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January 22, 2024 Deal Watch

Vacant downtown Hartford church to get new life as HR consulting firm HQ; minority business support center

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Sonserae Cicero recently bought the former St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church at 121-125 Market St., in downtown Hartford (shown in background), where she will move her HR consulting business and minority business support center.
Click below for more information about Sonserae Cicero.
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A Hartford business owner will give new life to a former downtown church property when she relocates her human resources consulting company and nonprofit entrepreneur support center there.

Sonserae Cicero is the founder and CEO of the Society of Human Engagement and Business Alignment, or SHEBA, a minority- and women-owned HR consultant for small businesses and candidates seeking job placement.

In December, Cicero bought the former St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church at 121-125 Market St., in downtown Hartford, from the Archdiocese of Hartford for $300,000. After some renovations, the 12,225-square-foot church and attached former bookstore building will serve as SHEBA’s new headquarters, complete with an updated lower-level library area for her growing entrepreneurial programs.

The new space will also feature a rooftop gathering space and “ghost kitchen,” in which restaurant and food-service startups can incubate and build a customer base before finding their own restaurant space.

The “pop-up” food offerings will be open to the public, Cicero said.

She plans to fund the renovation through grants, investors and private and philanthropic funds.

Cicero, who had decades of HR experience at several companies before she founded her business in East Hartford in 2017, said she intends to maintain much of the building’s architecture and sense of mission.

The purchase comes with some restrictions, even under new ownership.

Sales of former church properties, both in Connecticut and around the U.S., often come with restrictions on reuse. Housing or educational uses are typically deemed appropriate for former religious properties, and uses deemed illicit or immoral are often prohibited.

The Archdiocese of Hartford in recent years has sold numerous properties, including churches, schools and rectories, due to declining parishioners and Catholic school closures.

The Market Street church had been for sale for years (Hartford Business Journal reported it was on the market in 2018), prompting the Archdiocese to remove some restrictions just before Cicero expressed interest.

The Archdiocese declined to comment on the property sale.

Cicero said the sales agreement includes language that requires the space to be used for educational and community support purposes over the next five years. There were also restrictions against drastically changing or demolishing the building, she said.

Having grown up in a church, Cicero said she felt a spiritual connection to the building.

HR and community support

Cicero, 51, earned a graduate degree in human resources and labor relations from the University of New Haven, and an undergraduate degree in business and legal studies from the University of Hartford.

She spent much of her career in HR management roles, including stints at Walgreens Boots Alliance, Guida’s Milk and TJX Cos.

She was about to begin law school in California in 2020, when she moved back to Connecticut for family reasons.

She started SHEBA a few years earlier, after many friends and family sought her advice in matters related to human resources, and she was “giving away services for free.”

She also helped her son run a business that he founded, which led her in 2019 to create “a certification and training program to develop small business entrepreneurs, to help them scale, start and grow their business. That’s really what SHEBA was all about.”

SHEBA is a human resources consulting firm for small businesses or startups that don’t have their own HR staff.

Her four-member team covers areas such as strategic advancement of workforce diversity, talent development, cultural change management, workplace inclusion and leadership transformation.

Cicero is also growing her business accelerator and incubation program for entrepreneurs, including women- and minority-run businesses and companies that don’t always have access to capital or the tools and resources to be sustainable and successful.

The program takes anywhere from 12 to 36 months to complete, and is open to any minority business that wants to scale or grow their company. More than 60 participants have completed the program, she said.

“I found I was really good at developing CEOs and C-suite executives, ... and so I took that model and rebranded it and built a training program around it for entrepreneurs,” Cicero said.

Program participants learn how to budget, manage staff, clients and partners, create business plans, and make connections with partners who can teach them about grant writing, tax planning, accounting, recruiting, retention and more.

SHEBA has also partnered with the state to help small businesses get grants and loans through HEDCO, a Hartford-based Community Development Financial Institution.

Moving and growing

Cicero founded SHEBA in East Hartford and then moved to space in the Artists Collective on Albany Avenue in Hartford, where she plans to maintain a satellite location to continue to serve the city’s north end.

As the firm moves to its new location, Cicero said she’s focused on growth. She is developing an incubation and coworking center for young entrepreneurs, including high school and college students.

“Even though the church will be renovated, everyone will be able to tell what it was. And it will show everyone what this girl from the south end of Hartford can do, which is exactly what God intended for her,” she said.

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