BY DENISE DeJESUS
It begins with an idea and a desire to be independent.
For Queens entrepreneurs, survival will then count on finding their consumers and finding the funds to cover opening and operating costs like commercial rent, utilities, materials, design and salaries.
For Queens women and minorities, survival will also count on their ability to trench through the stereotypes.
BEATING THE ODDS
“I went through a lot,” Kathy Kwong told the Tribune as she reflected on the prejudices she has experienced as a female minority business owner. “[They ask] oh you Chinese? You live in Chinatown? Do you operate a laundromat mat? A sewing matching? I say, ‘Yeah, I’m all of that.’ But not how they think.”
Kwong, owner of Euro-American Uniforms, related her experiences in business as a panelist for the opening Point of View section in last month’s Queens Women: Minding Their Business Conference developed by the Queens County Overall Economic Development Corporation (QCOEDC). The annual forum is designed to unite local entrepreneurs into a stable support, resource and information system for themselves.
Ten years ago, Kwong merged her knowledge and personality traits to cover the design, production and business ends of her manufacturing company. In her line dealing with garments, accessories and unisex items competition was alive and male dominated.
“You have to learn the ins and outs of [business] to cope with everything,” said Kwong who later added that she utilized her knowledge to serve and give the best to her customers – a philosophy which satisfied and expanded her business. “You learn what to expect and what to ask.”
Knowing and understanding the proper pathways were factors that led to early opportunities, including a winning bid against major manufacturers to change the meter reader uniforms of Con Edison workers.
Today utilities like Con Ed, KeySpan and the Port Authority are among her clients. Euro-American Uniforms products are well-known and respected products visible on customer service representatives in both JFK and LaGuardia airports and on stock exchange security guards.
Kwong, like other women in business, notes that her success was not gained by chance or good luck. There is a struggle involved, a labor of growth challenged by diversity in every aspect.
In a business dominated by male owners, there are a “bundle of wars you’re against,” said Kwong who advises other women to forge on.
Distinguished in her field, Kwong has learned the benefits of reciprocation.
“My company, the base of what we’re doing, is to learn to give back,” she said. Through internships, workshops, in-house training, welfare to work programs, sub contractors and the hiring of diligent immigrant workers who have difficulties finding employment, Euro-American Uniforms rakes in success. “When you help or give, you don’t even have to ask, it just [returns] to you.”
Though geared to women, the conference also strived to re-enforce the simple basics. Knowing where to ask for money and how to manage it increases the percentage for success.
“I didn’t know anything about financing and business plans,” said Debra Singleton, a Verizon administrative manger and owner of Debbie’s Reins and Things.
A little over a year ago, Singleton had an idea to sell horse gear. With limited knowledge of the business world, she took her idea to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).
The knowledge she gained from the SBA led Singleton to the Service Corps of Retired People (SCRP) and on to the Regional Economic Development Assistance Corp (REDAC) where she was able to secure funds.
“My starting funds came from my 401 K. I [figured] if I’m not willing to invest in myself, how can I expect anyone else to,” Singleton told the Tribune. In time, her funds ran out but “the help that [REDAC] gave me, helped me to finish things off.”
Located at Cedar Lane Stables in southern Queens, Debbie’s Reins and Things is a full service horse supply shop carrying blankets, bits, health products, dusters, Wrangler jeans and shirts, pens, broaches and bandannas.
“The guys [who come into the store] are worse than the women at Pathmark,” said Singleton, who laughed and said she has no complaints. “They spend a good half hour just looking and touching.”
The annual forum got its start when graduating members of the QCOEDC’s 1998 entrepreneur training program, mostly women, celebrated their achievement. In a meeting of minds that followed, staff members of the QCOEDC took notice of the growing number of female business proprietors in Queens. Ensuing research proved that in a county with over two million people who speak over 125 languages and dialects, ninety percent of the businesses are small businesses, forty percent owned by women.
“The issues we talked about were strategies, alliances, partnerships and joint ventures to [help] build and expand business,” said Joyce Moy, director of the Center for Work Force Strategies at La Guardia Community College and professor of business law and tax law at CUNY school of law. For her, the conference was an opportunity for experienced women in business to put on the mother hat by saying to other women, “If I don’t tell you, who will.”
In Queens, women are opening businesses at twice the rate of men, an eye-opening fact considering the difficulties both women and minorities are faced with when opening a business. Stumbling blocks including possible cultural differences, language barriers, no or failing credit histories, short start-up funds and negative perceptions of women and minorities in business are all walls these seminars are meant to crumble.
In Moy’s experience, keeping an eye on expenses and balancing the needs of employees and owners are key in creating and sustaining wealth.
Increasing gross revenue is a goal best achieved by forming alliances. Small business without name recognition and means to expand the marketplace could benefit from the experience of a more established business.
In securing the bottom line, expenses and profits should be monitored. If expenditures continuously exceed profit, the business may fail. Maximizing the benefits of expenses, by hiring a capable work force will leave an owner open to tackle other aspects of the business.
On tax issues, “a mistake I often find… is people spending money because it’s tax deductible,” said Moy. “If you must spend the money, structure the transaction. Don’t spend a dollar in order to save 40 cents.”
ADVICE FROM THOSE WHO’VE DONE IT
As a Board member of Asian Women in Business, Kwong welcomes opportunities for exchange and networking seminars like the Queens County Overall Economic Development’s 2000 Conference. To keep in touch with the evolution of change in businesses, she suggests following the economy, politics and community activity to find out what section of the market place is being affected.
“I have this vision I just have to achieve.”
During her talk with the women of the QCOEDC, Singleton told women in business to “stay focused and don’t give up.” Knowing the proper investment channels will help you reach your dreams.