Minority entrepreneurs, like any other business owners, face numerous challenges in getting a start-up company off the ground or growing an existing venture. In all enterprises, access to available capital – to begin or to expand – is always arduous. When ethnicity is factored in, minority business operators are presented with a unique set of circumstances.
A sampling of successful minority business owners in Northern and Southern Nevada showed several similarities. All cited long hours, dedication and the willingness to service their clients or produce quality products as keys to making their businesses grow. Showing a commitment to their community and having longevity in Nevada were also important traits.
While there are several government certifications – in Nevada and through federal resources – that are available to minority-owned businesses, such as gaining Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) status, or the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Minority Development Program designation, several opt out of such descriptions.
The explanations vary geographically, said Leslie Mix, the president and chief executive officer of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Reno. “There are really only two reasons to be qualified as a minority-owned business,” Mix said. “One would be if it gives you a financial advantage, such as qualifying for various loans. The other reason is if you’re applying for government contracts. Otherwise, the big difference is between Reno and Las Vegas. People are flooding into Southern Nevada and emerging Hispanic business owners need any edge they can get.”
Mix can recite numerous statistics available on minority communities, primarily the booming Hispanic market. According the United States Census, Nevada’s Hispanic population grew by 15 percent between July 2000 and July 2002, the third-fastest growth rate among states. The growth rate for Hispanics in the Silver State nearly doubled Nevada’s overall growth rate of 7.7 percent for the two-year period, according to Jeff Hardcastle, Nevada’s state demographer.
While most national studies have focused on the rapid growth of the Hispanic population, Asians and African-American entrepreneurs have successfully grown businesses throughout Nevada. Louis Overstreet, executive director of the Las Vegas Urban Chamber of Commerce, which offers assistance and guidance to the African-American business community, said the reason minorities open their own companies remain constant over the years.
“There was a study done a few years ago and I believe it still holds true today,” Overstreet said. “When whites were asked why they went into business for themselves, the response was to make money. For African-Americans, the response overwhelmingly was to become their own bosses. Our efforts over the past few years have helped minority businesses make progress, such as getting the gaming industry to diversify its list of vendors, but there is still much more to do.”
One thread woven through the comments of minority business owners is that opportunities are there for those willing to persevere. When Luther Mack decided to open a McDonald’s franchise some 30 years ago, his biggest challenge came from other fast-food operations in the Reno market. Mack, a life-long Northern Nevada resident, said the fact that there were very few African-American-owned businesses in Reno at the time didn’t present a negative.
“I was somewhat known and I had a lot of good friends who supported me,” Mack said. “My race really wasn’t a factor. I had the desire to succeed and that’s what helped me along. I never really pursued the minority business angle. I had my own funds to get started and I was able to grow the business through good service and hard work.”
Today, Mack operates 10 McDonald’s restaurants in Reno and employs more than 400 workers. He sits on the boards of numerous community organizations and recently resigned as a 14-year member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission because of his election to the board of directors of the publicly-traded Boyd Gaming Corp. – the owner-operator of 13 major casinos, including the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas.
Robert Gomez took a route different from Mack when he went to expand Magic Brite Janitorial, a Las Vegas-based five-person custodial service he purchased from his father-in-law in 1993. Gomez sought several small business loans and financing opportunities to help him take the business in a new direction. He wanted to make a move from cleaning multiple Southern Nevada convenience stores to providing custodial services to larger buildings and other facilities.
“I would go to a lending institution. They would say, ‘no’ and tell me what I needed to accomplish,” Gomez said. “To me, ‘no’ meant ‘on’ when you looked at the word in a mirror. I’d always come back with what they wanted, and say, ‘Okay, I’ve done what you’ve asked of me.’” Gomez entered Magic Brite Janitorial into the SBA 8(a) program in 1996. Today, the company employs 150 workers at eight locations in two states, providing commercial facility management, janitorial or maintenance services in more than 25 federal buildings or U.S. courthouses covering some 6 million square feet of space.
