The Opportunity Maker: Bethlehem’s Self-Made Success Dr. Sylvia Medina Brings Message of Hope to Local Youth and Entrepreneurs
Raising the bar—for herself, her employees, her patients and her community. It is all in a day’s work for Lehigh Valley optometrist Sylvia Medina, O.D. Drawing on her own life’s journey, which includes an incredible rise from 15-year-old high school drop out to well-respected optometrist, Dr. Medina’s life has been devoted to increasing access to healthcare, education and opportunity for otherwise struggling communities. As the founder of the Lehigh Valley’s only Spanish-English bilingual optometry practice, Dr. Medina is making quality eye care attainable for a Spanish-speaking population that travels from as far as New York City to her Bethlehem, Penn. offices for treatment. As a self-styled mentor for the patients and employees she sees every day, she is changing lives.
From Dr. Medina’s own earliest years, the power of community environment and mentorship to change life’s path has been striking. Dr. Medina’s youth was marked by teenage pregnancy, dropping out of high school, and marrying by the age of 15, not an unusual life course in New York City’s public housing, where Dr. Medina came of age. But education began opening doors for Dr. Medina when a G.E.D. earned in her early 20’s landed her a position as a clerk at Philadelphia’s St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. Soon, Dr. Medina’s signature inner drive took hold, propelling her from entry-level administrative position to optical technician and introducing her to a host of what would become life-long mentors and to a world of endless possibilities.
Charting the Course for Success
By the 1980’s, Dr. Medina was the working mother of two small children with a full schedule and an ambitious plan for the future. Dr. Medina’s work at St. Christopher’s Hospital had focused her career goals on optometry, and a college degree was the next step in achieving that goal. So, Dr. Medina packed up her family and moved to southern Florida, where she enrolled in the University of South Florida. Earning a college degree with a family in tow meant working full time while carrying a full course load, but Dr. Medina was undaunted. She spent four years deftly balancing family, work and school, making time for study whenever she could—including fitting study sessions in at the top of bleachers at her growing sons’ wrestling meets, interrupted only by trips to the bottom of the bleachers to see her sons compete.
In 1993, Dr. Medina graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelors of Science degree, and it was off to Puerto Rico for four years of optometry school, punctuated by internships stateside. When Dr. Medina graduated with her O.D. degree in 1997, she had earned much more than academic honors; she had earned the respect and ongoing mentorship of the optometrists with whom she worked while earning her degree. It was those relationships that would shape her career going forward, buoying her inclination to fuse her healthcare skills and her background in the Spanish-speaking community to make a difference in the lives of others.
Bethlehem Bound: Medoptic Puts down Roots in the Lehigh Valley
Although Dr. Medina originally hails from New York, careful research and consultation with her most trusted circle of mentors led her to establish her optometry practice in the heart of the Lehigh Valley. Dr. Medina’s research showed a thriving Spanish-speaking community in Bethlehem, Penn., without a local Spanish-English bilingual optometrist. The city was in the heart of the northeast corridor with easy access to direct transportation routes from other Spanish-speaking enclaves in neighboring states like New York and New Jersey, making a Bethlehem office reachable for a large potential patient pool. Bethlehem’s fit for Dr. Medina’s purpose was clear, and it only took a one visit to the Bethlehem area to scout possible office locations to seal Dr. Medina’s commitment to call Bethlehem home.
By 2007, Dr. Medina had built a successful practice—christened Medoptic, P.C.—from her small location on 4th Street in Bethlehem. The practice drew patients from as far away as New York City, and Dr. Medina’s patient pool was a mix of native English and Spanish speakers. Since starting the business one year before, Dr. Medina had built a reputation in Bethlehem and beyond as a trusted healthcare provider and willing mentor. Dr. Medina connected easily with people of all backgrounds, and she designed her practice to serve patient groups across cultural and economic divides. A walk-in schedule made Hispanics unfamiliar with the appointment-driven U.S. medical system more comfortable; the practice’s acceptance of all types of medical insurance, as well as cash payments made Medoptic economically accessible; and Dr. Medina’s easy manner drew patients from all walks of life.
