2013 Women's Business Enterprise Stars Biographies

The WBE stars shared their insights and expertise with the WBENC community in a series of videos throughout the Salute. View the videos on YouTube or view photos and highlights in the April 2013 President's Report.

Big Apple Car, Inc. 

Diana Clemente set herself the goal of becoming a CPA and working for a Big Eight accounting firm; she achieved that goal by graduating first in her class from Baruch College and joining Peat, Marwick Mitchell and Co., (now KPMG LLP). But, Diana says, "Sometimes a door opens in life and you walk through that door and there is an amazing path." For Diana, that ‘open door' was a car door.

From the age of 16, while studying in school, Diana worked for a black-car company- first as a customer service representative and then as a dispatcher. Then at 27 years old, she seized an opportunity to apply her business skills to the for-hire ground transportation industry, and became financial controller of Big Apple Car, Inc.

Within 5 years, her business acumen saw her rise to becoming Principal and President of the company.

"My dream was not to be the president of a transportation company; it is not something I strived for. But I do love it and it was an opportunity that did present itself," she says.

Under Diana's guidance, Big Apple Car has flourished and expanded. Today, its diverse services range from the delivering of both traditional black-car and hybrid vehicles, to the arranging of customers to obtain top notch transportation through its affiliate network, which currently operates in 350 cities nationally, and 68 countries worldwide.

Her formula for success in what is an intensely competitive business is the same now as it was when she first joined the company. "It is service. In an industry that many see as generic, we are really an outlier because we don't consider ourselves just business transportation, we consider ourselves a customer service business that provides car services," she says.

Proof that her business model works lies in the very fact that every large account has been with the company for a decade or more, with the Big Apple Car's largest account remaining a steadfast and satisfied customer since 1988.

One of her office rules is "people before paper." In other words, staff is always expected to stop what they are doing, and answer customer calls as quickly as possible. The old- and nowadays often forgotten- adage ‘the customer is always right' is set in stone at Big Apple Car.

The company's affiliated drivers also recognize the importance of maintaining good customer relationships, so it is a rare occurrence for any driver to disagree with a passenger, even if the dispute involves rate charges. Drivers know that if they deliver proper transportation services they will receive payment. In this way, Big Apple Car has removed the fear of "no payment," and any potential conflict the driver may have with a customer.

Diana expects and demands that the drivers maintain high standards at all times. "Drivers are treated fairly, they are trained and educated and we have policies in place that are designed to ensure that they only deliver the best service out there."

Big Apple Car's WBE certification came after Macy's- a large account- inquired as to whether or not the company had obtained the title. Diana admits that she didn't know anything about the certification process, but after researching the issues, she applied and became certified.

In offering advice to new entrepreneurs, she cautions to always be conservative to a certain extent, even if you are doing well. "I remember when I began making my business successful and spending the money I earned. My dad would say ‘save for rainy days', and I didn't believe I needed to heed his advice. I mistakenly thought I had the Midas touch, but he was right, and rainy days do come…I am wiser now and I wish I would have listened more and taken more of my father's advice as I would have been a bit more conservative going into the recession."

Diana also says to do everything right, take pride in what you do, learn from your mistakes and listen. "There are some people who are so egotistical that they do not really listen," she affirms, "Everyone, no matter how smart or successful he or she is, can learn from someone else."

To build any business requires skill, determination and passion, but to build it a second time from scratch is the ultimate test of these qualities.

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Cristina Didoné
CD Language Solutions, Inc.

Created on accuracy and specialist-based understanding, Cristina's company, CD Language Solutions, grew quickly. Within two years, it was providing translation services to virtually every section of two very large companies: Enron and Coastal Power. At the same time Enron collapsed, Coastal Power was taken over; all of a sudden, Cristina's company had no clients.

"It was a very hard experience; it was something that taught me that you never give up, because there is always a way and a path to success if you keep working at it," she reflects. In addition to sorting out the financial impact, she had to start from square one again, which required going out and knocking on doors.

"I had a lot of confidence in our services, I had a lot of confidence in what we could offer to clients in a combination of legal and oil and gas expertise so I knew there were clients out there," Cristina says. 

Her certainty and determination were rewarded with a contract to translate for Schlumberger, which had a large project in Mexico.

Hiring her first employee again and restarting her business was just as exciting as the first time, Cristina says positively. "It makes you feel that really there is nothing that is impossible in business as long as you work hard and you are committed to your clients."

Today her company serves a broad spectrum of global clients including the legal, energy, healthcare and marketing industries. It has offices in Houston, Silicon Valley, Buenos Aires and London with specialist translators covering more than 130 languages.

Cristina's career path combined two passions: the law and the English language. Thus she gained an MA in Legal Translation from the University of Salvador in Buenos Aires, followed by an Executive Management degree from Rice University.

