Written by Adetola Olatunji, ICIC
Triumph. Success. Accomplishment. Excellence. Are these words you typically associate with minority entrepreneurs? Sandra Walls, President of AVPOL International LLC, and Tracy Green, President of TinMan Enterprise are two exemplary black business owners whose stories challenge us to make that association. In honor of Black History Month in February, I had a chance to speak with these two dynamic women about their journeys to become high performers in their respective industries. One common theme that unites these two business owners is the manner in which they operate their companies: both alluded to the importance of having a spirit of excellence in the management of a business. This method of operation has proven to be pivotal to both Sandra and Tracy’s success. Their individual stories are part of a larger, evolving success story of black entrepreneurship in the United States.
Sandra Walls, AVPOL International LLC
Sandra Walls is a former U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, a fast talker and a quick thinker. She decided to go into the military when other opportunities were scarce not only because of the color of her skin, but also because of her gender. “People were telling me to my face that they didn’t want to hire me because I’m a woman, or because I’m black,” Walls noted. She did not allow the word “no” to stop her, however. Her tenacity to create opportunities for herself by joining the Air Force paved the way for her successful career in logistics. Not long after retiring from 22 years in the military, Walls decided to do what she had seen few other females do in the military logistics industry before her: start her own business.
Entrepreneurship proved to be the right move for Walls, and she made some key strategic decisions along the way to ensure success. In 2002, she acquired a staffing company called Flex Force, and this move played a role in her ability to secure large national and federal contracts. Secondly, she participated in multiple programs targeted towards helping business owners, such as ICIC’s Inner City Capital Connections program, which is designed to help small businesses in inner cities access capital, achieve sustainable growth, and connect with debt and equity providers. “ICIC was all-inclusive. I learned about accessing capital, structuring my business, and networking opportunities.” Now a 100% woman and minority-owned business, AVPOL International has seen immense growth over the last few years. In 2012, ICIC recognized AVPOL International as one of the 100 fastest-growing inner city businesses in the country. Walls’ five year growth plan to reach the $100 million revenue mark was an inspiration to the other business owners honored along with her. She has also been recognized by the Memphis Business Journal as a “Super Woman in Business.”
Walls is not fazed by the challenges that face her as a female business owner in a male-dominated industry. She touched upon the different ways she has been able to overcome the challenges and the negative assumptions that people often make about her from the outset, from building a strong reputation in the community, to relying on mentors to refer her to resources, and even partnering with different firms to leverage their experience when going after new contracts. But one comment resonated above the rest.
“You have to have a spirit of excellence.” For Sandra, this mentality means rising above the assumptions and negativity by maintaining a quality work product.
Tracy Green, TinMan Enterprise
Tracy Green, President of TinMan Enterprise, also touched on the importance of rising above the negative perceptions sometimes held by clients due to her gender and race. “I have been doing this for 12 years… I can still go to a pre-bid meeting and they say ‘send your boss or send your husband because you don’t know what you’re talking about.'” Green’s company offers metal repair, fencing, and welding services, and her clients are not always used to seeing someone who looks like her introducing themselves as the person in charge. To excel in this male-dominated industry, she likes to allow her actions to speak louder than her words to change their perceptions. “My focus is on maintaining a standard of excellence and accountability,” Green says. “We are in an industry where we are impacted by so many things. I step up and say I’m accountable.” Tracy recognizes that ensuring a positive experience for her clients has the power not only to change perceptions about herself, but about other business owners who look like her.
Green had some additional obstacles to overcome in order to establish herself as the woman in charge, as she first came into TinMan Enterprise after it was an established business. TinMan Enterprise was originally owned by her brother, who was skilled in the craft the job required, but welcomed her support for the actual management of the business. In the aftermath of 9/11’s impact on the job market, Tracy seized the opportunity to leverage her professional skills to help a family member.
As Green stepped into a leadership role with TinMan Enterprise, her determination and work ethic had a notably positive impact. Her many accomplishments include recognition by the Dallas Business Journal as a “Top Woman in Business” in 2011. In addition to effectively managing the structure of the business, Green has exposed her company to new opportunities by thinking about unique ways to access capital. By attending ICIC’s Inner City Capital Connections program, Green learned about non-traditional sources of funding, crediting the experience of making presentations and receiving feedback as pivotal. Now Green has the confidence to get in front of different types of debt and equity providers.
Giving Back to the Community
In addition to managing their own businesses with a spirit of excellence, Sandra Walls and Tracy Green are determined to empower others to do the same. Walls does so by mentoring some of the younger community members in her church, encouraging them to have a vision of success. “When I talk to young people, [I tell them] what you have to do is raise yourself up…think about what you where you want to be 5 to 10 years from now.” Rather than worry about the challenges on the road to success, Walls encourages others to think about the solutions to any problems that they might face – whether in business or in life in general.
Green is determined to be the voice of other minority business owners in the organizations and associations in which she is involved, to ensure that her perspective is heard. “I might not go to church or hunt with the decision makers who can finance or provide resources to support my business, but we might connect in organizations that bring us together.” Green loves to provide structure to organizations that have the potential to create opportunities for minority business owners. “Sometimes they are not close enough to our realities,” Green adds. “It might not help me, for example to get a $500,000 opportunity if I cannot cash flow it, but that opportunity broken into parts might be more valuable.”
Final Words of Advice
In reflecting on what minority business owners can do to continue to stay ahead and remain competitive, both Sandra Walls and Tracy Green mentioned the importance of self-education and company culture.
“As a minority business, there are all kinds of certification programs,” Walls notes. “The MBDA, MSDC, and SBA all have different programs. If you are serious about your business, you need to be ready to position yourself to access resources.” Green emphasized the importance of defining the unique culture that your business can offer others. “Really understand what you want your firm to be, what you bring to the table, and what value you can bring to any organization.”
Sandra Walls and Tracy Green are two extraordinary examples of how hard work and perseverance can propel business owners to transcend the obstacles that inherently face them. Although they recognized the odds they faced as females in male-dominated industries, and as minorities in a world where there are not many business owners who look like them, both women took it upon themselves to change the conversation, and have done so quite effectively. Walls and Green find success by operating with a spirit of excellence. They worked hard to maintain a reputation as the best at their crafts, took advantage of every opportunity that would get them there, and made sure to look out for others hoping to gain access to the same opportunities. ICIC is proud to recognize the accomplishments of both of these women, as Walls and Green remind us of the profound impact that tenacious and solution-oriented leaders can have on businesses, industries, and communities.