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How 8(a) success gives Fort Wayne business owner freedom to develop innovative programs for the differently-abled

Background:

After a 25-year project management career working with NASA and later in commercial banking, Stacey Smith opened Prairie Quest Consulting (PQC), in 2004. The professional services company provides program management, training and IT management support to local, state, and federal government and commercial customers.  Headquartered in Fort Wayne, PQC got its start with a contract converting HR and payroll data for the state of Indiana.

How SBA helped Stacey’s business grow:

“Having worked as a contractor for the federal government, I was already familiar with 8(a),” Stacey said, “so I applied for and was accepted into the program almost immediately.”

The SBA 8(a) Business Development Program is a 9-year program established to help socially and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs develop and grow their business.  Business development assistance includes one-on-one counseling, training workshops, matchmaking opportunities, and increases access to federal contracting opportunities.

In addition to participating in the SBA 8(a) program, PQC has worked closely with the Northeast Indiana Small Business Development Center and the Women’s Entrepreneurial Opportunity Center both located within a mile of her office. She utilized an SBA Express Loan in 2005 to assist with her first forage into expansion.  Stacey also participated in the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne Capstone program, and actively works with the Indiana Procurement Technical Assistance Center.

Challenges/SBA solution:

Stacey credits the 8(a) program as being a vital part of what has made PQC successful.  “I was blessed with true mentors who taught me to ask ‘What’s the value?’, and ‘What will you get back out of it?’” when making decisions for her business.  Those mentors, and continued work in the program also made her realize that, “8(a) is nice, but it’s not forever,” she said. 

“SBA contracting programs open a lot of doors,” Stacey stated.  “Set-asides help move you forward but what are you going to do when you graduate?  Or become too big?  How are you making your company different, what’s the extra value you are adding to your client experiences so they want to keep coming back for more?  Small businesses need to think about this and lay the groundwork so they can continue to thrive after their 8(a) eligibility is over.”

Benefits:

Since 2004, PQC has grown into three unique divisions—PQC Works, PQC Tech, and PQC Trains--contributing to overall sales of more than $11.2 million in FY2017 and a staff of 154 working in 16 states.  PQC customers include the U.S. Army, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, with the highest earning contracts belonging to the PQC Works portion of the company.  Stacey sees PQC Works as the breadwinning division that allows her company to grow in other ways that might not make as much money, but have great impacts in more social ways.

“PQC Works feeds the belly,” Stacey said.  “PQC Tech is my brain.  PQC Trains is my heart.”

Concentrating on “vocational rehabilitation and pre-employment training” services, the PQC Trains arm of the company primarily develops hands-on programs for the differently abled, enabling them to lead healthy and independent lives. 

Currently, PQC Trains is working on contracts with several organizations and the state.  But the project Stacey is most proud of right now is the vocational rehabilitation program she is running at a space she purchased near downtown Fort Wayne and turned into Windrose Urban Farm.  The project provides training and employment for the differently abled growing mushrooms in a renovated warehouse.  Indoor farming expertise is provided by a local horticulturist, and collaboration, teamwork, and customer service skills are learned as employees grow the mushrooms from spores to the products they sell at local farmers’ markets and to high-end restaurants.  Stacey said the goal of the program is to teach employees’ skills they can use in the future and to also provide a sense of empowerment—and a feeling that they can achieve—no matter what their barriers may be.  

“It’s fun to see people make big strides and know that you helped them feel that magic,” Stacey said, “of being able to change their mindset from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can.’”

Company Name: 
Prairie Quest Inc
Location: 
Fort Wayne, Indiana