#SWAAYthenarrative
Courtesy of Shonda Scott

We, as Businesswomen, Must Answer Our Civic Calling

4 min read
Business

As a fourth-generation business owner, I was raised with the understanding that business and civic duties were synonymous. And I think if we take an honest look at the essence of civic duties and business we find that, at the core, it's best when they both work in concert.

In the 1920s, when my great grandfather — son of an enslaved Black woman and a white slave owner — became a real estate developer in Colorado building homes for Black people in the segregated Rocky Mountains, his business passion fueled his civic duty to help those who had been disenfranchised to thrive. If not for business owners like my great grandfather and owners of Colorado's historic Winks Lodge (the only Black resort in the western United States during the middle of the 20th Century), many Black people, including celebrities, would not have had a safe place to stay during their travels in the Jim Crow era. It was through their businesses that many people of color were able to create and promote their political agenda.

The bottom line is this: all of our lives are impacted by our civic world, and it is important for each of us to find a role where we can serve and lead as our civic duty.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a very close confidant — a successful businessman in Atlanta, Herman Russell. The late Herman Russell was the owner and founder of one of the largest minority-owned construction companies in the world. At the time of Mr. Russell's passing, it was reported that"When history catches its breath, Mr. Russell's life work will place him among the most significant heroes of the Civil Rights Movement because of his unwavering contributions and commitment to the progress of Atlanta and the nation. No one man has done more to make Atlanta a place where people of all races and backgrounds can bring and build their dreams."

Mr. Russell, like my parents, Art and Frazier Scott, understood that the responsibility of business — especially that of small businesses — was to give back to the local community both economically and through civic contribution. My parents, along with several other successful business owners, helped to transform the landscape of Oakland's business and civic community in the 1980s. Employing over 600 people, mostly people of color, my parents' business was instrumental in launching the next generation of Oakland's small business owners as well as supporting the city's African-American politicians whose ideologies were in line with their own. At that time, Oakland had become known as "California's Chocolate City" because of the opportunities available to Black people in both business and civic arenas.

Personally, my path to becoming a civic and business leader started as a child with my parents. I was often the only child attending community meetings with my parents. During their time in business, I witnessed them build, according to Black Enterprise Magazine, one of the top 100 Black-owned businesses in the United States while remaining civically engaged in the local political landscape, fighting to ensure diversity in our education and contracting communities. I learned from them that our civic contribution is not for ourselves or even our businesses, but for the betterment of our community.

At that time, Oakland had become known as "California's Chocolate City" because of the opportunities available to Black people in both business and civic arenas.

In my formative years, the early seeds of civic duties bloomed when I attended an all-girl Catholic high school. The fact that it was all-girls meant all-women leadership too. And all of us who ran for elected office and won were cast into the world of leadership and civic duty at an early age. In fact, community service was expected, an expectation that continued while I was at UCLA.

In college, I married these two worlds by studying political science and business economics. Growing up and knowing the impact that civic participation has on the business world and knowing that success is found when both worlds coexist, made it inevitable for me to pursue business and link it with civic engagement. Through the world of politics, I discovered that fundraising for political candidates and initiatives that aligned with my morals was as important of a role in shaping the political atmosphere as running for political office was.

It was through their businesses that many people of color were able to create and promote their political agenda.

Consider Henry Kissinger, Warren Buffett, and the Kennedys. It was their dominance in the business world that led to their understanding of the value of political participation. In today's world, even the greatest candidate doesn't have a chance at winning if they don't have strong business support to help them raise the funds needed to get their message out and to build a strong, sustainable political platform.

The bottom line is this: all of our lives are impacted by our civic world, and it is important for each of us to find a role where we can serve and lead as our civic duty. Thus, as a business leader, civic contribution is paramount to have true impact on your community.

3 Min Read
Business

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.