From those applicants who met our financial criteria, a committee of Entrepreneur editors selected semifinalists based on three primary factors: how and why they started their businesses, their community involvement, and the benefits or programs they offer to employees. Final winners were chosen by the Executive Board of the National Association of Women's Business Advocates.
With so many applicants to choose from, and so many inspiring stories, making the selections wasn't easy--even for people who read dozens of business success stories every day. But somehow, we managed to select the cream of the crop. We think you'll be pleased to meet them.
Fate may well have played a hand in the forming of Foliage by Flora Inc. "With the name Flora Green, I was destined to love plants," acknowledges the 50-year-old founder of the Miami-based interior/exterior landscape design and holiday decorations firm.
"Flora is our charmer," chimes in partner Jo Gillman, 52, describing the woman whose company she joined one year into operations. "She is the best public relations person anybody could want."
Actually, both Green and Gillman know a thing or two about charm--and, not incidentally, about growing a business. Together, the two have been selected as our grand prize winners for Entrepreneurial Woman Small-Business Owners of the Year.
"Jo and I just screamed and jumped up and down [when we found out we'd won]," laughs Green. "We were like two little kids."
Flash back to 1975, when a recently divorced Green decided to turn her passion for plants into a means of supporting herself and her 4-year-old son. "I only knew how to be a mother and a wife," she reflects. "That was about it."
That was the foundation for Foliage by Flora, nonetheless. With a mere $200, a green thumb and the encouragement of friends, Green pursued her entrepreneurial dreams. "When I first started, it was a one-lady operation," she explains. "I wore numerous hats, but I have to say I was never afraid. I enjoyed it."
When it was no longer practical to store plants in her apartment, Green moved her business inventory into pal Gillman's home. Gillman began to keep Foliage by Flora's books and, gradually, the two friends evolved into business partners. They've been going strong ever since, carefully nurturing a business that is healthy enough to have necessitated bigger and bigger warehouse facilities--and strong enough to have survived the damage to its offices by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
"This business has given me an opportunity to grow as a person," says Gillman, who projects Foliage by Flora will exceed $3 million in sales this year. "I had good people skills before, but I've got excellent ones now."
Green and Gillman give as good as they get: Their "Recycled Plants for Charity" program distributes thousands of dollars worth of "used" plants to local nonprofit groups every year. "It's basically a payback to our community," says Green. "They have helped us get where we are today . . . and we know the monies are going to a very good cause."
With some 500 clients--mostly commercial--Foliage by Flora has blossomed into a company in which both Green and Gillman can take great pride. Destiny, indeed.
Fit To Print
Why did Paula Inniss leave a secure, well-paying position at Xerox to start her own digital printing company? "After months and months of research, I decided I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I [didn't]," explains the 43-year-old entrepreneur.
And so Columbus-based Ohio Full Court Press opened its doors to a primarily corporate clientele in January 1995. "Even though I knew a lot about the digital print side of the business, I didn't know a lot about running a business--and they are very, very different," says Inniss, who has also done occasional printing jobs for a local basketball team as well as first-time novelists and charitable organizations. "I went from having a total support staff [at Xerox] to having no support at all. There were days when I sat in there with all that equipment by myself."
What helped, certainly, was the fact that Inniss' silent partner owned a commercial printing and fulfillment firm and was able to send work her way. It didn't take long for business to begin booming--and employees were promptly hired to keep Ohio Full Court Press on a roll.
Even with a staff of 12, however, Inniss still maintains a pretty grueling schedule. How grueling? She does paperwork at 5:30 in the morning and follows that with 12 hours or so at the office. "I'd heard horror stories about the time it takes to run a business, but I guess you never really know [until you do it yourself]," she says. "I thought I worked real hard with Xerox--but there is no comparison."
Good thing Inniss grew up with a strong role model. "She's been my greatest influence," says Inniss of her 68-year-old mother. "[I was] taught to have a very strong work ethic and never give up."
Persistence pays off--in this case, to the tune of 1996 sales of $1.2 million. Perhaps even more impressive, our Entrepreneurial Woman Start-Up Business Owner of the Year makes it a point to support charitable causes in her community. "I don't just want to say we showed up, we did a function, and we left," she explains. "I want to really get involved."
For Inniss, that involvement focuses on helping the homeless as well as teaching local minority children skills to better prepare them for the work force. It may sound cliché, but Inniss truly believes that young people are the future--and she pledges continued community activism.
"The highs are very high and the lows--well, you have to scrape me off the ground," says Inniss of her entrepreneurial success. "But at the end of the day, I can look back and say, `This is mine.' "
I just decided to do it," says Rochelle Balch, 47, explaining the decision to launch her own computer consulting firm four years ago. "[I figured] if it worked, great. If it didn't, I'd be no worse off."
Turns out, Balch ended up a whole lot better than merely "no worse off." The transformation from downsized employee to founder of Glendale, Arizona-based RB Balch & Associates Inc. lifted the homebased entrepreneur into an entirely new stratosphere. Last year, she recorded sales in excess of $2 million. This year, she expects to download $2.5 million.
Not that it happened easily for our Entrepreneurial Woman SOHO Business Owner of the Year. Indeed, Balch pulled many an all-nighter during her business's first few years. Sure, she'd heard how important it was for homebased entrepreneurs to set up boundaries for themselves to keep from burning out--but to Balch's way of thinking, that just wasn't realistic. "When you start off, you're [working] 24 hours a day," she says. "I don't care what anybody says--that's just what you do."
And that's just what she did. Although it was difficult landing those first few accounts, Balch's computer consultancy went into overdrive once U-Haul agreed to give her a shot in the summer of 1993. "I told [the manager] I was new and really wanted him to give me a chance," she says. "He could have said no and hung up like all the rest of them, but he said, `All right, let me see what you've got.' "
Since that pivotal moment, Balch and the 30 independent contractors who work for her have gone on to consult with other big-name companies such as American Express and Circle K. As if running a thriving business and raising a 12-year-old daughter weren't enough, Balch also finds the time to participate in a variety of community volunteer efforts, including teaching classes to homebased entrepreneurs.
Any advice for women entrepreneurs hoping to follow in her footsteps? "The main thing is you have to be extremely confident," Balch urges. "You have to exude confidence--it has to be dripping out of your pores."
And whatever you do, Balch stresses, don't sell either yourself or your business short--especially if yours is a homebased operation. "You can either be an itsy-bitsy homebased business and treat yourself as somebody who works at home," she says, "or you can treat yourself as a business owner who happens to be based out of your house and portray [a professional] image."
Clearly, Balch made the right choice--and she knows it. Far from eager to run her business out of a commercial office, Balch is instead planning to move her family and company into a two-story house later this year. The move makes sense: With a booming business and a soon-to-be-teenage daughter besides, Balch needs the extra space.
Foliage by Flora Inc., (305) 253-3939, fax: (305) 235-1902;
Ohio Full Court Press, 4000 Business Park Dr., Columbus, OH 43204-5021, (800) 338-OFCP, (614) 278-9914;
RB Balch & Associates Inc., (602) 561-9366, (http://www.rbbalch.com)