Although the company now offers a diversified range of services, demonstrating an accurate understanding of complex legal documents was a key to winning initial clients, including one of the world's largest law firms acting for Jose Cuervo in a case in Mexico. She explains, "Being able to provide high quality and very accurate translations in that case opened doors [for us] to other law firms, and from then on we became experts and we became known as the experts in high volume translations that require very high levels of accuracy."

Those documents that require the services of CD Language Solutions range from Supreme Court rulings, to patent applications, to legal opinions. In other industries it could be complex engineering, or IT documents.

Cristina has maintained a core team of translators for over 10 years and matches specialists to a client's needs. She often travels to other countries to ensure there is a clear understanding of a client's operation.

CD Language Solutions gained WBE certification in 2004, and Cristina says the involvement with WBENC has been valuable in many ways; sometimes it even serves as a tiebreaker in winning a contract. She notes that there is also a tangible benefit from associating with other women who have built businesses. "You share ideas but you also get a lot of energy. Every time you attend one of the business expos for WBENC, I feel you come back with ideas that are refreshed with new energy and you feel that you are not alone in your leadership position."

Like so many successful entrepreneurs, Cristina believes that a constant passion to grow a better company and to offer even better services is vital. "You cannot just have warm feelings about what you do. You have to be absolutely passionate and convinced that what you do is what you love."

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Jamie Fletcher
Mach 1 Global Services, Inc.

"Live, breathe, eat what you do." These few words sum up Jamie Fletcher's approach to business.

As CEO of Mach 1, a privately held international freight-forwarding company with some 225 employees globally, and revenue of $98 million, her responsibilities reflect her philosophy.

On a daily basis, she is instrumental in implementing growth-based initiatives, and serves as leadership development counselor, community liaison and corporate spokesperson.

Although she was promoted to the CEO's position only 4 years ago, Jamie has grown up with the 25-year old business. After gaining a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from Arizona State University, Jamie immersed herself in every aspect of the business, from driving a forklift in the warehouse to learning the international side of the operation and traveling to all 34 of the company's locations around the globe.

"Getting out in front of clients and really learning what our people do on a day-to-day basis really helped me grow as a leader and really got me where I am today. I think I'm better equipped to have a fresh approach to some aspects of our business having been entrenched in all departments," she says.

She acknowledges that her age sets her apart from that of a typical CEO, but she doesn't see it as a disadvantage. "My age really hasn't been a factor. I know my stuff. I'm prepared, I know my business, I'm passionate about it. But I really think it gives me an advantage because I walk into a room and I'm usually the youngest person there. I stick out, people want to hear my story, they want to know more about Mach 1 and who we are and what we do. I think it's been able to give me more of an advantage due to the fact that I have a fresh approach," Jamie says.

Those fresh approaches include the introduction of new technology, and implementing environmentally friendly initiatives.

"We've invested in a global operating IT platform that manages all aspects of our business across all modes. Our customers are really looking for complete supply chain visibility so our technology allows our customers to see where their shipment is in real time no matter if they are shipping across the state or around the globe."

"Greening" the company's operations at every level is also a priority. Jamie says this is important not only to Mach 1, but to the customers as well. The company is a member of the US Environmental Protection Agency SmartWay Transport Partnership and is dedicated to reducing the impact freight transportation has on the environment.

Another certification Jamie rates highly is WBENC. "Since we got certified, we have been able to secure new, large contracts as a direct result of our certification as well as increased business with our clients we had prior to certification. We have been able to expand with them and also help them meet their supplier diversity goals. It has helped us access a lot of new opportunities," she says.

"We have the WBENC logo on all of our trucks. We wear it loud and proud."

The WBE networking, the education programs, and sharing best practices with other women business owners are all important to Jamie. "It's not always easy to discuss the business challenges we face as leaders with family or friends, so it's great to support and bounce ideas off each other and grow together," she says.

Jamie's view of the future of Mach 1 is constant, and clever growth. 

"2013 marks our 25th anniversary. We are very proud of this milestone and I think our best years are ahead of us."

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Theresa Ghafari
President and CEO
G-Tech Services, Inc.

When you talk to Theresa Ghafari about what she has achieved, she is noticeably humble. Yet, by any measure, her determination, vision and sheer bravery are more than exceptional.

For someone starting a business, the barriers Theresa faced in 1988 don't get much tougher.

After losing her husband in Lebanon's civil war and with no English skills, Theresa immigrated to Detroit to join her mother and siblings with just $500 in her pocket and two teenage sons. In 1989, her brother, Ambassador Yousif B. Ghafari, presented her with an opportunity to develop a professional staffing services firm from the ground up.

Today, Theresa heads G-TECH Services, Inc., which specializes in the recruitment and placement of engineering, IT, finance and accounting professionals and has an annual turnover of $53 million.

"When my brother presented the idea to me, I was very honest and told him that I was scared to death to accept the challenge," she admits.

But in the first six months, she was able to generate enough income to make a living. From that point on, G-TECH's growth has been constant.

