March is Women's History Month and there's so much to celebrate. Women have made a tremendous impact as entrepreneurs; providing for their families, communities and the overall economy. Yes, there's still a ways to go in regard to equal pay and opportunities but my glass is half full. I'm optimistic that the fierce momentum will continue to expand, especially with free educational resources, vocal advocates and inspiring mentors.
I found a great deal of inspiration in a just released comprehensive report titled, Breaking Through: Harnessing the Economical Potential of Women Entrepreneurs by The Center for An Urban Future and Capital One. In regard to the state with the most women-owned businesses, the study says, "What's clear from our research is that women entrepreneurs in New York have come a long way in recent years. More than 62 percent (163,000) of the 262,000 new private companies formed in the city between 2002 and 2012 are women-owned. All told, in 2012, women-owned businesses in the city generated $53 billion in revenue." (2012 is the most recent year that provides rigorous data on this)
Those numbers represent major impact and many of those women-owned businesses are 'solopreneurs,' where the only employee is the owner, who will hopefully grow and scale to add more employees and boost revenues even higher.
One woman, who started as a solopreneur and now has 40 employees is Barbara Armand, founder and CEO of Armand Corporation. Ms. Armand is the epitome of an entrepreneur who followed her passion, despite all odds, to build her own successful consulting business within the male-dominated construction industry in 1991.
I recently spoke to Barbara Armand about her now 25-year-long entrepreneurial journey. Her company has had substantial involvement in projects with construction values from $500,000 to $1,200,000,000. Armand has received many construction industry honors and serves as a mentor and inspirational figure for many women.
Her lifelong passion for construction began when, as a young child, she watched her uncle run his construction business in Louisiana. Armand recalls, "It was during the time of segregation, when white people wouldn't build homes in black neighborhoods. So, my uncle took it upon himself to build many homes for the black community, sometimes even providing mortgages. I was a little girl and was in awe of what he did. I realized later in life what a big impression he had made in my life."
BARBARA ARMAND'S INSIGHTS FROM HER ENTREPRENEURIAL JOURNEY:
Create Your Own Opportunities
Before striking out on her own, Armand worked for a large defense contractor that had projects for the U.S. Navy and Marines. In time, she realized she could start her own firm doing the same type of work she did as an employee. So, she asked her current employer if she could be a consultant rather than employee. The employer agreed and the Armand Corporation was launched. Barbara says, "I was the same person at the same desk doing the same job, but I was no longer an employee; I was CEO of my own business." It was fortuitous that Barbara made that change because the funding for the defense initiative soon dried up and she would have lost that job. Instead, it became the first company listed on her new firm's roster.
Armand learned from a colleague that the city of Philadelphia was providing special opportunities for "certified" minority and woman-owned businesses. She had only been in business for two years, but had all of the necessary documentation to get certified. Once certified, Barbara was made aware of available governmental contracts within her industry. This led to her first big job; demolition of the old JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Many other firms had turned it down because it was a risky and very complicated endeavor but Barbara's company took on the challenge and succeeded. She recalls, "It was such a relief that everything worked out well and the job was done safely and successfully. It got me noticed and brought in other inquiries." Minority and women-owned business certification remains available nationwide.
Build Your Business One Job At a Time
Armand says, "I got a boost of confidence from that big accomplishment, so I was picking up anything that came along that I felt like I could handle. I needed to stay afloat and during those first few years, I had to take anything even if I had to outsource certain parts of the job. I had the confidence to take jobs and then figure it all out. Building little by little was the way it had to be. My goal was getting a project that would last more than two months."
Never Give Up
Armand says, "My finances were a disaster from taking piecemeal projects, but there was no turning back. I never once thought about giving up. It never even crossed my mind. Everyone always said if you can make it past the first five years, you'll be okay. But it took much longer than that milestone for me to feel successful. I went through a stressful divorce that took me six to seven years to recoup financially. It wasn't until year 15 that I started to feel successful."
BARBARA ARMAND'S QUICK TIPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS:
- Be laser-focused. My natural ability to focus allows me to dive through complicated issues quickly. But, focus can be learned. Focus on doing one thing well.
- Before you start a business, think about the financing behind it. Interview two to three different banks and lending officers; ask them what they're looking for from entrepreneurs. If a banker doesn't offer detailed specifics, this is not the right match.
- Don't be put off when people question your goals. If you have a passion, follow that passion. I knew construction was my calling and I never strayed. Naysayers will always be around, ignore them.
- Never doubt yourself. Operate from a place of confidence. Know that every single day there will be challenges, but you will succeed as long as you never consider giving up.
- My policy with my employees is that it's okay to make a mistake but if you do, tell somebody so that we can rectify it.
- Never make the same mistake twice.
- Find the right team for your business so that you can supervise rather than micromanage. I hire people to do a great job on their own.
- Communication is important. I meet with all new hires for 30 minutes every six months to keep employees on track and get feedback, especially with Millennials. I want to help the younger employees reach their own goals as well, whether that's with Armand Corp. or not.
- Celebrate success, even if it's just quickly! In the beginning, I'd do a 30 second 'Happy Dance,' when I got a new project and then I'd just keep moving forward, looking for the next project.
The Importance of Giving Back
Armand says, "Mentoring is important to me. Quite often I'd counsel husband and wife teams, I can offer objective advice on making it work. I like to let couples know that only one of them needs to have the true passion for their business. One is a visionary, and the other is the implementer or supporter. That's okay."
Armand also serves as President of the N.Y. national chapter of Professional Women in Construction, where she meets and mentors a lot of women. "We have ongoing discussions for mentorship, I see these women as they progress. I've also been formally asked to mentor someone in a corporate management program at a defense contractor. I have never said no when someone asks me to mentor them. I feel a responsibility to help".
Her lifetime experience seems to cover so many challenges that she says, "I've persevered through financial disaster, divorce, health issues and I've gotten through everything. I don't think there's anything that I cannot counsel on. I'm happy to provide the lead for someone else now."
In honor of National Women's History month, let's make a collective effort to leverage the progress that women like Barbara Armand have made. We can support women-owned businesses with our purchasing power and also reach out to offer help in three areas that remain difficult for many women: financial management, finding funding and networking/mentoring.
The Center for Urban Future/Capital One Survey says, "The good news is that a growing number of organizations are providing training and critical support to women entrepreneurs. Non-profits and intermediary organizations such as Grameen America, the Hebrew Free Loan Society, The Business Outreach Center, the Business Center for New Americans, WHEDCO and industry and professional organizations all run training programs for new and seasoned entrepreneurs. And for many, the experience is game changing."
If you need assistance with your business, utilize these resources and reach out to local women like Barbara Armand, who are ready and willing to share their wisdom. And if you're an experienced entrepreneur, let others know that you're willing to help. As Maya Angelou said, "When you learn, teach. When you get, give."
This powerful collective energy will shape the future of women entrepreneurs and continue to eliminate the gender gap.