In 2003, the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce named Gomez the Entrepreneur of the Year. He is passing on his knowledge of government procurements to other Latin Chamber members through the establishment of minority business education seminars. “There has been a great disparity between the percentage of procurements awarded to Hispanic companies and the Hispanic population percentage in Clark County,” Gomez said. “The chamber’s Business Development Committee put together a strategic plan in 2002 to help close the gap and give minority businesses the tools they need to succeed.”
Herman Ross, president of National Insurance Consultants, a Las Vegas-based commercial insurance carrier with clients throughout the United States, including Nevada’s Regional Transportation Commission, said he prefers to bid as a prime contractor or vendor, rather than as a business designated by the government as a DBE. “In nine out of 10 bids, people don’t know I’m a minority until I show up in person,” Ross said. Although he served three years as business chairman for the Nevada Minority Purchasing Council, Ross advises people not to advertise their companies as minority-owned businesses when bidding for contracts. “Registering as a DBE can help you get started by providing access to capital,” he noted. “But why be pigeon-holed? Joint-venture with another company and get the whole pie, not just the piece they give you for being a minority-owned business.”
Other businesses seem to have taken Ross’s advice. Brian Loy figures many of his clients will first realize he’s Asian by reading this article. Loy operates Sage Financial Advisors in Reno, which has 120 clients and manages a portfolio of $42 million. Loy grew up in Northern Nevada, and his ties to the area have played a role in his success.
“We work hard for our clients,” Loy said. “I’m a business owner, and one out of every three of our clients is a small business owner as well. So, we understand their needs and concerns and offer personalized service. That has helped more than being of Chinese decent.”
Ten years ago, when Steve Cerocke started IQ Systems, an information technology services company, he got encouragement from fellow members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Cerocke worked for the tribe for several years before branching into his own business, which now has offices in Reno and Northern California.
“Working for the tribe gave me a start and offered me the opportunity to find that I really enjoyed working with computers and this was the direction I wanted to go,” Cerocke said. “As far as promoting my company as a minority-owned business, that’s not a card I’ve really played. We’ve just grown steadily by the good work we’ve performed.”
John Restrepo had already built a solid reputation in Las Vegas when he launched the Restrepo Consulting Group, an economic and financial consulting business, in 1997. Restrepo spent eight years as a financial advisor with Coopers & Lybrand, building a strong client base that followed him when he branched out. Restrepo, who is Hispanic, registered his company as a DBE, which he said helps when vying for various consulting contracts in the public sector. He believes, however, that his longevity in Southern Nevada and his company’s knowledge of economic and real estate trends throughout the southwest are what help him remain competitive.
“We never rest on our laurels and we believe the quality of our work is what makes us stand out,” Restrepo said. “We are able to show our skills and expertise and we have a proven record in assessing the effects of local, regional and national economic trends on urban real estate markets.”
Diane Hughes and her husband, Dr. Anthony Pollard, founded Rainbow Medical Centers in Las Vegas 15 years ago. The couple operates seven locations throughout Southern Nevada, employing a staff of 11 full-time physicians and two physician assistants. Hughes said they have always marketed the medical practice to the Southern Nevada community as a whole, rather than just to the minority community.
“Our success is by providing just good, old-fashioned country doctoring,” said Hughes, who recently celebrated 20 years of marriage with her business partner-husband. “We have forged good relationships with the hospitals and our patients. We provide a variety of health fairs and community partnerships. That is what has helped us succeed. We don’t market ourselves as a minority business. You wouldn’t know Dr. Pollard is African-American until you came in to the office.”
In 1995, Kim Flowers became the first African-American to operate a John Robert Powers Modeling School franchise when she opened her business in Las Vegas. Four years later, she brought the program that teaches image, poise, communication and social graces to Reno. She recently opened franchises in Pasadena, Calif. and Jacksonville, Fla. Flowers also operates a talent agency for her successful clients.
She accomplished her goals without trumpeting her minority status. “Being an African-American woman, there were plenty of obstacles to overcome,” Flowers said. “I wouldn’t take no for an answer. To me, no meant ‘not right now’.”