Medoptic’s success brought Dr. Medina both professional and personal satisfaction. Dr. Medina’s work was impacting her neighbors’ health but, more than that, it was impacting their lives. Bringing new healthcare resources to communities that would otherwise go without was, for Dr. Medina, more than ample reward for the years she invested in earning her degree. But, for Dr. Medina, the biggest personal reward has been in the opportunity that her practice has provided to mentor her young patients. As Medoptic grew, Dr. Medina saw more and more young patients on the verge of being sidelined by teen pregnancy or lack of education. Drawing on her own background for inspiration, Dr. Medina has become a role model for these “girls on the brink,” showing them that a challenged youth need not stand in the way of their dreams. For many of these young patients, Dr. Medina’s mentorship has meant renewed self esteem, continued education, and new career paths, some including employment on Medoptic’s staff.
As Medoptic continued to thrive, the sky seemed to be the limit for the practice’s growth, until financing issues threatened to bring Dr. Medina’s momentum to a standstill.
Growing Pains: SBA to the Rescue
By 2010, Medoptic was outgrowing its small 4th street location, but expansion seemed impossible. In the wake of the recent recession, lenders balked at financing projects for new businesses. Dr. Medina knew that, without a commercial loan resource, Medoptic would be unable to meet growing patient demand. But, just when the outlook was darkest, Dr. Medina made a connection that would change everything.
In Fall 2010, Dr. Medina’s professional network put her in touch with Wise Financial Group, a Lehigh Valley loan packaging organization with SBA lending contacts. Working with Wise Financial, Dr. Medina approached Berkshire Bank, a Berks County SBA-certified lender, and together, they secured an SBA-backed commercial loan that would allow Medoptic’s future to truly take flight.
Like many successful small business owners, Dr. Medina knew her business’ needs—a larger facility and updated equipment to treat her growing patient pool—but she didn’t know about the SBA lending programs that could allow her to afford them. Until Dr. Medina applied for a commercial loan through an SBA certified lender, that lack of knowledge threatened to derail Medoptic’s growth indefinitely. On the strength of Dr. Medina’s loan application, though, SBA certified Berkshire Bank set her loan application on track for a loan through SBA’s flagship lending program—the 7(a) loan program—and efficiently secured the capital that she needed to take on the future. Within six weeks from submitting her 7(a) loan application, Dr. Medina was tapping SBA-backed loan proceeds to purchase a building to house Medoptic’s second location and outfitting it with updated equipment.
Through the loan process with Berkshire Bank, Dr. Medina learned that an SBA 7(a) loan guarantee is designed to make business loans more accessible to small business like hers. With the guarantee in place, lenders like Berkshire Bank are assured that, if the borrower defaults, SBA will re-pay the guaranteed portion of the loan. This assurance often gives lenders the additional confidence needed to make a loan to a small business.
Happily, Dr. Medina also learned that the process of obtaining an SBA 7(a) loan guarantee is simple: upon application with the lender for a loan, the lender makes the determination of whether to finance it conventionally, use an SBA loan guarantee to close the deal, or pass on a project. If the lender finances the loan through the SBA’s loan guarantee program, the lender will guide the borrower through the application process.
Today, Dr. Medina sees patients in two locations—her original location at 827 East Fourth Street, Bethlehem, and her new SBA-funded facility at 2037 Stefko Boulevard, Bethlehem. Dr. Medina is using her practice’s expanded outreach to bring optometric care to all segments of society, and to offer herself up as an accessible mentor to neighbors, patients, and, now, to a new audience—America’s financing-starved small business owners. True to form, Dr. Medina emerged from her own commercial financing search to apply her trademark “You Can Do It, Too” message to America’s entrepreneurs. Through the SBA 7(a) loan guarantee program, entrepreneurs across America can tap into truly accessible capital, just as Dr. Medina did. Contacting an SBA-certified lender is the first step to finding out how. For a list of eastern Pennsylvania SBA-certified lenders, please visit: www.sba.gov
Post World War II America was a booming economy, but a nation divided. With few exceptions, the era’s institutionalized segregation prevented African Americans from sharing in that prosperity. But, in Philadelphia, an upstart black-owned travel agency found a way to turn segregation’s barriers into opportunities that would sustain it to become the oldest African-American-owned travel agency in the United States. Today, that firm is using the same ingenuity--and some assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration--to conquer the federal government contracting market to help insure future success.
Earning a Place in History
In the years that followed the Allies’ victories in Europe and Japan, Americans took to the roads, rails and skies in unprecedented numbers. The nation’s businesses were growing again, and more reliable employment opportunities meant that the dream of careers, homes, and a car in every driveway was becoming a reality for more and more Americans. Soon, the prosperous post-war years opened the world of both business and leisure travel for the first time to America’s growing middle class. It was a time of endless possibility, and the burgeoning travel industry was along for the ride, growing by leaps and bounds in keeping with its swelling client roster.
