Perhaps because women tend to be more open about asking for help, Meeks attributes much of her success to the support she's received from the WBDC and the law clinic at the University of Chicago, which provides free or low-cost help to business owners. Like many entrepreneurs, Meeks has financed the growth of her company using the salary from her full-time job along with some financial help from her father, fiancé and friends.
Leticia Herrera, another successful minority woman entrepreneur, owns and operates ECI, a thriving Chicago-based company that specializes in metal and stone restoration and construction management. Successful today, the outlook was far from rosy in 1995 when her company was near bankruptcy.
When ECI started 10 years ago, it was just Herrera, her mother and her aunt, performing standard janitorial services. The letters stood for "Extra Clean Inc." Their reputation for doing good work was solid, and the company grew quickly, although as a labor-intensive business, profit margins were always thin. When people began stealing from the company, it pushed ECI over the edge.
In 1995, Herrera said the company was $300,000 in debt. She had only $65,000 in hand when her attorneys recommended she file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Herrera had another idea. She met personally with her creditors, arranging terms to pay back as much of the debts as she could and asking her creditors to forgive the rest. Forty-eight hours later, she had saved the company. "I took a leap of faith," says Herrera. "I could go bankrupt, or choose to do it my way. It was not an option to do it the easy way. I didn't run; I didn't hide. I went through it."
After her brush with bankruptcy, Herrera kept the letters but re-named the company Excellence Consistency Integrity, a concise mission statement for her revived company. The first thing she did was stop providing janitorial services, since the margins were too small. As Herrera puts it, with 1 to 3 percent margins, "you sneeze the wrong way and you're out." She moved into specialty cleaning, focusing on stone and metal restoration.
Herrera applied to become a certified woman-owned and minority-owned business to give her an advantage as she expanded into construction management. (Government contracts often stipulate that a certain percentage be completed by a minority-owned or woman-owned firm). Construction management, where ECI oversees a group of smaller subcontractors on big projects, now makes up roughly 50 percent of ECI's revenue, which is under $5 million annually.
In addition to running her business, Herrera serves as chair of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the first woman to hold the position. She travels extensively and is involved in many entrepreneurial conferences and activities. Always a hard worker, Herrera has focused on learning to delegate more. "Five or six years ago, I didn't stop to go to the bathroom," says Herrera. "I couldn't remember sleeping." Now her life has more balance. "My business is service," says Herrera. "I'm here to serve, but not to be a servant."
Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. For a free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," send your name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 or e-mail it to email@example.com. Sarah Prior contributed to this report.