business plan based on proven best practices and mentor help, then lets them track their progress. It’s a lean startup methodology with a do-it-yourself approach.

“The dashboard is broken out into four phases,” explained Kelly. “And in each phase is a series of questions. Based on your answers to those questions, the dashboard will generate a custom to-do list for you. It links you to the resource that you need to complete that step by yourself or helps you connect with a vetted local expert to help you complete it.” 

Smart Start could be sold to individual businesses for thousands. Instead, Kelly and Johnston offer their software to economic development organizations as a tool to increase small business in communities.

The Morton Economic Development Council, Peoria County, and Tazewell County have all purchased the dashboard. So has the City of Muscatine, Iowa. These local governments and organizations then offer the tool for free to small businesses, which better utilizes already-funded resources and increases accountability on all ends.

Peoria County alone has had 171 business hopefuls join the dashboard in the past year. Grant funding from Peoria County offered an initial incentive for businesses to try the tool, but Kelly said most have continued to be active. Some 327 mentorship and business information requests have been recorded on the Peoria Smart Start site since the dashboard was first offered in October 2022.

Answers to 99% of our questions

Christopher Youngmark, assistant director of the Illinois Small Business Development Center (ISBDC) at Bradley University, said the Smart Start Dashboard cuts through the dubious advice out there to offer real support.

“Smart Start, is a community resource, supported through a user-friendly platform and local expert mentorship,” he said. “Through direct mentorship, potential business owners have a support solution to 99% of the questions and challenges that they will encounter when venturing into a new business.”

Eric Sampson, director of the ISBDC, said he likes how the robust platform empowers people who might otherwise not be able to open a business.

“Making a tool like the Smart Start Dashboard available at no cost to the client lowers a common barrier to entry and invites a diversity of ideas and innovations. Building a thriving small business community contributes to the economic well-being of all our residents, and doing so requires easy access to business education and training in entrepreneurship as much as anything.”

‘We’re just helping people get connected in the right place faster’
— Kathleen Kelly

Kelly offers demonstrations of the dashboard and has created tutorials to help entrepreneurs navigate the system. She has worked with organizations such as the Small Business Development Center, SCORE, the Minority Business Development Center, and the Greater Economic Development Council to create a unified mentor process and to ensure help comes from free or mostly free programs available to everyone. It’s important to her to connect business people to services that are already being funded.

‘Getting connected in the right place faster’

Kelly said her next goal is to reach entrepreneurs in rural areas that may not be aware of the opportunities available to start a small business. For now, she is happy to see the Smart Start dashboard bridging the gap between business owners and resources.

“We’re just helping people get connected in the right place faster. We’re helping those agencies reach their targets for the number of people that they serve and the impact that they have. We’re facilitators helping increase that traffic and direct it to the right organization,” she said.

“There is funding out there. I really wanted this to be something that can reach a broad number of people no matter where they’re at financially. If they want to start a business, they can take this first step.”

For more information about the Smart Start Dashboad, visit

Laurie Pillman

Laurie Pillman

is an author and freelance writer/editor, based in Peoria