But, even in this climate of optimism, segregation remained the law of the land. Almost every facet of life for every segment of African American society, including its most affluent, was dictated by these restrictions. So, as America’s travel culture took hold, its minority communities remained underserved. For the portion of African Americans who stood ready and able to travel--albeit relatively small--“whites only” limitations on destinations, lodging, restaurants and the like made travel next to impossible. To book African Americans’ travel, establishment-by-establishment knowledge of whether black travelers would be welcome was required. So, even if white-owned travel agencies were willing to serve black customers, the task was overwhelming and cost-prohibitive, given the relatively small size of the black traveling population.
It was out of that need that Rodgers travel was born.
In 1949, Harold Rodgers, a young African American medical student, found himself working as a porter for TWA at Philadelphia International Airport. He had taken the job to fund his way through medical school. But, in the end, that position would open the doors of opportunity not only for Rodgers as a by-happenstance entrepreneur, but for an entire community of African American travelers.
Through his position at TWA, Rodgers learned the ins and outs of the travel industry. As an industry insider, he learned which travel carriers and destinations welcomed all races, even as his medical school education kept him in touch with the more affluent, travel hungry members of his African American community. Rodgers knew segregation’s limitations would make those would-be travelers a captive market, and that he had the contacts and knowledge to tap into it. So, on August 15, 1949, Rodgers founded Rodgers Travel Bureau, ushering in a new era of travel freedom for the African American population that it served.
At the outset, business for Rodgers Travel was booming. As one of the only African-American-owned travel agencies in the United States, Rodgers had a virtual lock on all travel arrangements for affluent African American individuals, as well as a variety of African American organizations, including professional associations, churches, and fraternities and sororities. As Rodgers’ reputation grew, it took widespread referrals from airlines and some of the Philadelphia area’s most prominent white-owned travel agencies, which were ill-equipped to navigate the complexities of booking travel for blacks in the pre-civil rights era.
By the mid-1950’s, Rogers Travel’s modern leadership began to fall into place as current owner Norma Pratt’s father, Fred Russell, took the helm. In 1954, William Griffin purchased the business from Harold Rodgers and soon added partner Fred Russell to manage the business. Immediately, Griffin and Russell set about expanding Rodgers’ footprint. In the late 1960’s, Griffin and Russell opened a Rodgers Travel location in Washington, D.C. That office expanded on the Rodgers formula by targeting the affluent African American population and national headquarters for black organizations located there.
Through the 1970’s, Rodgers Travel continued to thrive, courtesy strictly of its original all-black customer base. Even in the years immediately following desegregation, that customer base remained loyal to Rodgers. Legalized segregation had ended, but the practical reality remained that black travelers were still not welcome at all establishments across the U.S., and Rodgers Travel was adept at navigating those travel limitations. During the 1970’s, Rodgers kept pace with the expanding travel options of the times, booking newly introduced large charter planes, as well as mainstay bus trips, for black travelers through both its Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. locations.
But, by the 1970’s, there was no doubt that the times were changing for Rodgers. Russell’s daughters Norma Pratt and Joanne Ussery joined the management team to learn the business from their father. Together, the two women would take the reins of the business at a time marked by great change, both within the business and in the travel industry overall.
In the mid 1970's, William Griffin passed away, leaving his partner Fred Russell as owner of the company. In 1980, Fred Russell passed away, leaving Rogers Travel to his two daughters, Joanne Usrey and Norma Pratt. In the early 1980’s, the sisters divided Rodgers Travel into two separate companies, with Pratt’s headquartered in Philadelphia. Pratt re-incorporated the business as Rodgers Travel, Inc., and looked forward to a fresh start for the business as it passed to the next generation. But, in the years to come, Rodgers’ reliable black customer base dissipated. As desegregation truly took hold, allowing African Americans to travel freely, they were no longer limited to routing their business through black-run travel agencies. In response, Rodgers consolidated, closing the Washington D.C., branch office and re-trenching for the next chapter.
Enter: The SBA
As the 1990’s dawned, the aging Rodgers Travel faced an unfamiliar business landscape. Changing airline ticket practices had gutted travel agency profit margins, and the advent of the internet decimated demand for professional leisure travel arrangements. Meanwhile, changes in the African American community that had so long supported Rodgers further eroded its industry foothold. Aside from the social integration that now marginalized Rodgers’ business model, the deterioration of the West Philadelphia neighborhood that it called home since the 1940’s discouraged what remained of its clientele. Rodgers’ high profile in the pre-civil-rights era insured its place in history, but its place in the future was more than uncertain.
