Deborah Lansdowne is president and CEO of eKohs, Inc (Ashburn, VA), a technology consulting firm that provides end-to-end service from business process improvement to professional staff augmentation.
"We look at ourselves as a very highly skilled, high-quality business that happens to be minority owned," Lansdowne declares. "Your company's reputation is built on what you deliver, not who you are."
Clayton Webb agrees completely. He's president of Andisa Technologies, Inc (Los Angeles, CA), which designs and manufactures control systems. "When I approach other companies, I approach them as one who can offer them the best technology, rather than from a minority standpoint," he says.
Hard work and technology
Lansdowne and Webb, like many other African American MBEs, believe in the value of technology and hard work. They feel they've been successful because of their focus on the value of their products and solutions. But, while they're not waving the MBE flag, they do feel that by being successful they are paving the way for others.
Cash flow was the biggest challenge for MBE Keith E. Gipson, founder and CTO of Impact Facility Solutions (Los Angeles, CA). Gipson's business delivers Internet-based enterprise facility management solutions.
"I've seen that the MBE mentality leans to borrowing money, with small-business loans and so forth. I think it needs to be stressed that there are several ways of capitalizing your company, other than taking out a second mortgage on your personal residence," he declares.
"With my previous company, Silicon Energy Corp, I learned how to utilize venture financing to build the business. Of course you must weigh the cost of losing some percentage of ownership and control. But I can testify that it's not bad to own a smaller percent of a much larger company. So far with Impact, however, I've been able to bootstrap without outside funding."
Striving for excellence
"I will say straight out that, as a black tech executive, I've seen my share of raised eyebrows from time to time," Gipson states. "This is why minority business owners should strive, more than anybody else, for absolute excellence in their products and business solutions!"
Lansdowne, too, always strives for excellence. "As an MBE you have to work twice as hard to prove yourself. You have to be able to do 150 percent.
"It's tough sometimes to get people to take you seriously. You end up being very, very good at what you do. You're very creative and find ways around obstacles."
"Persevere," Webb agrees. "You can't be discouraged by what anybody says you can't do. You have to be ahead of the curve with the latest technology."
Beatrice Louissaint, president and CEO of the Florida Regional Minority Business Council (Miami, FL), acknowledges that the IT field offers unique challenges to black business owners.
"The trend we're seeing is a lot of African Americans leaving large corporations to establish companies in specialties like software design, website design, maintenance, storage and recovery," she says. The problem is that "They have to compete with larger companies that have more resources, such as offshore capabilities. Many prospective buyers prefer larger suppliers to meet their needs."
Andisa's Webb knows all about that. He says he's had more luck approaching worldwide markets. He notes that he's provided solar panels to countries in Africa and has his sights set on contracts to rebuild the infrastructure in Liberia.
"Many traditional companies operate on a 'buddy system,' and minority companies are not always corporate America's buddies," he states.
But many corporations disagree with Webb's opinions, and back up their assertions with important and meaningful supplier diversity programs.
At Verizon Business (Ashburn, VA), John Marshall, program manager for supplier diversity, says it's important "to have suppliers that are representative of your customer base. Many corporate initiatives are available to level the playing field for minorities. It's my responsibility to utilize those initiatives to ensure the diversity of our suppliers."
Charles H. Pulliam, supplier diversity advisor for Sempra Energy (Los Angeles, CA), emphasizes that differences can be a strength and "Diversity is a source of power. We believe that supplier diversity is a wise strategy that makes us a stronger competitor and more closely allied to our customers," he says.
At Johnson Controls (Milwaukee, WI), Reginald Layton, director of diversity business development, affirms that "Our African American MBE supply base has helped us expand our revenues and strengthen our overall supplier network."
Madlyn B. Bagneris, manager for supplier diversity at Entergy Corp (New Orleans, LA), sums it up for the utility industry: "Supporting MBEs increases the economic vitality and prosperity of the communities we serve. It makes good business sense."
Help from your friends
Keith E. Gipson's first mentor was his father. Harry B. Gipson, Sr was a pioneer in the Los Angeles real estate business and co-founder, in the 1950s, of the Consolidated Realty Board which fought against discrimination in housing. Today, the younger Gipson mentors his own four children and other minority kids, and is active in Upward Bound and 100 Black Men.
Clayton Webb joined the student chapter of the Los Angeles Council of Black Professional Engineers (LACBPE) in college. Mentors for the chapter arranged for him to get an after-school job at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and even helped with his schoolwork, he remembers with pleasure.
Webb still belongs to LACBPE. His company supplies mentors to young college techies, and will soon offer internships to qualified students. And Webb expects to get help for himself through events sponsored by the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC). He hopes to meet utility company buyers in order to promote Andisa's new automated meter-reading systems.
Deborah Lansdowne of eKohs is a very active member of NMSDC. She says that membership is a "validation stamp" when approaching a potential client.
eKohs is in a mentor-protégé relationship with Verizon/MCI, where execs have been very supportive and have recommended the company to others. This good relationship, Lansdowne notes, has a lot to do with eKohs' excellent performance on projects for Verizon/MCI.
Gipson offers some final advice for black MBEs. "Don't be afraid to exert your vision and leadership. The challenge is to continuously translate your experience and business intuition into concrete processes and plans. Be sure to stay in touch with what's going on.
"And keep the faith. It will get you through the tough times."
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