"I worked by myself as a single woman for three years to bring the revenues up to three million dollars in the first three years. And that's when I added my very first staff member, who is still with me today," Theresa says.

She quickly developed a reputation for integrity and won the support of major companies, like Ford Motor Company. 

"My very first customer was Ford. I'm sitting here today because I was nominated by Ford for this honor, for which I am so grateful," she says. "One of my strengths is building relationships; I'm a firm believer in establishing solid partnerships with my clients and I cannot thank Ford enough for their loyalty over the years."

More than once, Ford (MSXI) has ranked G-TECH #1 in customer satisfaction. Theresa says she is really living the American Dream. "It is amazing. This is truly the land of opportunity," she says.

Her elder son now has two Masters degrees and works for an oil company in Texas. Her younger son has a business degree and manages the Middle East operations of her brother's architecture / engineering practice. Theresa is rightly proud of their achievements. When her elder son was asked by the CEO of his company to name his business role model, his answer was "my mom."

Theresa's business advice reflects her pragmatic approach to life. She says any ambitious entrepreneur should surround themselves with smart people.

"It is okay if they are smarter than you," she says. "Listen to them. And don't assume you know it all. I have been in this business for 25 years and I learn from my staff members every day. I learn from my clients every day."

She says gaining WBE certification for her company was one of her best decisions. "I am fortunate to do business with Fortune 100 companies such as Ford Motor Company, Chrysler and General Motors. There are always diversity meetings and conferences, and it's nice to have your WBENC organization there to support you. I am so thankful to WBENC for their continued support, especially Michelle Richards for her dedication and hard work."

Theresa's motto is not to waste time on things you can't control. "The faster you move on, the better off the organization will be. You cannot dwell on negativity."

And Theresa is looking forward – G-TECH now has three offices and 625 professionals working in 12 states, producing revenue of $53 million.

"I would love to be at $100 million. It can be achieved," she says. "I am fortunate to have a wonderful team supporting me, and I am so grateful for their continued dedication."

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Bev Gray
President and CEO
Exhibit Edge Inc.

Bev Gray's path to heading a highly successful, multi-million dollar business is true to her philosophy that patience and persistence are sometimes overlooked attributes in the corporate world, and that timing is everything. 

She was first introduced to the world of trade exhibitions back in 1979. But while she did put her Computer Science degree to good use working at MCI, she did not begin her own business until 1992, after having a period at home as a full-time mother to her two children.

She launched Exhibit Edge, with the Federal Aviation Administration as its first client. Since then, she has driven her company along a path of constant growth that has been recognized by countless awards. Over the company's 20-year history, more than 7,000 exhibition jobs and product sales have been carried out for hundreds of customers, in all industries.

Within the last year, through the same distinguished patience and persistence, Exhibit Edge has picked up its biggest corporate client. "This particular client took us two and half years to nurture, and you just have to wait until they're ready to buy," Bev says.

She believes that WBENC certification and being active in the organization also plays a significant role in client acquisition. "We met several of our larger clients at the WBENC conference. You just keep in contact with them, [and] be patient; it doesn't happen overnight."

At conferences, Bev went around and targeted 5 or 6 exhibitors, including one of the larger corporations. Exhibit Edge was present at every trade show event, and notice was taken. When the corporation's old contract expired, Bev was invited to submit a proposal, which ultimately won the job.

In the highly competitive exhibition industry, Bev has introduced a novel approach to developing a following for her company. Exhibit Edge's ‘Exhibitor Lounge' nurtures clients and prospects through a weekly video. The videos share exhibiting tips, product comparisons, cost saving measures and strategy ideas. "We look at it as a real lounge, so we include an exotic, weekly cocktail drink. Our clients actually enjoy the cocktail recipe as much as they enjoy hearing our tips," she says.

Reacting to changes in client needs has also been important.

"Marketing budgets have gone down so we have to constantly reinvent our product and service offerings. Lighter weights, easier to set up and to tear down, saves our customers' money, so we are looking out for their best interest," Bev explains.

Her advice to new women entrepreneurs is disarmingly frank: seek help. Bev stresses "go get help in the things that you're not naturally good at, so then you can concentrate on your unique talents. That's what is going to make your business grow…I tried to do everything on my own and I set back my company probably five, maybe even ten years."

Bev also says that as her business has matured, her motivation has also changed.

"In the beginning it was [about] creating my own destiny and being able to work for myself, then it became financial independence. Right now it's actually shifting, looking at others. We have several employees that have been with the company for many years. We need to grow the company in order for them to grow."

The successful businesswoman has also been able to utilize Exhibit Edge as a charity. "We give away used show rooms of trade show exhibits to non-profits and create signs for charity events, so we are focusing on more outward helping. You know, it's not all about me, it's about others."

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Arlene Inch
Transpak, Inc

As the sprawling orchards of Silicon Valley progressed to become the technology capital of the world, a packaging and shipping company had parallel growth.

TransPak was established in 1952 to service the emerging electronics industry.

