A Science Career Surprisingly Prepared Dr. Arlene Siller to Found a Highly Successful Grant Writing Enterprise Serving the Non-Profit Sector

Sep 20, 2023 | Uncategorized

The seeds of a future entrepreneur were evident early in Dr. Arlene Siller’s life—in grade school, to be exact! As the story goes, she enlisted a few friends to help her fashion hair combs into makeshift banana clips decorated with ribbons and paint to sell to classmates…unaware it was against school rules. 

Yet, Arlene went on to study biology, chemistry and psychology in college—eventually becoming a biomedical researcher and scientist, with her entrepreneurial spirit being channeled into the creative opportunities her career afforded.

Indeed, for roughly a decade, she conducted biomedical research for Southwest Research Institute and, in partnership with a team, developed 10 U.S. patents. “Science allows you to be very creative. You are doing something no one else has ever done before to advance the field,” Arlene says.

During her tenure there, several highly supportive bosses encouraged her to continue her education, and she began working towards her doctorate in Biochemistry. When working on a project with The University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, she met her future mentor. She went to work in her lab to receive her PhD.

Having earned her doctorate, Arlene next did a turn working for the U.S. military, researching to advance military medicine. “It gave me exposure to many people across the globe who were inventing products—new devices for hips, toes, knees, skin substitutes and new wound dressings. It was a great place to be for thinking outside the box,” she recalls.

However, with starting a new family, the military environment proved to be very challenging. “Being in the military environment was not good for me, especially as a female. I had just had my babies when I was in graduate school, so I had a very young family and it was not supportive to me as a young mother,” she explains. The demands of science required a nearly 24-7 commitment, with little time off for family. Arlene was at a crossroads. She needed a new career.

“I went through a company that helped me do an assessment of my skills and figure out what else and where else I could use the skills I had acquired. And one of the things that came up in that assessment was grant writing,” she recounts.

It turns out that her background in science perfectly prepared her for this new career. “In science, you are always writing proposals for funding to do your research,” Arlene explains. In fact, in the years she worked as a scientist, she raised about $89 million! Additionally, the defensive nature of science—always preparing for your work to be evaluated and criticized—taught Arlene to rigorously review her work, which is an excellent skill for grant writing.

A non-profit organization hired her, and her grant writing raised $35 million for them in just 4-and-a-half years. Arlene observed that many good non-profit organizations in the areas she worked (from Texas to Florida) that offered services to marginalized communities—mostly people of color—were struggling to get grant funding. Her entrepreneurial spirit raised its head. “I’m a Latina, and it occurred to me that I could use my skillset to help these organizations. That’s what really planted the seed that I should go out on my own and do this as my own business,” she explains.

In 2019, she founded Ascend Nonprofit & Business Solutions offering grant writing solutions to non-profit organizations. When building the business model for her new company, Arlene was very intentional about making Ascend supportive to women and families. After some experimentation, the company evolved to an innovative contractor model for its grant writers—even before COVID.

“We allow people to dictate their own schedule. They work the number of hours they want when they want; it doesn’t have to be anything specific. It can be 15 this week, 8 hours the week after that and 32 hours the week after that—we are okay with it,” Arlene says. The company has enough grant writers contracted to handle its workload, which allows for the flexible hours. They love the freedom to tend to their personal lives as needed without the worry of losing steady work.

Ascend works with a variety of grant writers—men and women—who need flexibility. Many are caregivers. A few are disabled. Some are military wives who normally have difficulty with steady employment because they move so much. Their grant writers live all over the world. “We have a process in place that ensures everything gets done. We have not had any issues as far as schedules, type of workers and getting the work done,” Arlene explains.

To better serve non-profits, Ascend offers grant writing training as well. That way, non-profits that may not be able to hire Ascend can at least learn the basics of effective grant writing.

Arlene’s grant writing work with LiftFund and securing grants from the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Women’s Business Center (WBC) in San Antonio and WBC in Dallas is what exposed her to NAWBO.

Over the years, she has been involved with NAWBO at many levels. Most recently, she has been active in the NAWBO High School Mentorship Program in San Antonio. “We interact with these young ladies and show them what it means to be a business owner. At the end of the 10 months, they can submit their business plan in a competition to win scholarships,” Arlene explains.

Arlene’s incredibly excited to be a finalist for the 2023 Woman Business Owner of the Year Award because of how impactful the local NAWBO Scale Up program has been in her life and business.

The program is a one-year commitment available to women business owners with annual revenues from roughly $200K to $1 million to help them “scale up” their business. Arlene joined because she had come to an impasse in her business. She was doing too much and had no time to be creative.

“I was still working a lot in my business while trying to work on my business. I really knew I had a problem,” she explains. Joining the group of 6 who held her accountable and provided tough but supportive feedback was a game-changer. Albeit difficult, she learned to delegate. “They really helped me figure out I was the bottleneck, and therefore, the problem. If I didn’t take myself out of certain things in my business, it was only going to grow to a max capacity,” she recounts.

Thankfully, Arlene did learn to hire capable people to handle many of the tasks she was doing. Today, she has more time to think about the business. It has resulted in new revenue streams, more paid speaking engagements, coaching and the grant writing courses Ascend implemented last year.

When considering what a world with more female leaders would look like, Arlene believes it would allow for a very different, supportive workplace that gives people the freedom to work within their gifts. It sounds a bit like Ascend.

Today, she considers compassion and consideration towards others to be her greatest strengths as a business leader. “It’s not just about the bottom line,” she says. “It’s about people. I look at this business for me as being an extension of the work I was called to do here on earth.”

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