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Five Key Strategies to Build a Fast-Growing Business


Sandra Walls started with a vision, a plan, a relentless capacity for hard work-and not  much more. This Memphis, Tenn., entrepreneur has grown her logistics  and  supply-chain  manage­ment firm to 56 workers, reached almost $9 million in total revenue in three years, and earned a spot on Fortune magazine's list of fastest-growing inner-city compa­nies. Sandra does not credit this growth solely to hard work. Rather, she chose to strategically invest time in a program that is redefining successful support for American entrepreneurs.

And, she isn't alone.

Since  2004,  more  than  700  women business  owners  have  graduated  from programs utilizing StreetWise 'MBA’™,  a small-business  executive education  curriculum  developed  by  lnterise.  Despite ongoing national economic woes, thriving Streetwise businesses have created jobs at seven times the rate of the private sec­ tor as a whole. Over the last three years, they have created 1,600 net new jobs and retained more than 14,000 existing jobs.

How did they do it?

We asked for the secrets of some of the women who have successfully completed the Streetwise 'MBA' curriculum, designed to include about nine months of classes on business development and strategy, financial management, marketing, human resources, accessing capital and government contracts. Here's what these successful women said:

Network with likeminded business owners.

It's lonely out there

One of the most valuable new management practices they learned is to think with other business owners about their challenges and opportunities.  Francella Giatrakis, a Native American small business owner in Frisco, Texas, enrolled in the program when-after becoming a partner in a small aviation and defense business she recognized that she needed to network with other small employers.

"I was looking to grow myself so I could help the company and learn from other CEOs in the same position I was in," Francella said.

"We shared challenges and resolutions with one another and other business strategies and success stories," she said. She added that it was good to hear feedback from peers who weren't as emotionally involved in her business. Networking is now an embedded practice for her.

Work ON your business, no IN it

A program like this gives women entrepreneurs like Julie Savitt time to work on growing their businesses by stepping out of day-to-day demands. A Chicago mother of three, Julie took over her ex-husband's construction business when he was suddenly unable to continue working.

Rather than study other business cases, Streetwise uses a live case methodology for each business in the program. With the help of the other CEOs in the program and their instructor, Julie was able to deeply analyze her own business. Previously, she neither had the structure nor the colleagues with whom to do so.

"It just makes you reevaluate what you are doing. I was struggling just to get things in order," Julie said. She credits the reevaluation effort with giving her the foundational business plan and sales strategy needed to move ahead with confidence.

Stop procrastinating. Plan and Act

Sandra said it was critical to take the opportunity to focus on the "important but not urgent tasks" that would help her raise the bar for her business. As a result, she diversified her revenue stream to include a mix of federal and corporate contracting.

"Growing a business is all about planning,” said Rhonda Carson Leach, an Instructor in Interise’s partner program at the University of Pittsburgh called Urban Power to Prosper."Business owners don't fail to grow, they just fall to plan.

When rejected, demand to know why

As experienced by many women who are small-business owners, banks continually rejected Sandra's applications for small business loans. That is until she demanded to know why.

Sandra said her demand for information led to ultimate success in securing a $3 million line of credit.

"I said, 'No, you need to tell me what It Is that I can do to make myself more attractive to you,'"   she said, crediting the knowledge gained in the program with giving her the confidence to demand answers.

Surround yourself with smarter people and ask for help

Sandra, Julie and Francella all endeavored to fill their companies with the smartest people they could find.

"Having the best-in-class talent pool helps us get to where we want to go," Francella said.

Too often, women business owners are afraid to ask for help, said Rhonda, the University of Pittsburgh instructor. Also, entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to be honest about where they are with their business.

"You don't have to be the smartest person in the room," Rhonda said. "When you connect with others, you all just take on a gleaming shine of being smart.

No guarantees exist in business and, for these and hundreds of other women business owners, success demands many additional steps. But through these five key steps and hard work, these women have taken their businesses to the next level. And now they can't be stopped from creating new jobs, better futures for them­ selves and their employees, and stronger communities for us all.

*This article originally appeared in the December issue of Enterprising Women.

Next mayor needs to focus on Boston’s “missing middle’’


As our city careens into the final furious days of an historic mayoral campaign, the two men who would replace Mayor Thomas M. Menino need to get serious — and specific — about the real best way to grow and keep jobs here, particularly in our more economically-challenged neighborhoods.

Both City Councilor John Connolly and state Rep. Martin Walsh have done an outstanding job highlighting the city’s innovation economy and doing what we can to keep those highly-skilled graduates who leave our world-leading universities right here to grow their careers. They also spend a lot of time talking about neighborhood business, development and the future of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

But the real focus needs to be on the often ignored “missing middle” of established businesses which have, by even conservative estimates and statistics, the greatest potential to grow if they have appropriate support from City Hall and creating the proper support to develop new entrepreneurs who have viable concepts and the talent to scale their early stage businesses.

