Minority Women-Owned Firms Experience Record Growth

By reaching out for available resources, these entrepreneurs started strong and just keep on ticking.

Gwen's Old-Fashioned Bread Puddin' Crunch is aChicago-based gourmet dessert company founded a year and a half agoby Gwendolyn Meeks, a 41-year old African American woman. Spurredby her desire to "get off the plantation," as Meeks callsworking for someone else, she always dreamed of economicindependence.

The idea for Meeks' business actually came to her in adream. Shortly after Meeks' mother died in 1999, she dreamt hermother had asked her to go into the kitchen and make her some breadpudding, one of her mother's favorite desserts. "I reallydidn't want to at the time," Meeks recalled. "And shesaid, 'Girl, stop being so lazy. Get your behind up and make mesome bread pudding.'"

Though she went back to sleep that night, the next day, Meekshad an overwhelming craving for pineapple bread pudding--a recipeshe'd never tried before or tasted since. A friend stopped bythe next day, sampled some of Meeks' dream-inspired breadpudding and encouraged her to try to sell it.

Meeks began taking her bread pudding around Chicago, gainingencouragement from all tasters. One day, she asked the manager ofthe café at a Borders bookstore if they might be interested inselling her bread pudding. To her surprise, the manager was veryinterested and asked Meeks if she baked in a health departmentcertified kitchen, had a business license, insurance, etc. "Ifelt like Dorothy after the Wizard of Oz gives her that list andsays, 'OK, now I want you to go get the broomstick from theWicked Witch of the West,'" says Meeks. "I didn'tknow how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to do it."

Meeks enrolled in a 12-week business-training course at theWomen's Business Development Center in Chicago. By the end ofthe 12 weeks, Meeks had most everything she needed to start sellingher bread pudding. Paperwork in hand, she went back to the Borderscafé, where they soon began selling her bread puddings madewith a crunchy topping, available plain or with raisins.

"I saw they were selling my bread pudding for $5 a slice,and I thought, 'Well, I really have got somethinghere,'" says Meeks, who now sells her products in selectedJewel grocery stores, a major Chicago chain. So far, Meeks stilldoes all the cooking (in a rented, certified kitchen) and runs hercompany while holding down a full-time job as a social workadministrator. She estimates that she spends about 40 hours a weekbuilding her business.

Meeks is not alone in her quest for entrepreneurial success.U.S. women of color are starting businesses at a faster rate thanother women and all other business owners, according to a studyreleased last month by the Center for Women's Business Research(formerly the National Foundation for Women Business Owners). Thisincredible growth among minority women-owned firms, at 31.5percent, was more than four and a half times greater than thegrowth rate of all firms nationally, at 6.8 percent.

"What's exciting about this," says Nina McLemore,vice chair of the CWBR and president of Regent Capital Partners inNew York, "is that finally, we're finding statistics thatwomen-owned businesses are not all small. These increases mean anexponential growth in power for women and for minority-ownedbusinesses."

McLemore said she and other women business leaders are excitedabout the "role model effect." "We look at asuccessful woman and think, 'If she can do that, and overcomeall that she has had to overcome, then just think of what I cando.'"

Reaching Out

Perhaps because women tend to be more open about asking forhelp, Meeks attributes much of her success to the support she'sreceived from the WBDC and the law clinic at the University of Chicago,which provides free or low-cost help to business owners. Like manyentrepreneurs, Meeks has financed the growth of her company usingthe salary from her full-time job along with some financial helpfrom her father, fiancé and friends.

Leticia Herrera, another successful minority woman entrepreneur,owns and operates ECI, a thriving Chicago-based company thatspecializes in metal and stone restoration and constructionmanagement. Successful today, the outlook was far from rosy in 1995when her company was near bankruptcy.

When ECI started 10 years ago, it was just Herrera, her motherand her aunt, performing standard janitorial services. The lettersstood for "Extra Clean Inc." Their reputation for doinggood work was solid, and the company grew quickly, although as alabor-intensive business, profit margins were always thin. Whenpeople began stealing from the company, it pushed ECI over theedge.

In 1995, Herrera said the company was $300,000 in debt. She hadonly $65,000 in hand when her attorneys recommended she file forChapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Herrera had another idea. She metpersonally with her creditors, arranging terms to pay back as muchof the debts as she could and asking her creditors to forgive therest. Forty-eight hours later, she had saved the company. "Itook a leap of faith," says Herrera. "I could gobankrupt, or choose to do it my way. It was not an option to do itthe easy way. I didn't run; I didn't hide. I went throughit."

After her brush with bankruptcy, Herrera kept the letters butre-named the company Excellence Consistency Integrity, a concisemission statement for her revived company. The first thing she didwas stop providing janitorial services, since the margins were toosmall. As Herrera puts it, with 1 to 3 percent margins, "yousneeze the wrong way and you're out." She moved intospecialty cleaning, focusing on stone and metal restoration.

Herrera applied to become a certified woman-owned andminority-owned business to give her an advantage as she expandedinto construction management. (Government contracts often stipulatethat a certain percentage be completed by a minority-owned orwoman-owned firm). Construction management, where ECI oversees agroup of smaller subcontractors on big projects, now makes uproughly 50 percent of ECI's revenue, which is under $5 millionannually.

In addition to running her business, Herrera serves as chair ofthe U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the first woman to hold theposition. She travels extensively and is involved in manyentrepreneurial conferences and activities. Always a hard worker,Herrera has focused on learning to delegate more. "Five or sixyears ago, I didn't stop to go to the bathroom," saysHerrera. "I couldn't remember sleeping." Now her lifehas 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 authorof 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. Fora free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," sendyour name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 ore-mail it to info@sbtv.com.Sarah Prior contributed to this report.

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