Michele Albano fondly recalls attending the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce's Small Business Development Academy to prepare for the opening of her pie shop. Next month, it will be her turn to step up to the podium to tell the next crop of new entrepreneurs how she did it.

"My advice will be to follow your dreams," said Albano, who started Michele's Pies in Norwalk in 2007 and will be the keynote speaker when the chamber hosts the academy's kickoff session on Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel, 789 Connecticut Ave. (Route 1) in Norwalk.

"I remember taking the classes and thinking that will would be really cool to someday speak to the class. I think it's a great honor."

Albano, 34, is the first graduate of the program to return to the academy as a keynote speaker.

The Westport resident was fortunate to experience national notoriety early. At the 2007 National Pie Championships, her chocolate pecan bourbon pie won first place in the "nut" category. She has followed it with honors in subsequent competitions. Albano also has been featured on ABC's "Good Morning America" and the Food Network's "Throwdown with Bobby Flay."

While the 75 or so entrepreneurs who enroll in the seven-week free program may not achieve such immediate accolades, participating in the classes will help them through the trials of being a new business owner, she said.

Classes, held every Wednesday from Sept. 22 through Nov. 3 at the Doubletree and taught by area professionals, will cover creating a business plan; financing; dealing with finances, taxes and insurance; technology and the Internet; marketing and advertising; and customer service and entrepreneurial spirit. Graduation is set for Nov. 10. Participants are required to attend five sessions to receive a certificate.

"It's definitely informative and made us aware of services we could use. It also got us really involved with the chamber," Albano said, adding that it isn't enough to just have a dream. "We're still learning every day. We're still trying to get to the next level."

Albano is the ideal speaker to inspire entrepreneurs starting out or hoping to hone their skills, said Brian Griffin, chamber vice president.

"She's been extremely successful in a short period. She's a great young person who is passionate for her business," Griffin said.

"It's about doing it right. Businesses that succeed are those that plan properly."

To enroll in the program, sponsored by Citibank, call 203-866-2521 or e-mail info@norwalkchamberofcommerce.com.