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Ebony
March, 2002 

Sisters In Charge;
Innovative Women Entrepreneurs

Today's Black woman is a go-getter. Not only is she running her own business, but she is also following her life's passion. And the numbers bear it out.

The Center for Women's Business Research conservatively estimates that the 365,110 majority-owned, privately-held firms owned by African-American women in the United States generate roughly $ 14.5 billion in sales.

Among those leading the charge are Californian Janice Bryant Howroyd, who took a $ 1,500 loan and turned it into a multimillion-dollar employment agency; Deryl McKissack Greene, an architect who took a family tradition and turned it into one of the top firm's on the East Coast; Shirley L. Gross-Moore, a Chicago-area car dealer who built a solid business despite those who said she would fail; Saundra Parks, a New York floral designer who has changed our notions about flowers, texture and color; and Louise Todd, an art publisher and distributor in Atlanta who left corporate America to turn her love of art into a living. The five women on the following pages represent thousands of Black businesswomen who are letting it shine all over the business world -- from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., Chicago to New York and finally down to Atlanta -- and they are doing it their way.

Janice Bryant Howroyd
ACT•1, Torrance, Calif.

JANICE Bryant Howroyd never saw herself as much of a gambler. But she managed to parlay a $ 1,500 family loan into one of the most successful female-owned businesses in America.

As the owner and chief executive officer of ACT•1, a personnel servicing company based in Torrance, Calif., that has 75 offices nationwide and projected 2002 revenues of more than $ 270 million, she has a roster of clients that includes Ford Motors, the Gap, Sempra Energy and Toyota Motor Sales. As an example of the company's effectiveness, since 1997, it has placed approximately 92,000 workers.

ACT•1, which supplies technical and professional staffing, is only one of her diversified business ventures. She also owns a travel agency, a background-check and drug-screening service, and an electronic records maintenance company. Another part of her empire is California National University for Advanced Studies, which focuses on continuous education and offers degrees in business administration and engineering as well as human resources certificates. For all her ventures, she says, the income projections are in excess of $ 520 million annually.

Being a nationally recognized businesswoman was not even on Bryant Howroyd's radar when she, a painfully shy woman, left her home in Tarboro, N.C., to relax and visit a sister in Los Angeles in 1978. But she enjoyed herself and was convinced to continue extending that trip well beyond her original plans. "I knew I couldn't become an eternal visitor," she recalls. "So I needed to be employed, and my sister's husband gave me a job as his assistant at Billboard magazine. I started out as a temporary worker and they never wanted me to go. They were fascinated that I knew what needed to happen in an office."

Unlike many who have gravitated to Tinsel Town, Bryant Howroyd wasn't using her job as a stepping-stone to success on the screen or stage. She realized that she enjoyed organizing offices and helping people get temporary and direct hire jobs at Billboard and other firms. Companies, especially the entertainment-related ones, were impressed that she could send workers who were dependable and not using the assignments as a ladder to Hollywood immortality.

After gaining enough confidence to believe that she could go out on her own, Bryant Howroyd got the $ 1,500 loan in 1978, a telephone and leased a small space. Then she relied on what she calls "the WOMB method" to secure business. "I call it WOMB because it's 'Word Of Mouth, Brother!' That's how I got to know people and develop business relationships."

To compete with other companies, she decided to make her focus getting just the right people for the right businesses. "Back in those days, if it didn't work out, you had to give the money back," she says. "I focus on keeping the humanity in human resources and helping people achieve healthy work opportunities."

Word of mouth helped her expand her connections and business clients for contract labor far beyond the entertainment business. Soon ACT•1 was supplying temporary and direct hire workers for manufacturing, pharmaceutical, aerospace, banking, insurance and telecommunications companies.

Bryant Howroyd had an English degree from North Carolina A&T, but she found that her business acumen had more to do with her love for organization than her skills with written words. She attributes those organizational skills to her parents, who, with love and high expectations, successfully ran a home with 11 children.

ACT•1 now has eight members of the Bryant family working in various capacities. They all came aboard long after they had enjoyed success in other corporations around the country, she quickly explains. Her brother Carlton, a vice president of the company who has a financial background and interest in systems designs, helped develop software that allows companies to remove much of the manual processes associated with paying people.

She points out that the software program and others have helped ACT•1 take advantage of technology to remain current in helping clients with the bottom line.

Bryant Howroyd has an 18-year-old daughter, Katharyn, at the University of Southern California and a 17-year-old son, Brett, in high school. Both helped their mother get ACT•1 off the ground. Her husband, Bernard Howroyd, is also an entrepreneur who runs his own company in the L.A. area.