Undaunted, now-company-president Norma Pratt (sister Joanne Ussery having retired her role in the business), set about redefining Rodgers Travel to compete in this new marketplace, and compete to win. Years in business had taught Pratt that, with the right research, the right business plan, and the right partners, the sky is the limit, even against enormous odds. At start-up, Rodgers had fought the limits of racism to emerge on top. This time, Rodgers would, again, be in a fight for survival. But, this time, Rodgers would start with the right partner—the SBA.
From a new location at the edge of Philadelphia’s city limits, Pratt shaped her new vision for Rodgers. She affiliated with professional organizations and networked with industry leaders until she identified the right avenue for growth for Rodgers—federal government contracting. And, intent on sustaining that growth long term, Pratt made enrollment in SBA’s 8(a) business development program a centerpiece of her federal government contracting plans.
Making a Go of It
Newly-minted business model in hand, Pratt dove right in. Pratt would use all of her industry know-how and experience to land Rodgers’ biggest client yet—the U.S. federal government. And she would tap into SBA’s 8(a) business development program to create a public-private-sector business mix that would sustain the business into the future.
Along with guidance through the complexities of the federal government marketplace, SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program provides socially and economically disadvantaged businesses like Rodgers with various forms of assistance, including management and technical assistance, financial assistance, advocacy support. Through those services, SBA assists enrolled businesses to gain access to the resources necessary to develop their businesses and improve their ability to compete in the mainstream American economy.
A seasoned business leader, Pratt recognized the value of SBA’s 8(a) business development program to enhance her headway into the federal government marketplace and to better focus Rodger’s new business model. But Pratt knew that the 8(a) program’s limitation on enrollment to 9 years meant that, to maximize the program’s benefit, she would have to find her footing in the federal government contracting arena before enrolling. So, in 1991, she bid on Rodgers’ first federal government contract —a $10 million per year contract servicing Scott AFB.
Soon, the Scott Air Force contract would lead to others, and the time was right for Pratt to tap into the 8(a) program to turn the promise of this new business into a secure future for her firm. Her government contracting experience to date had taught her what Rodgers niche in this new arena would be—handling complex international travel, specialized travel, and V.I.P. travel arrangements for military and civilian government personnel that often proved difficult for larger firms.
So, in 1992, Pratt enrolled Rodgers in the 8(a) program through the SBA’s Philadelphia District Office. Throughout Rodgers’ 9-year enrollment in the 8(a) program, the specialized nature of the travel industry made standard 8(a) mentoring approaches difficult. Accordingly, SBA Philadelphia District Office staff tailored their guidance of Rodgers to maximize the program’s benefit for the firm, educating Pratt through one-on-one counseling on the rules and any rule changes that would affect her federal government contracting success.
Through the 8(a) program, Rodgers won a variety of federal government contracts, resulting in the firm adding more historic “firsts” to its resume: Rodgers was the first woman-owned disadvantaged business to win U.S. Department of Defense travel management contracts as a prime and a major subcontractor; and the first small business government travel contractor to have an international location—at Lodges Field Air Force Base in Portugal. But, more than that, through the 8(a) program, Rodgers won a new lease on life. As competitor after travel industry competitor failed, swept under by the rising tide of change, Rodgers adapted, re-invented, survived and thrived. For Rodgers, its past has given it roots, but, through the 8(a) business development program, a new business model and client base have given it wings.
Southeastern Pennsylvania Firm League Collegiate Wear Emerges from Flood, Fire with the Help of SBA Disaster Loans
Disaster does not always strike the business on the 6:00 news, in some other town, or some more natural-disaster-prone region. It can occur anywhere, at any time. And, for the unprepared small business owner, an unanticipated tangle with nature’s fury or man-made disaster can mean business interruption, crippling property loss, or worse.But--thanks to assistance from the SBA’s Disaster Loan Program--southeastern Pennsylvania entrepreneurs Larry Klebanoff and Drew Wolf’s business, League Collegiate Wear, was spared from the brunt of those worst-case scenarios.
Getting off of the Ground
In 1991, Klebanoff and Wolf founded their collegiate-logo sports apparel business—League Collegiate Wear, Inc.—to target a market starved for on-trend college-themed gear updated to suit current fashion. By 1999, Klebanoff and Wolf had built that once home-based business into a market leader. They had planned for fashion trends, and they had planned for market demand, and all of that planning had paid off.
