Jennifer Johnson and Serafina Palandech created Hip Chick Farms as a natural extension of their love of food, family and their desire to provide family-friendly solutions for lunch and dinner.
Johnson is the Chef and Chief Operations Officer for Hip Chick Farms. She has a real passion for cooking and is a perfectionist in the kitchen. Johnson has worked with great chefs, such as Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. For the last ten years, Johnson has served as the Executive Private Chef for Ann and Gordon Getty. When Mrs. Getty started a Montessori school in her home, Johnson’s role expanded to cooking a family style lunch for 25 children every day. The kids in the school loved her food, and when they went home at night, they would ask their moms for Chef Jen’s chicken fingers. The moms in turn started asking Jen for her products.
Palandech, the President for Hip Chick Farms works closely with Sonoma County farmers to support the local economy and ensure their ingredients are the best the county has to offer.
Johnson and Palandech had the passion for local, sustainable food systems, but they found the learning curve steep for other aspects of running a small business, such as choosing a corporate structure and marketing. “We have learned the importance of strategic planning, hard work, gathering assistance from experts in the industry, as well as the in-and-outs of the food industry,” Palandech recalls.
Palandech took classes at the SBA in San Francisco, and found them very helpful. When they started Hip Chick Farms, Palandech and Johnson participated in a class offered by the local Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) chapter and received mentoring from SCORE counselor, Richard Adler. SCORE is a nonprofit association dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground and grow. They also attended classes at the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Santa Rosa. SBDCs provide a wide array of training and counseling assistance to small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs.
When seeking start-up financing, they applied for and received a Community Advantage 7(a) SBA-guaranteed loan through Bay Area Small Business Finance. Community Advantage is a pilot initiative aimed at increasing the number of SBA 7(a) lenders who reach underserved communities, targeting community-based, mission-focused financial institutions which were previously not able to offer SBA loans. The maximum loan size for Community Advantage is $250,000.
“The SBA provided us with much-needed financing for our start-up company, when most financial institutions would not help us.” Johnson said matter-of-factly. “The SBA supported classes gave us the necessary information we needed on important decisions in the formation of our company – what legal structure to take, how to create a business plan, how to create financial forecasting and how to seek investors.” Hip Chick Farms not only benefited from one-on-one mentoring, they became part of a community of new entrepreneurs, able to support one another.
Hip Chick Farms has begun selling their products in stores, and now their challenge is keeping up with demand. Johnson and Palendech are well aware that even as their production increases rapidly, they must maintain the impeccable quality and strong relationships with their customers, which brought them to this point. Hip Chick Farms has launched their products on the West Coast, with plans to expand to the Southwest and Rockies, and eventually nationally.
When asked for advice for other would-be business owners, Palandech exclaimed, “Don’t let anyone tell you that it cannot be done, or that the economic downturn will hinder your progress. There is a world of opportunity available, with lots of resources to help you – such as the SBA!”
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.”