Eighty percent of Bryant Howroyd's time is spent outside the office cultivating and expanding her business relationships. She has received numerous business awards from various organizations and wants to use the attention lavished on her to encourage Black youngsters to focus on education.

The business is far more competitive than when she first entered it, she recalls. But she manages to keep ACT•1 at the forefront. "I always surround myself with the best people." Now, she spends both professional and personal time pushing Black youngsters to focus on education.

Looking back on her 24 years in the business, Bryant Howroyd says family and education helped her most, and that she believes those factors can help other women to achieve their goals.
 
Deryl McKissack Greene
McKissack & McKissack of Washington
Washington, D.C.

SHE was making a lot of money as executive assistant to the president of Howard University. But when she left to start her own architectural firm, Deryl McKissack Greene made only $ 3,000 during her first year of business and had to use her parents' credit card to buy groceries. "I cried every day," McKissack Greene recalls. "I had a bottle of Visine in my glove compartment because I didn't want my employees to see that I had been crying."

But hard work and persistence paid off in the end, and now McKissack & McKissack of Washington is a $ 20 million operation that handles more than $ 3 billion worth of projects within the Washington, D.C., area. A product of the famous McKissack family, which has run the Nashville firm of McKissack & McKissack since 1905, McKissack Greene has taken a family tradition started nearly a century ago and built one of the most prominent architectural firms on the East Coast. "I'm glad I did this by myself," says the company's president and CEO. "This is all mine. I can do what I want to do with this."

After graduating from Howard University with a civil engineering degree in 1983, McKissack Greene worked as an engineer and a construction manager before returning to Howard in 1988. As executive assistant to the president, she managed the 133 buildings and facilities on the university's Washington, D.C., campus and a capital budget of $ 200 million.

When she left Howard in 1990, she received a number of job offers, but none of them excited her. That's when she decided to start her own business with just $ 1,000. Though her background was more in engineering than in architecture, she banked on her family's reputation, which goes back five generations, to the pre-Civil War 1800s and rural Tennessee.

McKissack Greene started her architectural firm in 1990, at a time when Washington, D.C., had a miniscule construction industry. There was one building in the city under construction and all the major companies in the area were either downsizing or going out of business, she says. Seeing this as a perfect opportunity to grab immediate business, McKissack Greene compiled a list of 150 contacts. Her first contract was a $ 5,000 project for Georgetown University, which she got through a contact from her old position at Howard. Georgetown continued to give her projects.

Little by little, McKissack Greene received more work with different colleges. But running a business costs money. After paying business expenses and salaries, McKissack Greene's take-home that first year was $ 3,000. She managed a way to live that first year, with the help of friends and family. Hairdressers styled her hair for free. Friends paid for meals.

McKissack Greene's business grew consistently -- she made $ 6,000 her second year and $ 27,000 the third year -- before she scored her biggest contract. After she began to receive contracts for federal projects, the young entrepreneur met with then-Secretary of Treasury Robert E. Rubin for lunch in 1994. After that meeting, she either called the office or visited the Treasury building every two weeks for the next two years, asking to work on a project. Finally, the department relented and gave her a $ 200,000 project to review designs.

McKissack Greene's timing was perfect. The day after she signed her contract with the department in June 1996, she received a call from the U.S. Secret Service. The Treasury building was damaged by fire and they needed her at the site. By 6 a.m. the next day, McKissack Greene had been put in charge of the cleanup, a $ 10 million project. The firm worked around the clock and completed the assignment in three months. Because of that effort, her company was hired to manage the renovation and restoration of the Treasury Building, a $ 200 million project. "That really turned my company around," McKissack Greene says.

During this prosperous time, McKissack Greene married Washington entrepreneur Marion (Duke) Greene, who also serves as the firm's executive vice president. The firm also has other high-profile assignments, including the new Washington Convention Center and a new headquarters and laboratory facilities for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Now that her company is doing so well, McKissack Greene says her next step is to make the McKissack & McKissack name recognizable on the regional level within the next two to three years, and hopefully to become national in five years. In order to do that, McKissack Greene says the firm needs to earn revenue of more than $ 100 million and expand into other cities.
 
Shirley L. Gross-Moore
Barrington Dodge, Barrington, Ill.

When Shirley L. Gross-Moore moved into the driver's seat at Barrington Dodge in November 1988, some people said she would last only six months; others didn't give her that long. Now, over 13 years later, Barrington Dodge in suburban Chicago has not only survived, it has thrived. Moore has expanded to a second location nearby, and Barrington Dodge is now a Five-Star dealer, the highest ranking possible from the manufacturer.