Both of these objectives for the missing middle of established businesses can be achieved by creating a comprehensive strategy that strengthens the urban entrepreneur ecosystem in Boston’s economically dispossessed neighborhoods. Start by connecting these neighborhoods to regional, national and international markets. Focus that strategy on established small businesses poised to grow, not solo practitioners or the latest tech gazelle capturing headlines.

A strong new mayor can bring together local banks, private investors, and foundations to create a unique vehicle to make flexible capital available to both the existing and early stage businesses that will create jobs in our most distressed neighborhood. In the struggling Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, civic leaders have helped guide more than 80 businesses through the popular Youngstown Initiative, providing loans that convert to performance grants.

Our new mayor can support procurement with anchor institutions, corporations and all levels of government. In particular, performance bonds for small and medium enterprises are often a barrier to working with larger institutions. In the United Kingdom, the government Department for Business, Innovation & Skills is investigating an insurance scheme to replace the necessity for performance bonds.

Major corporations invest in the discipline of market research. Giving smaller businesses access to the same type of information will help guide them in important development and investment decisions. The future Mayor can help secure access to this critical market research through our universities or other public policy teams.

And, more than anything, the new mayor can lead by example and show where his priorities are by appointing a cabinet level Department of Small Business. The city currently has a Small & Local Business Enterprise Office which sits apart from the city’s Chief Economic Development Officer, who heads the BRA and is understandably focused mostly on large-scale development.

Robert Walsh, the Commissioner for New York City Small Business Services recently spoke at an Interise event celebrating small businesses across the country that have grown and thrived throughout the recession. He pointed out that Mayor Bloomberg’s innovative small business strategy was actually ‘made in Boston’, drawing on the expertise at local universities and the Parthenon Group. Next year, we don’t want to have to invite the Commissioner from New York. It’s time for a ‘made in Boston’ small business strategy for Boston.

Our next mayor needs to show the city – the entire city – that he cares about getting jobs in the whole city, not just the Seaport. To do that, the candidates need to offer a specific focus on this established segment of the economy, the place where jobs are created. If he does that, he just might be the next great jobs mayor for our city.

Jean Horstman is CEO of Interise. Glynn Lloyd is CEO of City Fresh Foods in Roxbury.

*This post origionally appeared in the Boston Globe's Opinion section.

Announcing our thrive finalists!


Put your hands together for our thrive finalists!

Please help us congratulate the finalists for our second annual thrive awards:

Local Leader, Business $1M and under in annual revenue
Victoria Aguilar, AR Group, Denver 2012
Maria Gonzalez, Gonzalez Insurance Group, Denver 2012
Nicholas Pieri, Boston Handyworks, Boston 2012

Local Leader, Business above $1M in annual revenue
Vern Abila, Abila Security, Denver 2012
Gary Crouch, CS3 Technology, Tulsa 2011

Big Time Operator, Business $4M and under in annual revenue
Tony Hill, Edwards & Hill Office Furniture, Baltimore 2011
Karl Ivester, New England Shutter Mills, Lawrence 2011

Big Time Operator, Business above $4M in annual revenue
Gina Marie Bernal, Royal Engineers & Consultants, New Orleans 2009
Alberto Calvo, Stop & Compare Supermarkets, Boston 2012
Fonda Lindfors New, Quaternary Resource Investigations, New Orleans 2011

We hope to see you at thrive to help us celebrate our finalists and winners! You can learn more about thrive and get tickets by clicking here.

Want your business to be featured at thrive?

small business owners in the news


Participants across the country have been getting lots of love in the press lately! Check out some of their stories below.

2013 participant Blueline Security Services: These Inc. 500 CEOs Prove That Not All Entrepreneurs Work Alone

2008 grad Tummy Toys: Business incubator provides opportunities for East Boston entrepreneurs

2013 participant Atiki’s Flight Catering: Entrepreneurial: High-flying food fare

2013 grad RC Excitement: Owner of Fitchburg RC shop gets crash course in business

Entrepreneurs Live the American Dream Every Day


I am fortunate to have met many people with many talents in my life.

I am married to a caring, talented woman who brings her intellect and compassion to everything. We have two wonderful young boys who represent all things good. My parents instilled values and principles that have allowed me to appreciate all of the blessings that have been bestowed upon me. I work with many talented individuals in many facets every day. These people are entrepreneurs who are also clerks, janitors, professors, students, teachers, business and civic leaders, politicians, authors, physicians, attorneys, engineers, pharmacists, scientists, and many more, too numerous to mention. I learn many things from these brilliant people.

It is this good fortune that has led me to realize that many have not benefited from the riches of support I enjoy. With these benefits, comes duty to serve.

Some people don't see a world of opportunity that comes from difficulties. Where others may see a road block, I see an opportunity. Where some may see a difference, I see a perspective, an opportunity to learn. Where others may give up because of a lack of resources, I see motivation. Why? Because I am entrepreneur.