For the last 43 years, the Inch family has owned and run the company, with Arlene Inch taking control and buying the business in 1997.

The experience Arlene has amassed over those years matched to the belief that women can do anything, which is the reason the company is now a global player in crating and shipping everything from semiconductors to rockets.

After her family's initial purchase of the company in 1969, Arlene worked in every aspect of the business, from payroll to sales. If doubters ever told her she couldn't do something, she would always respond, "I'll show you!"

She says, "Women can do anything we want when we go for it and that's what you have to do, and that's what I did. And here we are; we've grown a lot and it's been really exciting."

In the beginning, TransPak only built crates to safely move equipment, but over the years, they have expanded their services to match the packaging and logistics needs of their customers: major manufacturers in the electronics, solar, aerospace and medical industries. Today, for some pieces of equipment, even the crates can be hi-tech units, designed by the company's engineers using 3D computer programs.

As tech companies moved manufacturing to other countries, TransPak followed their customers. 

"They wanted us because they knew we were good and we could do the job the way they needed it done, and so we followed them. And now we're located in seven countries on two continents," Arlene says.

With operations established in Singapore, Taiwan, Shanghai, Korea, Malaysia and Guadalajara, the challenges have been great. Arlene acknowledges that establishing overseas branches is a lot of work; locating real estate, working with banks, and finding a local manager. But, Arlene says, "You can do it with the right team, and focused determination."

Arlene credits her son and her executive management team for making the international expansion a reality. Their optimistic perspective on what is possible, coupled with their desire to build a strong competitive company with future growth potential, have propelled the company forward. The fact that so many of TransPak's employees are long term, underlines Arlene's efforts to keep her staff happy. "We treat all our employees like family," she says. And it is her support for the aspirations of her employees that propels the company's further expansion.

"I would probably have just kept it small if it had only been up to me, but I know expansion is important to my team, and that growth means future stability. And there's a lot of growth opportunity out there."

Arlene says WBENC has been instrumental in that growth by helping her build contacts and relationships around the world. She also says that her involvement with WBENC and Astra has brought her a circle of friends she values very highly. "I‘ve met so many wonderful women, they're fabulous, very high powered, energetic people that will become my friends forever."

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Keeli Jernigan
CEO and President
Trans-Expedite, Inc. 

A round the break room water-cooler it's not unusual to hear employees of a company voicing the belief that they "could do things better" than their employer.

That's usually as far as it goes.

But Keeli Jernigan, who had worked for a global company in the freight-forwarding industry, turned this belief into a reality eleven years ago when she founded Trans-Expedite as a global logistics company that served the time sensitive shipments of critical cargo. Since then, the company has grown to generate annual revenues of $50 million. As a single source solution for warehousing, inventory and distribution, it enables its clients to protect their assets, reduce operational costs, and solve strategic supply chain problems.

"I had become frustrated with the response time at my former company. I believed that there was an opportunity to create a new business model that would respond to customer needs more quickly and more strategically. So I borrowed $29,000 from family, pulled together a team that included my husband, and opened Trans-Expedite," Keeli says.

Putting that belief to the ultimate test came at the time of the launch – October 2001. It was when the freight-forwarding industry suddenly was subject to a myriad of new regulations.

"We were receiving emergency amendments from the Transportation Security Administration almost on a daily basis the first 30 days we were open because they were changing the regulations on how we could ship freight on commercial airlines. So it was extremely challenging," Keeli says.

But this was a trigger to focus on compliance, and today Trans-Expedite is one of a handful of freight companies in the U.S. to obtain the ISO 28000: 2007 Certification in supply chain security.

"That shows our customers that we are very committed to moving their freight securely," Keeli says.

She says that being flexible to customers' needs, and working closely with them has been a key strategy right from start-up. "I am proud to say that we still serve our first four customers that started with us in 2001."

With pressure on freight costs, Keeli has empowered her staff at all levels to make critical decisions they need to make in order to help the company's customers.

"Our job is to act like true consultants and help them come up with cost efficiencies and streamline their supply chain, so that they can maintain a competitive advantage," she says.

To provide the necessary flexibility, Trans-Expedite has expanded its services to include ground transport, warehousing, inventory and distribution.

Keeli is positive WBENC certification has played a tangible role in her company's spectacular growth.

"We became certified in 2007 and since then our business has grown 178% and 30-40% of that revenue can be attributed to corporations who are members of WBENC with diversity initiatives in place," she says.

She says it is important to play an active role with WBENC, and help other WBEs grow.

"We hope as a WBE that the corporations are going to buy from us. So I feel it's very important for us to look to other WBEs and see how they can help us with our purchasing."

She says the peer support of WBENC has been invaluable. "Not only have I made lifelong friends, but they have been mentors to me and they have inspired me." She explains, "Hearing their stories, learning from them, spending time with them and surrounding yourself with great people...that is all key to the process of growth."

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Joyce Landry
Landry & Kling, Inc.