Moving from low expectations to the highest standard of excellence in the male-dominated world of automobiles has been gratifying for Moore. "It's quite a feeling of accomplishment knowing that you've done this in a predominantly male world," says the stylish Moore in an office filled with various plaques and awards. "I don't see why any woman can't do this; all it takes is some hard work and common business sense."

A native of Detroit, Moore attended Wayne State University and worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 11 years. It was through this experience at the IRS that Moore first thought of the idea of business ownership. But it was running an accounting firm -- not owning a car dealership -- that she initially had in mind. Moore wanted to help small minority businesses with their accounting procedures through her own business.

But her life dreams took a dramatic turn in 1986 while she worked as the public affairs director at a Detroit television station. A fellow student in a graduate class at Central Michigan University suggested that she look into the dealer development programs offered by the Big Three automakers: Chrysler (now DaimlerChrysler), Ford and General Motors.

Moore says the Chrysler program attracted her because of, at that time, its small class size and the guarantee that graduates would be placed with a dealership. She attended the program for two-and-a-half years and was trained in all aspects of the operation, including the "dirty work."

Moore arrived at Barrington Dodge as the general manager in November 1988 and served in that capacity for two years. She successfully completed her purchase of the dealership in 1995. What was at first a struggling business in one building with a staff of 21 that sold an average of 45 cars per month became a top-notch dealership with two locations, 50 employees and an average of 145 cars sold per month. The company had an estimated $ 63 million in sales for 2001.

"[I accomplished that] by working unbelievable hours and constantly striving to get the best people available," Moore says. "The people make the difference. Longevity makes a difference as well. After you've been here so long, you gain credibility . . . There was a lot of hard work, but we turned it around. By giving my employees responsibilities and expecting great things from them, I get those things from them."

Moore's day-to-day responsibilities are managing what she calls a "wonderful staff," holding management meetings once per week, signing the ever-important checks and coordinating the overall functions of the dealership. She has served on numerous local boards and regularly attends seminars to stay updated on changes in the community and the industry. Moore was also the first Black chairperson of the Barrington Chamber of Commerce.

Moore believes any woman can be a viable CEO as long as she is prepared to do serious work toward completing that goal. All roads begin with education, says Moore, who has two business administration degrees: a bachelor of arts from Wayne State University and a master of arts from Central Michigan University.

"The first thing a person should do is to get all of the education [she] can," she says. "It's important that you have knowledge in so many areas to operate a business, whether it is small or large."

Establishing good credit to greatly improve the chances of securing a loan, researching the potential market and having faith are also important in starting a business, Moore says.

Once the business is up and running, it's just the beginning. "I am constantly looking for new ideas and new ways to improve our business," Moore says. "That's a very important part about being a CEO: to be a visionary, looking to see what it is out there, what we can do and how we can improve our business."

For the past 13 years, that vision has kept Rams, Durangos, Dakotas, Neons and other vehicles rolling briskly out of Barrington Dodge.
 
Saundra B. Parks
The Daily Blossom, New York City

AT one point when New Yorker Saundra B. Parks was working out of her apartment, trying to get her floral design business off the ground, her best friend fell asleep on the couch with her coat on. Flowers need cold air, and the whole apartment had been refrigerated to protect the delicate petals and blossoms.

It is that type of support and sacrifice from family members and friends that Parks, who is single, credits with helping her get where she is today -- owner and president and CEO of The Daily Blossom, a high-end floral design firm that boasts an A-list of celebrity clients, including Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Eddie Murphy and Jay-Z. "I was really raised to be an entrepreneur," says Parks, whose father built his own landscaping business. "And it was just natural for me to go into flowers."

It was roughly 12 years ago that Parks stepped off the corporate ladder at her father's urging and went into the "emotions business" of flowers. In starting her company, Parks, a Vassar College graduate, read everything she could about flowers, took a course in floral design at New York's Botanical Gardens and used her advertising and marketing background to peddle sumptuous floral arrangements and original designs.

Today, flowers are flown in from all over the world, including such exotic locales as the Netherlands, France, New Zealand, South Africa and Italy, to create designs that have been called simple, sexy, masculine when necessary, and even traditional when the client makes such a request. Parks won't divulge how much her business is worth.

The Daily Blossom also designs centerpieces, table settings and decorations for special events, such as Toni Morrison's 70th birthday party and Spike Lee's wedding. Parks and her staff of 15 (usually doubled during the holidays) are often hired to create the whole mood and ambiance for such occasions. "For us, every arrangement that we do has a personal style," says Parks during a phone interview from the company's headquarters, a production loft with administrative offices (a retail boutique is located in Midtown). "Part of the success of this business is understanding the culture of the client."

