Zoa Martinez already knew she had the entrepreneurial spirit as a teenager. A gifted artist, she made money doing calligraphy projects for every club at her Miami high school. "I would get a couple of dollars for each [project]," she says. "From a young age, I was already working." She eventually arrived in New York City, determined to be an artist. She worked for ABC and NBC as a freelance designer, but wanted more. Today, forty-something Martinez is founder, president and creative director of 6-year-old Zona Designs, a 13-employee design agency whose client roster includes A&E, the Discovery Channel and ESPN-Disney. The company generated revenue of $2.8 million in 2004. "I've taken a lot of risks," Martinez says. "In New York, it's about fame and fortune. The fortune is still to come, but I'm happy."
The itch for self-made fortune is a trend among minority women. Firms owned by women of color are growing at six times the rate of all U.S. firms and represent nearly 36 percent of all companies owned by people of color, according to the Center for Women's Business Research. In 2004, an estimated 1.4 million privately held firms were owned by women of color, employing nearly 1.3 million people and generating $147 billion in annual sales.
"It's fantastic," says Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Center for Women's Business Research in Washington, DC. "Entrepreneurship is an opportunity that knows no race or ethnicity."
The desire to contribute more to the family income and the fact that more women in general are running their own companies are factors behind the trend. "You're not an outlier now if you're a woman who owns her own firm," says Sharon Freeman, president of The All American Small Business Exporters Association, a Washington, DC, group that researches issues affecting minority, immigrant and women-owned firms in the global marketplace.
And banks want a piece of the market. "It's a huge growth opportunity we want to support," says Rebecca Macieira-Kaufmann, executive vice president and small-business segment manager at San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which is forging a 10-year, $20 billion lending commitment to women-owned businesses.
Life can be an uphill climb for some of these entrepreneurs, but it only seems to fuel their desire for self-made success. Jeanette Jenkins, 31, grew up in government housing outside Toronto, the daughter of a single mother. Playing sports was an escape from reality in her neighborhood. "I [saw] a lot of drugs and a lot of sadness," she says. Sports were her safe haven.
At 16, Jenkins moved to Ottawa to be less of a financial burden to her mother. She eventually enrolled at the University of Ottawa and became a certified personal trainer. "I fell in love with teaching and training," she says. At 22, she moved to Hollywood, where she worked for fitness chains and conducted one-on-one training on the side. In 2002, she started her company, The Hollywood Trainer, which works with celebrity clients including Queen Latifah. Jenkins has a fitness video series and partnerships with BET, Lady Foot Locker and Nike. The company projects sales of $1 million this year. Still, breaking marketing barriers is a challenge. "A lot of companies are scared to put that black person on the front, because they have their marketing research," she says. "You can't be mediocre; you have to be fantastic."
You also have to be ready to take some risks with credit. A 2002 Wells Fargo survey revealed only 39 percent of black women business owners had access to bank credit, compared to 44 percent of Asian-American women, 46 percent of Hispanic-American women and 60 percent of Caucasian women business owners. Comfort level in borrowing from a bank instead of relatives is a factor. "You hit cultural issues about [borrowing] preferences," Macieira-Kaufmann says.
Demographic trends will lead to even more women of color, particularly Hispanics, starting their own businesses over the next decade. Martinez, for one, cringes at the word minority. "We're the new majority, not the minority," she says. "That's why I don't like that word."
Her advice? Silence your inner critic, and don't be afraid. "Look in the mirror and say, 'Well, why not me?' [Then] expect to work really damn hard."
Take It From Her
What does it take to make it as a minority woman entrepreneur? We asked super-successful Janice Bryant Howroyd, 53, founder and CEO of Act-1 Personnel, a Torrance, California, staffing firm that generated revenue of $483 million in 2002, for her perspective.
Entrepreneur: What's your background?
Janice Bryant Howroyd: I [am] the fourth of 11 children. It was only during my first year of university that I discovered we [were] poor. The best thing our parents did for us was impress on us that education is freedom.
How do you navigate and survive real, day-to-day challenges?
Howroyd: Continuing to invest yourself in your business is fundamental. This means you never ask an employee to do anything that you will not do. You must make your highest priority attracting and keeping the [most] competent employees you can afford.
What advice do you have for other minority business owners?
Howroyd: Invest your resources into your business as strategically and fully as you can. Remember that when you invest yourself in a business, you are taking a loan from many family members that money will never repay. You're borrowing their time, their faith and their support. Keep learning, and let your life--on a personal and professional level--be the best lesson you ever teach anyone. Never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally.--Chris Penttila