In 1978, Joyce Landry fell in love…with cruise ships. It has proven to be an enduring love affair, as her passion for ships of all different shapes, sizes, and uses, is as strong as ever.

That enthusiasm and vision have been the backbone of the operation she established in 1982, along with business partner Josephine Kling. After a four-year stint at the Holland America Line and Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the ambitious mid-twenties pair decided they wanted to start their own company. So, with no money and no clients, they rented an office on Madison Avenue. What they did have, however, (and still do), was a bag full of ideas, which they successfully turned into reality.

"A lot of people have ideas. A lot of people have amazing ideas. But unless you're the one that steps out and does it, it never gets done. The good ideas just sit in a scrap heap somewhere. So, you know, having the good idea is only part of it. You just have to risk it. Risk it, take it and go with it," Joyce says.

Their initial idea, which was unheard of at the time, was to use cruise ships in non-traditional ways for events like conferences, meetings, and conventions.

Now, over the 30-year history of the business, that has expanded into utilizing ships as floating hotels, disaster relief hubs, and government meeting centers.

"Anything that you can use a hotel for, you can use a ship for," Joyce says. "We started this as a way to do something completely different that had never, ever been approached before. And we've been successful for over 30 years because we did something that hadn't been done, and we made a go of it."

From a tiny ad in the New York Times that read: "If you've never used a cruise for a meeting or a conference, you're missing the boat," the business grew to be an industry leader with a client list from small tech start-ups to Fortune 500 corporations.

Numerous awards have recognized their success; the company has even been inducted into the Cruise Industry Hall of Fame.

Joyce explains that anyone can go out and charter a ship, but what has made her business approach unique is an ability to match the needs of clients to the right ship as well as the right itinerary. "The camaraderie established between participants by on-board meetings and conventions is tangible," she says. "In a hotel they might have scattered, they might not see each other after the meeting is over. But on a ship they feel like they're actually on a journey together."

Winning a contract to place ships in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics reflects the company's success in chartering ships as floating hotels in global cities.

Joyce's imaginative interface between the corporate world and the shipping world expanded after the 2008 economic downturn, when a lot of Fortune 500 money dried up. "We stopped just looking at the big projects we could do and looked at all the projects that we could do. So now we have a much more varied customer base," Joyce says. "We're finding that nowadays companies want people to be a little more active. You know, gone are the meetings where people just sit and listen," she explains. "Now it's all about, ‘how do we interact?' And especially companies that have younger attendees, we need to do things with people.
So we need to go to private islands and have team building events and we need to come up with ways to keep people active."

Certified by WBENC for 6 years, Joyce says certification has both brought business, and helped locate WBE suppliers – like a limo company in Miami, and premiums and logo vendors.

In mentoring other young women entrepreneurs, Joyce frequently uses a quote that's now part of her company's culture: "There's always an elegant solution." The key to the 30-year success of Joyce and her business partner is to "do what you love. Do what makes your heart sing. Stay focused. Keep at it and don't give up."

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Judith Maloy
Managing Director
Polaris Direct

Founding director Judith Maloy realized a dream of building a better letter shop when she and founding partner, Suzanne Lampognana, started their own in 2003- one that focused on handling high-volume direct mail for Fortune 500 companies and marketing agencies. Built on a solid foundation of decades of collective experience and a fruitful marriage of skills from a talented team of entrepreneurs, a new "star" was launched into the competitive direct
marketing industry.

It took a year to plan and create the vision for Polaris Direct. Every aspect of development, even the name, was a collaboration. According to Judith, "We chose the night sky's most trustworthy navigation point as our name." Also known as the North Star, Polaris has been used for ages as a navigation tool both on land and at sea. Judith believes, "Like the star, we intend to be a guiding light for direct marketers in search of real solutions. We've positioned ourselves to accept any direct mail production challenge, and emerge as a proven leader."

Polaris Direct's focus is not just on getting the mail out, but in partnering with their clients to create effective marketing campaigns. "What we bring to the table is personalized service combined with our expertise, knowledge, technology and resources," Judith says.

These core values are what differentiate Polaris Direct from the competition. "We have a strategic interest in working with our customers to look at ways to increase their return on investment. So we try to take a more active role, especially in the beginning, in the development of a mail campaign. For example, we look for ways to streamline the mailing format. It might just be a matter of taking off a quarter of an inch so it can run on a particular piece of equipment more effectively," Judith says.

Judith's 20 plus years' experience in direct-mail- having developed campaigns for Mercedes Benz North America, Bristol-Myers and Chase Manhattan Bank- compliments the talents and expertise of the Polaris management team of veteran professionals. Suzanne's expertise in management training is invaluable in managing human resources, while the selling skills of husbands' Joe Maloy and Tom Lampognana support client relationships and sales revenues.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Polaris Direct. Their success comes from a diverse group of loyal clients. "We work with telecommunications, financial services, healthcare, insurance and non-profits – and that diversity has helped us be sustainable," Judith says. "It's a good business model to have that diversification. It's like a five-legged stool. If one mailer needs to pull back, we have the support of our other clients."