The hardest part about starting The Daily Blossom all those years ago was standing out in New York, a "tough city" with a reputation for having some of the best products and services you can find. Parks' goal was to begin with corporate clients and build a reputation for on-time delivery, staying open late to fill a last-minute order, and just exceeding expectations. "It was about getting out there every day, breaking down the barriers," says Parks, who has also designed for American Express and Philip Morris. "We want to make our client get a rave phone call from a friend the next day."

Parks feels that what makes her designs stand out are surprising color, texture and accessories -- color where you would normally see something in white, bark where you would expect a baby's breath or fruit where you would expect flowers. People always want to be surprised or caught off-guard by an arrangement, Parks says, and that's what she tries to do. She brings "style into your home."

The Daily Blossom recently started a basket line and is looking to expand to the home luxury and candle and fragrance business. Parks also wants to open shops in other areas of the country and do more work in the entertainment industry. "Floral design is really a reflection of emotion and feeling," says Parks. "Flowers punctuate people's lives . . . and at the end of the day, people feel good."
 
Louise Todd
FINE ARTS by TODD, Atlanta

WHEN Louise Todd was a young girl in Glendale, Ohio, she was always making money -- cleaning homes, mowing lawns, babysitting, typing resumes and church bulletins, and sewing wedding gowns.

Family members told Todd that she was just like her father, a man who held down three or four jobs at a time to support his family -- a man who died when she was just 2 years old.

"My family always said, 'You're just like your Daddy,'" says Todd, whose life after her father's death was extremely difficult. "I liked having little jobs in the community . . . I loved having my own money. I didn't realize that I was being an entrepreneur."

The love of doing things her way -- of having her own money -- has manifested itself in Fine Arts By Todd, one of the country's leading publishers and distributors of African-American art.

"It's been wonderful," says Todd, who started collecting art in the 1960s, shortly after she started working as a stenographer for Andrew Jergens Co., right out of high school. "I can remember when many galleries wouldn't even look at African-American artists."

Acquiring a taste for Black art through her travels and friendships with various artists, Todd, the company's founder, president and CEO, started selling artwork part-time out of her home in 1983 by investing $ 50,000 of her retirement funds and profit sharing from her then-employer, Procter & Gamble, and published and sold prints of new artwork.

With the profits, Todd left her job at the Fortune 500 company and leased a 10,000-square-foot warehouse, which she converted into administrative offices, a gallery, distribution center and frame shop, the last of which is managed by her partner, James Evans.

Fine Arts by Todd has showcased proven artists such as the late William Tolliver as well as emerging artists such as Tolliver's stepbrother, Kenneth Humphrey, Latrell DuBose, Lee White, Alfred Gorkel and Charles Bibb. "Initially, as a publisher-distributor, we looked for talent," says Todd, who mentors young artists. "Now, talent looks for us."

The company was flying high, with reported revenues of more than $ 500,000 in 1997 and roughly $ 750,000 the following year.

When the economy slowed down, the demand for luxury items declined, and Todd was forced to close the retail portion of her business in 2000. "Art is a luxury product, so it's not something people really think they need," says Todd, a divorced mother of one adult son, Eric. "The biggest challenge is to show people how important art can be."

This time, though, people showed her. Loyal customers from the Afrocentric art gallery asked her to reopen, to try again. Last year, she found a different, smaller location with more retail traffic and not only reopened the gallery, but maintained operations and administrative offices.

The new space is a cozier, more artsy incarnation of Fine Arts by Todd. "It was almost like people insisted that we stay," says Todd, who works with corporate and residential clients to build a collection of just about any art form -- paintings, photographs, sculptures and the like. "And the world tells us that they love it."

The award-winning entrepreneur supports and is a community partner in several organizations, including the Atlanta Kiwanis Club, Atlanta Business League and 100 Black Women. "Not only are we a growing business and an asset to the community, but also we're supporting the community," Todd says. "That's really important to us."

The company is looking to expand into other markets. Todd says she would like to see African-American art showcased in more corporations, more movies, television shows and special events. She wants more people to view art as an investment in our culture.

And so this business-minded woman with the "soul of an artist" is still doing one thing that brings her joy and sometimes touches her so deeply that it makes her cry. "I'm an entrepreneur from my soul," says Todd. "The key to success is to bring something special. I strive to be the best."

Press contact:
Chuck Pearson
ACT•1 Group
Director of Marketing
(310) 750-3400
cpearson@act-1.com

 

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