But, without a disaster preparedness plan in place, they didn’t plan for what happened next.
That year, Hurricane Floyd struck southeastern Pennsylvania with a vengeance, and League Collegiate Wear was hit hard. When the storm subsided, Klebanoff and Wolf found their 9,000-foot facility—located in a flood plain—virtually underwater. In the face of that level of devastation, Klebanoff and Wolf were forced to close their business for necessary restoration.
In the weeks that followed, League faced many challenges, but relied on support from their staff and from the SBA to re-build their business.
Perhaps the hardest blow of the recovery process came when Klebanoff and Wolf realized that their misunderstanding of their insurance coverage could cost them their business. Because League’s insurance policy contained a coverage exception for business interruption coverage caused by flood, League’s insurance carrier would not cover the flood damage as Klebanoff and Wolf had hoped.
Undeterred, Klebanoff, Wolf, and League’s loyal staff worked tirelessly to restore the business. League staffers—all of whom remained on payroll, despite the shut-down—maintained vendor and client relationships through the crisis with regular, transparent communication regarding League’s business resumption status. Meanwhile, League turned to the SBA’s disaster program for the funds that League needed to rebuild.
The disaster program is SBA’s largest direct loan program, and the only SBA program for entities other than small businesses. Through the program, SBA provides financial assistance to homeowners, renters, businesses of all sizes, and private, non-profit organizations following declared disasters.
Due to the flood damage, League was unable to re-start production at all for one month following the flood, and a total of three months passed before League was fully operational.
Up and running again by early 2000, League was ready to put the past behind it and looking to a promising future. But, in 2001—just two short years after the flood—fate again intervened when a devastating electrical fire shut down League’s production. After the fire, insurance inspectors confirmed what Klebanoff and Wolf already knew—their building was a total loss.
This time, halted production cost League almost $2 million in damages before it was able to physically move to a new facility where it resumed production one month later.
But, this time, League had a disaster preparedness plan—albeit informal—in place. Thanks to the disaster preparedness experience that League gained through grappling with the 1999 flood damage, League was ready to jump into action.
A near-miss with the loss of its server in the flood (League staffers were able to rescue its server, intact, from the flooded building, narrowly avoiding a complete loss of all of the information stored on it and a resultant longer delay in operations resumption after the flood), had spurred League to back-up the server nightly and save tapes off-sight. This time, the fire could not even threaten to affect League’s information system integrity.
Also, League’s insurance claim process was much improved over their 1999 experience. After the flood, Klebanoff and Wolf had made understanding their insurance a priority, and League’s coverage was appropriate. (Notably, League’s post-1999-flood insurance coverage review included obtaining an expensive insurance policy that would cover business interruption, even in the case of a flood).
Finally, League again turned to its staff and the SBA to see it through the recovery process. Building on what they had learned from the 1999 flood, League staffers kept vendors and clients fully apprised of League’s business resumption status. Meanwhile, Klabanoff and Wolf worked with the SBA to secure the disaster loan funds that they needed to re-build.
Within three weeks, League had used SBA disaster loan funds to relocate the business to an office park ¼ mile from their original location—this time, not in a flood plain—and constructed 6 feet from ground level. League was back in business again and continuing to grow.
Having survived both flood and fire--despite its location in relatively storm-safe southeastern Pennsylvania—League has emerged with a clear, focused disaster preparedness plan and a deeper appreciation for the SBA. In the words of Wolf regarding his experience with the SBA’s Disaster Loan Program, “The SBA people were super-helpful. I was proud to be an American. I was proud that I pay taxes.”
As for League’s disaster preparedness plan, Klebanoff and Wolf are committed to: (1) maintaining a quality off-sight information systems back-up program; (2) periodically and vigilantly reviewing League’s insurance coverage, to be sure that coverage is appropriate; (3) focusing on maintaining a cordial working relationship with a bank with which League is in good standing (to help insure efficient access to capital as needed); and (4) standing ready to maintain vendor and client relationships through a crisis with regular, transparent communication regarding League’s business resumption status.
Today, Klebanoff and Wolf remain at the helm of the still-thriving League Collegiate Wear. Well-seasoned business owners, having weathered nearly 20 years in business together and two major disasters, they have learned how to endure many a literal and figurative storm. And now, armed with a formal disaster preparedness plan and the knowledge that SBA disaster loans are available to fund disaster recovery, they face the future with re-doubled strength.
This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by SBA of any opinions, products or services of any private individual or entity.