Polaris Direct ranked for three consecutive years on the INC 500/5000 as one of the fastest growing companies in the nation. Certified since 2004, WBENC helped Polaris gain nationally acclaimed success. Through WBENC, Polaris Direct was mentored by the Citizens Bank's procurement team with the goal of tailoring their sales message to a specific audience. For some large corporations, procurement departments have replaced direct communication with marketing divisions. Per Judith, "Thanks to our mentor partner, we now have the tools to get the right sales message to the right people." Judith credits WBENC with helping to establish meaningful connections over the last nine years.

For anyone starting a new business, Judith says ‘courage' combined with planning for best and worst case scenarios will give you a solid start. This kind of attention to detail has made Polaris Direct a leader.

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Heather Sanderson
Overture Premiums & Promotions, LLC

Heather Sanderson is a self-declared adrenalin junky; mountain biking down Whistler, sky-diving, and pursuing an interest in classic cars are all on her list of favorite activities. If she were not a CEO, her dream job would be to entertain audiences as the lead singer of a rock band. In other words, Heather believes life should have its fair share of fun and excitement.

And that's exactly her approach to business. She has surrounded herself with positive people who are excited to come to work in a creative environment.

In just 12 years, Heather has grown her business from a three-person start-up in a small office, to a 75-strong staff housed in an exceptional 70,000 square foot building.

For 10 years, Heather was CFO of a large California-based promotional products company, but when she followed her then fiancé to Chicago in 2001, for the first time in her life she was unemployed. However, over a dinner with industry friends one night, combining her expertise with their access to finance and a customer base, Overture was born.

From day one, Heather aimed for excitement and style. "For the next six months I worked on building out the business and building a building that was a boutique-style promotional products company." The building included a "Nice show room, an area that our sales people would be proud to bring their customers for presentations."

She says that through the experience the company's individuals possessed, they were able to recognize what a large promotional or branding company would need in-house. Everything from graphics, to embroidery, to screen printing to web development – Heather wanted to control the supply chain, which she says helps control costs and deliver the goods in a quick, effective way. She explains that Overture's individual capacity to be able to move quickly and make decisions gives her company an advantage over larger agencies.

Today, the company has a client list that ranges from small to medium business, all the way up to the Fortune 50. The industries served are deliberately varied, bottling companies from health care facilities to rail companies. Recently UPS was added to the list. "I try to keep our client mixture balanced so we're not dependent on one industry," Heather says.

Making work fun are more than just words for Heather, it is something she lives by. As a result, her business has been nominated five years in a row as one of the ‘Best Places To Work'.

"I think the majority of people who are working at Overture are excited to be here. They're friends, we have fun, and we do a lot of outside events together. We do team building events, we do educational events," she says.

In building her creative team, Heather says she prefers to hire outside the industry. "I think that there are a lot of creative people out there in the world and it's not just in the promotional products industry. And they bring in different and new ideas. They're not jaded with the traditional pen. They might find a different way of bringing it to market."

Although the suggestion for WBENC certification originally came from a client, Heather now rates it as one of the most vital decisions made for her business. "The certification definitely helped us retain current customers that we had; very important customers to us. It set us apart from some of our competitors. It put us in different departments. But along with that we've made connections with very large corporations today that the contracts have come specifically from being at the WBENC Conference," she says.

Heather's advice to would-be entrepreneurs reflects her energetic approach to life: "There's never a good time, you just have to go for it. And you're going to have wins and losses but as long as you have passion and you're excited about what you're doing and you have value you'll succeed. But you can never ever stop or give up. And make sure you have amazing people around you to support you." She adds, "Keep the nay-sayers out of your life. Only have positive, fun people around you. Enjoy the ride and have a ton of fun."

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Mary Singer
CRG Sustainable Solutions & Commercial Realty Group

By her own admission, Mary Singer's purpose is to uproot entrenched habits and influence change for the better. This original vision came in the late 1980's when she became inspired to open the first woman-owned commercial real estate firm in Memphis and to pioneer a very new concept: tenant representation.

She took the traditional landlord model of the owner being in charge of the space and turned it into an unbiased way for businesses to attain advice and leverage their occupancy for making sound facility decisions.

During the 2009 global economic crisis, Mary recognized the progress required as CFOs described crucial changes in how they would approach their facilities. Their behaviors started to include sustainability planning.

"When they made a facility decision, they cared about their environmental footprint, the impact of moving product in and out of the facility, and the resource profile along the supply chain."

In 2010, she chose to uproot her very own entrenched business habits and decided to rebrand to include sustainable in her business model solutions as an added value for clients.

Mary now works with corporations to identify opportunities within their supply chain to effectively incorporate sustainability into their daily processes. "We help them engage, educate and drive within their supply chains' lasting improvements. This is about lasting efficiencies for operations."

