In 1995, Frank Tucker realized his lifelong dream to become an entrepreneur. Today, Tucker Technology, Inc. is a full service telecommunications and information technology contractor employing 48 workers. Tucker Technology provides engineering, installation and maintenance of structured cabling solutions for a wide range of telecommunications cabling infrastructure projects and offers contract and project based staffing.
In 1996 in the process of starting his business, Tucker heard from friends about the SBA 8(a) Business Development Program, a business assistance program for small disadvantaged businesses, which offers a broad scope of assistance to firms that are owned and controlled at least 51% by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. Under the Small Business Act, certain individuals are presumed socially disadvantaged: African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Pacific Americans, Native Americans (American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, or Native Hawaiians), and Subcontinent Asian Americans. The 8(a) BD program helps thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs to gain a foothold in government contracting.
The same year Tucker Technology also qualified as a Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUB Zone) Program small business. The HUB Zone Program helps small businesses in urban and rural communities gain preferential access to federal procurement opportunities.
SBA’s 8(a) Business Development and HUB Zone Program certification were invaluable to Tucker Technology's early growth. Tucker recalls, “First and foremost, certification advanced our sales. Because of the intense vetting process, we had immediate credibility once certified. This enabled us to close large public and private contracts. Secondly, we were able to get our foot in the door with federal government agencies at a time when we needed to supplement our private sector and local government business.”
However, Tucker is pragmatic about the role of 8(a) Business Development and HUB Zone certifications in the bigger picture of his company’s growth. “I advise African-American entrepreneurs to not assume that certification programs will advance their businesses to its fullest potential. Minority and disadvantaged business programs do have value as one of many success tools, but they are not the end all. Minority business owners, like all business owners, must stay aggressive on all fronts in order to compete in the marketplace.”
Tucker counsels young and aspiring entrepreneurs on a regular basis. He shares his sales-focused philosophy with them as well as lessons he has learned about relationships, morality, and the social impact that a business can have—creating careers and changing lives. Tucker’s most important protégé, however, is his own daughter Conchita, who recently completed her Harvard MBA and has taken the title of President of Tucker Technology.
“Tucker Technology, Inc. is seeing increased growth as a result of Conchita’s leadership,” her father said proudly.
As part of the succession plan, Tucker has moved into the positions of Chairman and CEO. Conchita has already opened an office in New York City, which has increased the company’s national footprint. Both of Conchita’s brothers also work for the company, in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Every morning, Robin Cunningham is at the computer studying Euro exchange rates. She’s a small business owner, not an international economist, but the fluctuation of the Euro has a direct impact on the French soaps and lotions she makes in France and imports to the U.S.
Cunningham, the owner of La Lavande Fine French Soaps in Richmond, has used the services of the Contra Costa SBDC for over 10 years. When she owned a retail store in Walnut Creek, an SBDC consultant counseled her on lease costs. Another SBDC consultant worked with Cunningham on business ratios, inventory, marketing, HR and the importance of reading useful business books. When the constant work of running a retail store and a wholesale firm proved to be overwhelming, SBDC consultant Randy Shores advised Cunningham to concentrate on the wholesale side and recommended a strong web presence to attract a variety of customers. He also suggested systems to track inventory and shipping orders, and how to set goals. At her office and warehouse in Richmond, computers show real-time data instantly.
“You can’t guess as a business owner and hope for the best,” says Cunningham. “You need to use the right tools and have accurate data. You also have to realize that your business is your main source of income. This isn’t a hobby. You have to know what you’re doing.”
Today, Cunningham focuses on her imported products and their sale to special gift stores across the nation. Every year, she attends key gift shows in Atlanta, New York and San Francisco and has contractors represent her business at smaller events. From the design, shape and scent of the soap and even the display box, Cunningham, who has a degree in art from UC Santa Cruz, is involved every step of the way. But she also knows where to get help when it’s needed.
“I think it’s difficult for small business owners to afford private business consultants,” says Cunningham. “That’s the important thing about the SBDC program. The business consultants are real professionals, and the service is free. There’s a wealth of help out there and small businesses need to take advantage of that.”
San Francisco—You walk into Akimi Hair Gallery on Kearney Street and immediately feel at ease. The spacious hair salon three floors above the street is cool and elegant, just like the owner, Carolyn Luu. A former architecture student, Luu knows style and practices it every day through the services she provides to her loyal customers, some of whom have been with her more than 20 years.
A native of Vietnam who fled the country as a child in the late 1970s, Luu and her family arrived in San Francisco via Utah in 1980 to begin a new life in America. She attended Mission High School where a counselor suggested cosmetology as a potential career. Luu took classes at a San Francisco beauty school and later attended San Francisco City College with the thought of becoming an architect.
“After working at a couple of hair salons,” said Luu, “I realized I wanted to be in the hair business full-time.”
Luu worked as an employee for several years when a client told her about the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and the programs it offered for people who wanted to run their own business.
“I went to SBA in San Francisco, then to a SCORE counselor, and I was actually thinking about getting an SBA loan,” recalled Luu. “The SCORE counselor looked at my business plan and actually told me I didn’t need a loan.
“The initial meeting with SCORE was very important to me because I didn’t have a business background. I needed to talk to someone about the basics of operating a business and SCORE did that.”
Luu opened a hair salon with a partner in 1987 and the two remained together until the lease expired. That’s when Luu decided she wanted to be the sole proprietor of her own salon. It took almost a year to find a new location in downtown San Francisco but when she finally did, Akimi Hair Gallery was born. Her faithful customers followed. Amazingly, Luu has never relied on advertising. She gets customers through referrals and word-of-mouth.
“The business started as a hair salon,” Luu said, “but I always wanted to also have my own line of beauty products.”
As a child in Vietnam, Luu soaked “bo ket” pods in warm water, then used the same water to wash her hair. The result was clean, glossy hair with a wonderful fresh scent. Fast-forward 30 years later and Luu, the businesswoman, spent three years searching for the right ingredients without harmful chemicals to replicate the “bo ket” experience.
“My original thought was to have the products manufactured in Vietnam,” said Luu. “It was my way of giving back to the country where I came from. However, after careful consideration, I decided against it. My home is here and my heart is here. This country has offered my family and me so many opportunities to better our lives. If I need to help create or keep jobs anywhere, it’s here.”
With the help of a customer, Luu discovered carob bean pods contain ingredients that naturally cleanse and condition hair. It was a long, trying process but Luu finally found a lab in Berkeley to manufacture her products which include a carob bean shampoo, conditioner and reconstructor. Customers can also choose from a variety of scents that can be added to the shampoo and conditioner.
Vanity Fair has tested Seed by Akimi products and will feature them in the magazine sometime in 2011.
Luu, who continues to take SCORE classes periodically, says the road to her success has required the willingness to explore unchartered territories. “Running a business can be a daunting task,” she says, “but SCORE has provided me with the necessary tools to overcome my fear of starting a new business and launching a new product line.”