Kitt Walsh | CNNMoney.com
Need some inspiration for the New Year? These entrepreneurs overcame incredible odds to create and run successful businesses.
Not every successful entrepreneur came out of Wharton or Harvard. One named “Uncle Cleve” clawed his way to fortune in the segregated South helping keep food cold in the scorching Mississippi Delta. Cleve’s story, and its entrepreneurial lessons, is documented by his nephew, Clifton Taulbert, in his book, “Who Owns the Icehouse? Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur”
The book inspired The Kauffman Foundation to fund The Ice House Entrepreneurship Program, an online program featuring many entrepreneurs over adversity to carve out their success. Here are six.
Entrepreneur: Dawn Halfaker
Business: Halfaker & Associates
Dawn Halfaker lost her arm serving her country as an Army Captain in Iraq, but she never lost her spirit. Meeting another “Wounded Warrior” in the hospital, who was preparing for a triathlon despite her own devastating injuries, Halfaker realized she had a choice: concentrate on what she had lost or what she still had left.
The West Point graduate wanted to keep a connection to the troops. Having lead 32 soldiers in Iraq, she said. “I knew a lot about operations on the ground. No RPG [rocket propelled grenade] could take that knowledge from me.” She “worked her butt off” as a consultant for a defense contractor and when word spread of her diligence, the contracts began pouring in. Halfaker & Associates recruited other veterans and now employs more than 100 people.
Halfaker credits the fire in her belly to determination. “Have a vision. Follow your passion. The money will come,” she said.
Entrepreneur: Sirena and Ted Moore-Elohim
Business: Elohim Cleaning Contractors
As a teenager, Sirena Moore knew she wanted two things from life: to be on the cover of “Black Enterprise Magazine” and to make a six-figure salary. Her dreams took a hit when in high school — and with “no tangible skills” — she got pregnant with twins.
Her dad, Ted, advised figuring out a business to start and he’d help. “I researched online just what was a business,” she said. “I knew nothing.” Deciding on construction site cleaning, Sirena took business classes, while her dad offered their services at construction sites all over Philadelphia.
With only $200 in capital and working from a bedroom, the Moore family grew Elohim Cleaning Contractors to 60 employees with $2 million in sales. That earned Sirena that magazine cover. She believes God created her opportunities so she could provide opportunities for others. Her advice to future entrepreneurs? “Have a dream, but write it down. Then find a mentor to help you make your plan a reality.”
Entrepreneur: Susana Cabrera
Business: Delicious Bite
A lawyer in her native Venezuela, Susana Cabrera was raised by an entrepreneur father. But she never saw herself as one until she came to the United States and tried to replicate her ethnic cuisine for her family.
Extremely health conscious, Cabrera was appalled at the sodium and preservatives found in major Latin food brands. She believed she could do better, and set out to learn everything from recipe adaption to marketing.
When banks wouldn’t finance her dream, she invested all of her own family’s money to found Delicious Bite, a company making Latin appetizers and meals. Her products are now in more than 700 stores nationally, and the company is on target to hit $1 million in revenues this year. Cabrera credits her success to deep spirituality. “The storms may be strong, but there’s always an umbrella” and tenacity, she said, “No matter how many rocks you encounter on the road…just jump over them and keep your goal in sight.”
Entrepreneur: David Petite
Business: Native American Intellectual Property Enterprise Council
Living in his car forced David Petite to do some serious soul-searching, though this Native American was no stranger to tough times.
A hardscrabble childhood taught him early self-sufficiency, but his first R&D company failed due to lack of resources, and David lost the fight to keep a roof over his head. He hit “rock-bottom.” Making himself a personal commitment to better his life, he met an “angel investor” who saw him as a man with the will to succeed and worthy of financing.
“I learned to see failures as great lessons,” he said. Developing communications technology for assisted living facilities and meter manufacturers, David’s innovations eventually earned him 50 patents worldwide. A believer in paying it forward, he helps young innovators through his Native American Inventor’s Center. “Look in the mirror and say ‘I am going to make a difference for the people around me’ and you will be rewarded,” he said.
Entrepreneur: Lydia Gutierrez
Business: Hacienda Mexican Foods
As an assistant to a “tortilla peddler” in inner city Detroit, Lydia Gutierrez answered phones, made deliveries and helped with sales, never realizing she was learning a business… until she married the boss.
Her husband, Richard, shared his vision of growing Hacienda Mexican Foods to a national company and the couple set out to make his vision a reality. When Richard died unexpectedly in 2005, Lydia knew that she would continue to realize their shared dream. Sustained by the feeling she had “an angel on her shoulder,” Lydia expanded the product line to include chorizo, corn chips and Mexican spices. She hired even more neighborhood residents — eventually employing 85 people — and hit $10 million in annual sales.
Lydia believes respecting her employees is the key to her success. “Those that walk with others never walk alone,” she said. She added that hopeful entrepreneurs should seek out a mentor. “Everybody needs their own angel,” she said.
Entrepreneur: Ryan Blair
Ryan Blair’s journey from L.A. crack house to corporate boardroom began when an entrepreneur crossed paths with the orphaned gang member. “This man took me in and believed in me until I believed in myself,” he said.
Blair went from ward of the court to owner of his first business, earning him his first million, but not his last. A later company manufactured weight loss shakes and when it was failing, he sold it to an investor who abandoned it during the market collapse.
Blair used his last few dollars to buy the company back, tweaking the model by issuing a 90-day weight loss challenge, providing the first testimonial by losing 40 pounds himself.
Now 50,000 people monthly undertake the Body By Vi Challenge. The company earns $20 million annually. “I couldn’t ever accept failure as an option,” said Blair. “Give your idea a shot. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”