She found that large corporations were reporting through a Global Reporting Initiative Index (GRI), so her firm also helped smaller businesses align with this approach of saving resources since they are usually already being held accountable for at least emission reductions.

"An important part in being successful with change management and reputation integrity for smaller companies is to first understand where they are in the process. An example is identifying their risk of losing the contract if they do not comply with large companies reporting," says Mary.  

"It is difficult to take a large conversation like sustainability without breaking it into smaller pieces and then connecting it to a larger purpose. We have seen business owners touched in ways that not only improve their business but also their personal lives."

One of the most important influences in reviewing how she ‘threw away trash' came through her grandchildren. "They challenged me to change my behavior and we now have games where we see how creative we can be by making something out of recycled items."

Matched by her passion for leading and influencing businesses down new paths is her enthusiasm for WBENC. "I live in a community that has a local only certification for women which was a huge burden financially and has held us back nationally."

In 2010, Mary worked to shift her community's approach to certification by getting the City of Memphis and Memphis Light, Gas and Water to accept WBENC certification. "WBENC invites my ideas and I feel my input in places we can effect change has been genuinely valued."

Mary not only brought WBENC certification as an option to the Memphis community, but she has also teamed up with The Girl Scouts of America to foster a community for women business entrepreneurs.

She sincerely expresses, "I can't even begin to tell you how the women in WBENC have inspired me to do things very differently in my community."

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Cindy Towers
Jurisolutions, Inc.

Using an external supply of professionals is not uncommon in many industries, including engineering, construction and marketing. But to take that concept and apply it to a profession that has remained largely unchanged for over 100 years took more than a little bravery.

Cindy Towers is CEO and co-founder of JuriSolutions, a family of companies– CYLA, JuriStaff and JXP Search –specializing in the innovative delivery of legal services and the building of successful legal teams. It was while practicing law that she was able to see first-hand the need for her business.

"I was a litigator and I had a very large lawsuit that I was working on for a client and the case involved a tremendous number of documents and briefs that had to get written and we didn't have the bandwidth within the firm to handle the work. The concept of a temporary lawyer was brand new at the time, so I hired one," she explains.

Cindy agrees that it turned out to be a great solution, but thought, "the delivery model- especially for the more sophisticated work- could be better," so she set out to improve and perfect the concept.

She says that while there will always be a demand for traditional brick-and-mortar law firms, corporations of all sizes- from the Fortune 50 to those with less than a million dollars in revenue- have welcomed her company's innovative approach to increasing efficiency and controlling legal spending, while still providing superior quality legal services.

JuriSolutions newest company, CYLA, has over 150 top lawyers working across the country. These lawyers are not contracted freelancers, but are employees similar to those in a traditional law firm. However, unlike a traditional law firm, CYLA does not house its attorneys in expensive office spaces nor does it hire new associates in need of training or have a partnership track. These differences make their model significantly less expensive; by passing these savings on to its clients, CYLA is able to offer the same quality legal services at significantly reduced rates.

"Finding skilled lawyers who are unhappy with not being linked to a single office has been difficult," Cindy proudly states. She says, "There is a tremendous amount of legal talent out there looking for the opportunity to practice law without the pressures of partnership tracks and bringing in business."

And there is the attraction of a flexible lifestyle.

"While some of our attorneys work on site at our client's location, oftentimes our attorneys are allowed to work from home remotely. They can live in a very rural area and still work for a top client in Manhattan," she explains. "It's a perfect option for women who need some flexibility in their life. Many of the assignments are virtual; this allows moms to go to soccer games in the afternoon and then work at 2, 3 o'clock in the morning. At the end of the day, the work is getting done by very intelligent, bright lawyers. And the upside to the client is [that] it's at a fraction of the price."

Cindy's company gained WBENC certification in 2008, and she says it has been transforming for herself, as well as for her organization. However, she cautions against making the assumption, "I'm certified, I am entitled to the business." She affirms, "You still have to have a really good business model and you have to be able to perform and provide value to your clients. What certification does is give you an opportunity to do that."

Her key to maintaining the momentum of business is to always anticipate her clients' needs. "It's constantly looking around the corner and constantly looking into the future for your clients and coming out with solutions to problems they might not even realize they have yet."

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Geraldine Walker
Walker Transfer, Inc.

Anyone who has seen their household possessions disappear down the street on the back of a moving truck on the way to another city or another state, usually has a few qualms about their safe arrival.

Walker Transfer has been putting those worries to rest for the past 48 years, by developing a reputation for quality service that has not only won them countless awards, but also personal friendships with customers satisfied with their move."Many are third generations, repeat customers. They know us by name, and we know them by name. We have seen their children grow, we get invited to their weddings, and we get Christmas cards from the children that have gotten married and had children," says Geraldine Walker, President of Walker Transfer.

Geraldine and her husband Ron bought the company in 1964 from Ron's parents, and while the original two small trucks may now be a fleet of modern vehicles, Geraldine says her company's approach is still the same. "We still value the customer service, so we haven't changed. Yet over the years our customers have grown and we have grown because of our growing customers."

