Donald Fry: Bridging the Gap Awards: Entrepreneurs provide inspiration amid recession

By Donald C. Fry

Looking for inspiration as you continue to grapple with the current tenacious recession and the daily business challenges that it brings with it?

Look no farther than 14 businesses — mostly small — that were honored by the Greater Baltimore Committee this week. The winners of the GBC’s 2010 Bridging the Gap awards for outstanding achievement as minority-owned or women-owned businesses set compelling examples of entrepreneurship and the level of dedication that are prerequisites for business success any time, much less in 2010.

The crystal vases and plaques that the winners carried away from the October 13 awards event are nice, but they are only tokens of the inestimable value of the examples set by their stories.

There’s Kimberly Brown, a graduate of Baltimore’s Polytechnic Institute who obtained her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the University of Maryland College Park and, in 2007, purchased the contract she had been working on as an intern employee at a local biotech company. She then founded her own biotech services firm, Amethyst Technologies, which has become one of the fastest-growing tenants at UMBC’s incubator. It now has 22 employees and annual revenues of $1.8 million.

Barb Clapp nine years ago fulfilled a life-long dream when she founded her own advertising agency in Lutherville. Since then, her boutique-sized, woman-owned and women-driven agency has converted an organizational can-do spirit, customer service with a personal touch, and a penchant for over-delivering on promises into a flourishing business in a highly-competitive field dominated by larger firms.

Then there’s the Murthy Law firm located in Owings Mills. Its founder and president, Sheela Murthy, began her career as a French teacher in Bangalore, India. After immigrating to the United States, she graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for seven years as an attorney with law firms in New York and Baltimore, before launching her own firm in 1974. It has since grown into one of the world’s most recognized immigration law firms, with 74 employees.

These are just a few examples of success that is being experienced by vision-driven entrepreneurs, recession or no recession.

Other winners of the 2010 Bridging the Gap awards for minority-owned and women-owned achievement are:

• Harris Jones & Malone, whose founder, Lisa Harris Jones, in 2000 became the first African-American woman in Maryland to open her own lobbying firm. Her Baltimore firm is now highly-rated among Maryland lobbying firms, despite employing a much smaller staff than many of her primary competitors.

• Legacy Builders and Construction Services, Inc., a Baltimore firm that was founded two-and-a-half years ago by Kinya Stewart and her husband, Jimmy. The couple decided to start their own contracting business drawing on their experience gained from working for local contractors and developers. As a result of their superior management and business practices, the Stewarts have since built their business from scratch into a multi-million dollar venture.

• P-B Health Home Care Agency, founded in 1994 by Jackie Bailey, a young nurse who was involved in a county program to serve the elderly and saw a great need for providing home-based health care to a substantially-underserved population — the region’s senior citizens. Her Baltimore-based agency, which started with four employees, has grown to 135 employees and revenue of $6 million.

• Special Gathering, LLC, a Baltimore special-events business that was founded by Danielle Johnson, who used the skills and knowledge she acquired as an administrative assistant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Her company has thrived because of its ability to deliver – regardless of size or budget – compelling, quality events ranging from philanthropic meetings and private gatherings to film screenings.

• Trans Time Express, a 22-year-old courier business based in Laurel and Silver Spring, and its principal Mona Toosi, set a standard of service in a highly competitive business where minutes count. Toosi and her firm always rise to the occasion, say executives at MedStar Health, for which the firm transports life-saving medical specimens and lab results. Last winter, Trans Time Express was an essential part of MedStar’s emergency team and accomplished critical MedStar deliveries in the midst of the record snowstorms that crippled the region’s highways.

• BITHGROUP Technologies, Inc. founder and CEO Robert L. Wallace received a President’s Award for dedicating himself to passing on to the next generation the business knowledge he acquired in building a successful information technology and management consulting firm. Wallace grew up in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood and vigorously pursued a quality education, earning degrees in engineering and business administration. He now heads a firm that lists a who’s who of major corporations – including IBM, Toyota, HP, and the NFL – among its clients.

• Wachovia Bank received an award for its role as a majority-owned business that demonstrates outstanding inclusive business practices. Small business owners cited Andrew Bertamini, Wachovia’s regional president, as an example of a banker who is a tireless advocate for minority and women business owners. He has consistently gone above and beyond the routine banking framework to assist with activities ranging from financial literacy training to individually mentoring small business owners, advocates say.

• A strategic partnership between Mercy Hospital, Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, Maryland Washington Minority Contractors’ Association, and Congressman Elijah Cummings received an award for their proactive efforts to achieve substantial participation of minority-owned and women-owned vendors in the construction of Mercy’s new 670,000 square-foot facility in Baltimore. As a result, more than 50 minority and women-owned vendors who participated in the construction of the new hospital have so far earned more than $41 million in revenue from the project.

These award winners were honored for minority business achievement and dedication to strengthening the development of the minority and women-owned business sector. But they are representative of many more highly-driven and successful business entrepreneurs that are living, breathing examples of the kind of private-sector achievement that drives our economy and will drive it through to the other side of the recession.

In this election season, there is plenty of talk about what’s wrong with our state and nation. Candidates across Maryland are creatively and repeatedly tossing at voters – and each other – a litany of hyperbolized and often conflicting fiscal, economic, and government weaknesses as they vie for the opportunity to try to fix things from various elected offices.

But these entrepreneurs who were honored this week, and the tens of thousands like them, have found ways to succeed, be it a recession or not. In doing so, they teach us valuable lessons that are worth savoring about what is right with Main Street Maryland and America.

As our state and nation remains engulfed in the election-driven self-examination about our system of government and our way of life, it sometimes takes someone from somewhere else to give us a fresh dose of perspective about where we live.

Listen to what Sheela Murthy, the Bridging the Gap winner and renowned immigration lawyer who herself immigrated to the U.S. from India in the mid-1980s, recently told Smart CEO magazine. “The wonderful thing about this country is that it provides incredible opportunities for those who are willing to work hard to partake of the American dream,” she says. “We are so blessed that, in our work each day, we can help others to achieve that dream.”

You can’t say it much better than that.

Whatever our shortcomings in Maryland and in our nation, we’re clearly still a land of opportunity.

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