Four Heroes

Jim Blasingame Mildred was minding her own business, walking down the street in her hometown one Saturday in 1976. Little did she know that this walk was going to change her life forever.

Belinda reported for work one beautiful morning in 1986, thankful for the job but wondering about her future. Turns out, her future was about to take an abrupt turn, but she would have to decide which way - left or right?

Mary watched a TV program about an important social issue and saw a business opportunity. How could she have known that this entrepreneurial moment in 1993 would turn into an entrepreneurial life?

Thanh boarded a small boat, already overloaded with people but devoid of provisions, as he sought a new life across an ocean. Being prepared to risk everything in 1979 would later serve him well as he charted a course in the marketplace of his new country.

What do these four paragraphs have in common? They are the preambles of the stories I want to tell you about the U.S. Small Business Administration's top four small business people in America for 2002. I'm sure you will be inspired as you hear about these four heroes. And I also predict that, in their stories, you will see something of yourself.

Mama Dip's Country Kitchen
She was already known around Chapel Hill, N.C. for her country culinary cuisine, but Mildred "Mama Dip" Council had always prepared food in someone else's restaurant. On that fateful day in 1976 when this black, divorced mother of eight, with only a 9th grade education, walked by a recently closed restaurant downtown, the building owner stopped her to talk about business - her business.

Against her protests of not having any business experience and no capital, Mildred's future landlord insisted that she open the restaurant. Handing her the key, he told her to pay him whatever rent she could afford, when she could afford it.

With every cent she had - $64 - Mildred went to the grocery store and bought some provisions for the next day, which was Sunday. That morning she and her family went to the restaurant to check things out and Mildred began cooking breakfast for them. Within minutes, people started knocking on the door wanting in. Word had gotten out about Mama Dip's new venture.

By the end of the day, Mildred's $64 had turned into $199, and Mama Dip's Country Kitchen was born. Over the next quarter century, Mildred's business would become a Chapel Hill institution and employ over 40 people, including children and grandchildren. She has appeared on QVC and ABC's Good Morning America, sold over 125,000 cookbooks and thousands of bottles of her special sauces, and received the North Carolina's Order of the Long Leaf Pine award for outstanding community service.

"I always feel I have something to offer." Mildred says, in her flair for the understatement. "I was always raised to have something to offer."

Folks around Chapel Hill and the state of North Carolina certainly think Mildred has something to offer. She is North Carolina's Small Business Person of the Year, and the SBA named her the United States' third runner-up Small Business Person of the Year.

GC Micro Corporation
Approaching the door through which she had walked every workday for a year and a half as an employee of a San Francisco software mail order business, Belinda Guadarrama had been wondering where life would lead her. And even though the note on the door, "Company Closed," didn't answer the question, it did notify her that whatever was next was going to happen real soon.

Standing in the parking lot that morning, Belinda asked herself some questions: Should she dust off her resume? Should she move back to Texas? Should she start her own business?

Her answers were: No, absolutely not, and what have I got to lose?

After that little visit with herself, Belinda scraped $20,000 together, hired two employees, and started GC Micro Corporation, a value-added computer software reseller. The first year, 1986, sales volume was $209,000. In time, the company added computer hardware to its product list and defense contractors to its customer base. By 2001, annual sales had grown to over $34 million.

Belinda couldn't have picked a more challenging sector; the computer industry has been defined as much by the commoditization of its products as it is for breathtaking innovation. The bank she approached for a $5,000 loan wouldn't even let her fill out an application. And one prospect told her no company would do business with her little Mexican company.

So with all of these challenges, what made this Hispanic woman think she could carve out a niche in the military-industrial complex? Belinda says it was, "Quality and service. From top management to the most junior employee."

Want some more Guadarrama Gems? "Treat every employee like a business partner. Watch your financial statements closely, especially your accounts receivable and accounts payable."

I hope you noticed Belinda didn't mention anything about price.

It's no wonder the state of California named Belinda their Small Business Person of 2002, and the SBA has recognized her as the second runner-up Small Business Person of the Year.

BTIO Educational Products, Inc.
On the television was a show about teenage pregnancy and how educators could have boys and girls spend time with a carton of eggs or a sack of flour to simulate the constant care children require. Mary Jurmain liked the education idea, but her husband, Rick, didn't think much of the props that were being used. Where was the crying? What about the wet diapers?

Half joking, Mary challenged Rick. "You're an engineer - why don't you invent something better?"

Mary forgot this exchange, but Rick didn't. Over the next few months, he did indeed invent something better, and Baby Think It Over was born.

Operating out of their home at first, Mary would install the operating device Rick invented into off-the-shelf dolls and sell them to schools. Since 1994, BTIO has caught on around the world, and the company has grown to over 60 employees who assemble and sell thousands of "Babies" each year.

The key to BTIO's success has been two forms of education: The BTIO curriculum that comes with each Baby to help educators to be more successful delivering the program; and educating their typically non-profit customers on different ways to obtain funding for this important community program. Once again we see how small businesses find success not so much with the products they sell, but in how they deliver those products in very special ways.

Mary's dedication to delivering her very special kind of service has garnered customers all around the world, and recognition by the state of Wisconsin as the 2002 Small Business Person of the Year, and by the SBA who chose her as the first runner-up Small Business Person of the Year.

Ba-Le, Inc.
It's not THAT far across the South China Sea from Viet Nam to Malaysia - unless you're making the trip on a small boat crammed with 186 other refugees and virtually no food or water. Such were the prospects for Thanh Quoc Lam when he boarded that boat in 1979, with the dream of one day making it to America.

Eventually that year, Thanh did make his way to America and began carving out his future in his adopted country. With no money and speaking very little English, he took menial jobs at first. Eventually, Thanh's work ethic caught the eye of the owner of Ba-Le Sandwich Shop (Ba-Le sounds like ballet and means Paris in Vietnamese), in San Jose, CA, who made Thanh a partner in his growing business.

The next leg in Thanh's journey took him halfway back across the Pacific to Hawaii, where he opened the first Hawaiian branch of Ba-Le. Demand for their sandwiches was so great that more shops were opened, and today, there are 22. Corporate customers who serve Thanh's sandwiches include five international airlines and two major hotel chains, plus Ba-Le delivers 40 tons of pizza dough to all of the Papa John's stores in Hawaii. Not too shabby for someone who started out in the hold of a refugee boat.

The latest stop in Thanh's journey included his being named Hawaii's 2002 Small Business Person of the year, and then by the SBA as THE 2002 Small Business Person of the Year.

When asked about keys to his success, Thanh says, "Always be honest and respectful of the people you deal with."

Works for me.

He also encourages us to, "Spend time with family." Speaking of which, remember that refugee boat? Well, there was a certain young lady named Sune who made that same trip to Malaysia. Sune followed Thanh to the U.S. in 1981; they were soon married, and now have two sons.

I know; I got a little choked up the first time I heard this story, too. Is this a great country, or what?

Spending Time With Heroes
During Small Business Week in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting these four heroes. Actually, I met many of the state small business winners, but I spent more time with these four because I interviewed them on my show - my fifth year to do so.

Somewhere in these stories I bet you saw something that looked like your story. I sure did. Being downsized twice in 18 months in the '80s, I identified more closely with Belinda. Somehow it's good to know about our kindred spirits who, like us, are making their small business way in this big marketplace. That's why I wanted to tell you the stories of these four heroes.

Write this on a rock... When things get tough and you start thinking you're the only small business owner on the planet with problems, visit other small business owners and find out about their entrepreneurial journey. You'll find that we all have a lot in common - including the challenges.

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