I have the benefit and wonderful opportunity to work in many facets with entrepreneurs and see unbridled passion for a concept or an idea. Unfortunately, they eventually hit obstacles on their paths to execution. These obstacles create the experience and the character, and in turn, lead to the ability to assess and analyze opportunity.

My role is to shorten the learning curve, to advise, push, support and learn from these inspiring people. They are the future of our wonderful nation and I am a fortunate and grateful participant in watching them evolve so that their concepts become the great policy, ideas, products and organizations of this world.

The true future of our country is in the hands of the entrepreneurs who convert their ideas to reality through sacrifice and determination. They are the embodiment of the American Dream. They are my inspiration.

-- Sherif A. Ebrahim

Sherif A. Ebrahim is President & CEO of Strategic Management Group and Managing Partner of SMG Capital, both nationally recognized Private Equity and Health Care Firms based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

thrive 2013: celebrating the impact of our small business community


Save October 17th and celebrate with us at thrive!


The thrive breakfast is a unique networking opportunity and celebration of the growth and success of our community of small business owners, volunteers and partners.  

For more information, or to purchase a ticket click here.

NEW this year: a luncheon conference on Human Resources! This will be a chance for our business owners to network with each other in a more intimate setting, while continuing to work ON the growth of their business.


Don't forget to nominate a small business owner for one of our awards:

bto resized 600

Big Time Operator

Local Leader 

Ace Advisor  

awarded to a business owner for exceptional growth and job creation.

Click here to nominate

awarded to a business owner for an outstanding commitment to their community.

Click here to nominate

 awarded to a mentor, coach or advisor that helped propel a graduate's business.  

 Click here to nominate

Navigating Uncertainty to Grow Small Business Jobs and Revenue


employment decline graph resized 600Since the American economy began its downward tumble six years ago, the strain on small businesses has been far more dramatic than in the post-9/11 recesssion -- a 40 percent job loss in 2007-2008 compared to just 10 percent in 2001. 

Small businesses owners have struggled in particular because of their inability to respond to the uncertainty brought on by weak sales and flagging consumer demand. The banks sneezed and small businesses caught pneumonia.

But in pockets of American business, often in our inner cities, there is a story of flourishing enterprise being written. It is a story of jobs added and revenues grown, of contracts won and community investments redoubled.

It is another chapter in American innovation and it is happening with minimal government risk, reasonable investment and entrepreneurs who just need a smart nudge to get out of neutral.

At a Federal Reserve conference in Washington, I presented the findings from my company's recently-completed research into the diamonds in our current economic rough. They remind us of just how little help it can take to drive economic growth, when applied strategically.

Our nonprofit firm, which for nine years has focused exclusively on helping established small employer firms grow, surveyed 374 small businesses to evaluate how they remained resilient during the economic recession. We define resilience by a business's job creation or retention compared to the business environment in which it operates. Of the businesses who participated in our study, a large majority -- 253 -- added new full-time positions or maintained their level of staffing only 121 lost positions.

survey firms at a glance resized 600

We went to these companies that have been able to show demonstrable success at creating and sustaining job growth to more deeply understand how they were doing it. (In both 2010 and 2011, Interise's national network of small employers created net new jobs at a rate that was seven times that of the private sector as a whole according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics).

We learned through our research that while these resilient small businesses faced many of the same challenges as their peers -- from accessing capital to limited resources and capacity, they succeeded by planning effectively, remaining creative under pressure, assessing and adapting to their business environments.

What set the thriving companies apart was their capacity to read the business climate and adapt in systemic ways.

Rather than hunkering down and waiting for the economic horizon to brighten, they were able to continue their growth by managing with one eye on their existing growth plans and another on the changes in the business climate. The combination of a strategic plan focused on growth and managerial flexibility in times of intense business stress enabled creativity. Because these strong small businesses already had solid management teams in place overseeing daily operations, the CEOs were able give more of their attention to navigating the recession's uncertainties.

In a time when credit was tight, their strategic plans strengthened their case for financing.

Like all research, ours has prompted still more questions. We need to know more about how the local business environment and community impacts small business resilience and how and why firm resilience might improve or degrade over time. We also need to examine the relationship between small business growth and strategic hiring in building resilience. We need to identify the competencies associated with firm resilience and ascertain which can be taught and which are innate skills accessed only through hiring for them. Answering these questions will help us learn how firms can best build the management competencies they need for resilience in uncertain times.

Throughout this Great Recession, policymakers have spent considerable time, energy and rhetoric focusing on propping up big business and picking winners and losers -- usually more losers -- along the risky terrain of start-up investing.

While the economic reports of the day are only modestly improving and the impacts aren't yet being felt in many boardrooms or living rooms, there are pockets where the small employers, who are carrying the burden of our economic recovery, are thriving. In their success, we can rewrite the narrative of American economic strength and prosperity -- if we listen and learn.


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