Getting the business started was based on proving that customer service really mattered. With the fledgling business operating from home, they approached a large corporation and asked for a move.

"He looked at us and said, ‘I don't know, you are young,' but we asked, ‘please give us one,' so he did," Geraldine says. And that was the beginning of Walker Transfer becoming corporate relocation specialists.

"We were told, ‘I will give you moves, corporate moves, but if you do damage to something I want you to take care of it, I don't want to hear about it.' Up to this day, we live by those standards," she explains. "Corporations trust us with their most valuable assets…it is our job to get them to their new location in a happy frame of mind."

Geraldine says the key to such a high level of customer satisfaction is having staff who take a real pride in their job, and a genuine interest in the clients.

All of Walker Transfer's trucks are manned by a driver and helper who pack, load, and unload; making sure they are with the client through the whole moving process.

Unlike a lot of moving companies who operate via call center and outsource trucks and staff, Walker Transfer owns its trucks, and the company's employees are salaried, not freelance. Many of them are also third generation.

"When you get a call from the CEO of this major corporation you serve, asking, ‘would you move my family? My children are being transferred, would you move them?' then you know we have done something right, we have the right employees out there," Geraldine says.

Calls are made to every customer- about 600 to 700 a year- to check that the Walker Transfer met their expectations. And the fact that the company has won one of the moving industry's most prestigious awards for 14 consecutive years, gives one an idea of how customers respond.

The company proudly wears the WBENC certification seal, and Geraldine says she knows this is important to many corporations, as it has played a role in renewing contracts.

Her advice to new entrepreneurs is as straightforward as her approach to business: "Do what you say you are going to do, do it the right way, be honest, believe in yourself and it will happen."

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Traci Williams
President and CEO
Cresent Construction Services, LLC

Growing up with both her grandfather and father as electrical contractors, there was an assumption that Traci Williams would one day join the family business, too.

However, that was something she did not want to do.

"Instead, I got a degree in finance and marketing, then went out into the business world. I wanted to do something different," Traci recalls.

Doing things differently is now what sets Traci's company apart.

Over the past six years, Crescent Construction Services has touched some $5 billion dollars in construction projects.  But they didn't build or fix anything.

Crescent provides third-party quality control through inspections, assessments, surveys and commissioning work. While all of their projects are important, big-box locations, like grocery stores or warehouses, are especially critical and the inspections have no room for error.

"After each of our projects, we check the reports at least two, if not three different times by different people on our team to make sure the quality that we expect- and want- is there before we send it out to a customer," explains Traci.

"We tell our team that contractors don't have to prove they're right, they just have to prove we're wrong. That's why we make sure we're correct whenever we leave a job site."

Those site visits may include inspections or surveys and assessments on drains, electrical systems, concrete pours, roofs, or the entire site. Critical as these checks may be, they are an added cost, so it is a credit to Traci's innovative business approach and track record of integrity, that her company has maintained momentum over a downturn in the construction industry.

"We got very innovative, very creative. We decided we had to come up with some things that could change the way we performed work for our customers. This added value to our services for them, increased their cost effectiveness and certainly helped their bottom line," she says.

With the introduction of iPhones and iPads, Traci saw a chance to increase her team's efficiency. She sent one of her staff to learn how to develop iPhone Apps. At first those applications were only used in-house, but they proved to be so effective and well received, that they decided to put some of them on the open market.

This led to Traci establishing a spin-off company, ToraLab, LLC, which not only sells apps to customers in the construction industry but also develops apps for businesses of all sizes. Current cost cutting in the construction industry has actually increased Traci's business.

"For example, the owner of the building wants another set of eyes to come in and look at it. If the owner's not there or if their project manager's not there, they count on us to check and make sure it's done the way it's supposed to be done," Traci says.

Without her third-party check, Traci says, it is the fox guarding the hen house.

"I use this as my sales tool every so often," she explains. "I ask, ‘Have you ever thought about it this way?' And once they start seeing that, then they're more willing to talk to us."

One of the remarkable things about her business is that she has never lost a client, and still has those that were with her at the start.

WBENC certification was gained in 2007, and Traci says this has led to new contracts. At a supplier diversity event at one of the country's largest retailers, she met one of their facility managers. He said he felt like he ran one of the world's largest plumbing companies, and that even he had never seen a survey and reporting system like Crescent's. Needless to say, this led to a contract. 

At another event, Traci met one of the supplier diversity managers of a large utility company. 

"The manager was so impressed with what we did she asked me to come a week later and do a presentation for them. Within nine months we had a contract with them as well," she says. 

Traci's advice to young entrepreneurs is as straightforward as her approach to her business: "Be true to yourself. Always watch out for yourself but also watch out for others. Do only what it is that you enjoy doing and feel like you can do well. Be honest with yourself and above all be honest with the people that you work with and with your customers."


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