Woman Business Owner of the Year | NAWBO

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Woman Business Owner of the Year

Celebrate Our Top Three Finalists Before the 2020 Winner Is Announced!

 

A Message from Jill Calabrese Bain, Managing Director, Internal and Corporate Communications, Bank of America:

Greetings, NAWBO sisters! It’s hard to believe we are only a week away from our National Women’s Business Conference! One of my favorite parts of the conference is honoring our Woman Business Owner of the Year. Last year, I had the great pleasure of awarding the 2019 Woman Business Owner of the Year to Gail Becker, the CEO and founder of CAULIPOWER. You may remember the excitement of that moment—Gail’s son was in the audience cheering on his mom and Gail shared some words of wisdom reminding us all to “never be afraid to bet on yourself…because if you don’t, no one else ever will!” We also had the opportunity to hear from our two award finalists, Merrilee Kick, the CEO and founder of Buzzballz/Southern Champion, and Lynn Weirich, president of Business Financial Group. You can read more about each of our 2019 finalists and award winner on the Bank of America Small Business Community and meet this year’s finalists below! You’ll have a chance to hear from all three of this year’s finalists during a panel discussion during the September 23rd Virtual National Women's Business Conference gala session moderated by my colleague, Karen Harrison, senior vice president, national SBA executive at Bank of America. Then later that evening, we will award the 2020 Woman Business Owner of the Year! Best of luck to all of this year’s finalists, and I look forward to virtually seeing you all soon! 

The Woman Business Owner of the Year Award—sponsored by Bank of America— recognizes and rewards an entrepreneur who excels at strategy, operations, finances, problem-solving, overcoming adversity and giving back to her community. It’s not based on business size, but rather overall business excellence. Celebrate our top three finalists before the 2020 winner is announced next week.

 

Nooshin Behroyan, founder and CEO, PAXON Energy & Infrastructure in Pleasanton, CA

In less than four years, Nooshin has grown the company into America’s 9th fastest growing on the Inc. 5000 list and a leading woman-owned consulting management firm heavily focused on improving critical infrastructures in the oil, gas and utilities industries. The company’s focus is on energy-innovative approaches that emphasize technologies for energy-efficient solutions. PAXON has become a trendsetter and game changer in the oil and gas industry and has been recognized with more than 100 awards as a result, including the Energy Innovator Award by Corporate Visions as the Best-Woman Run Oil & Gas Services Firm in the USA. 

Tell us about the moment you knew you wanted to launch your own business.

“I had a consulting role working for utilities and saw so much inequality, lack of diversity and the fact that women didn’t have a seat at the table. As I was talking with the company I worked for about it, I realized that in order for me to see change, I’d have to be the person driving it. So without giving it a second thought, I left the company, incorporated PAXON and became the first employee of my own company. I continued consulting, and later on because of perseverance coupled with credibility and expertise, I was able to bring on additional projects and then subject matter experts to make PAXON stronger and stronger.”

What makes your business different from others in your industry?

“What really sets us apart is the quality of the service we provide—and that does not come by chance. Quality is a responsibility that we all share. Our focus on quality requires accountability, commitment and excellence across all business sectors. As a company, we have significantly dealt with COVID-19 and its challenges, but our mission remains the same and that is that global warming isn’t going anywhere and this is what we are significantly experiencing in the State of California with its recent wildfires. It remains the major factor of today’s society, and we have the opportunity to make a difference as a company. We have received a lot of awards since we started, and part of that is because we really aim to have technology-driven approaches and solution-forward ideas for safer and cleaner energy. We have no problem explaining to our clients and government officials why one approach is better than another. You have to have a keen eye for it and become the trendsetter of your industry. You’ll receive a lot of resistance and that doesn’t mean no; it just means you have to find better solutions.”

What unique challenges have you faced over the past 6 months?

“We manage very large civil engineering projects, so for us to manage those remotely has been a challenge.  For us, safety is top priority and we are an extremely safety-focused organization. We have 50-100 people on any given project and it’s not an easy task keeping everyone on a Zoom call. What we’ve tried to focus on is investing in and improving our in-house technologies to brace for new challenges in the era of coronavirus. How to collaborate even when things do not go according to plan and how to make your operation thrive during some of the most profound unrest our country has seen in decades. This is the time to change your risk approach and we have made additional investments in methods that can increase employee performance efficiency and effectiveness like lean construction’s Last Planner system, location-based scheduling and integrated project delivery such as Deltek. If you’re not pivoting fast enough, your business will be left behind, so for us, it has been about making our operations continue to thrive no matter the environment. These decisions require leadership, trusting your team members and empowering your managers to do what they do best.”

Where do you draw inspiration from in leading and growing your organization?

“I thrive in chaos and part of that is because, by nature, I’m a very risk-driven person and my team is also such that we have no problem looking at what we need to change. We’re very agile. This wasn’t the first crisis we’ve faced. We’ve gone through multi-year catastrophic wildfires, gas pipeline explosions and more. Our team is used to managing and stepping into chaos and realigning to be successful. It’s about stepping back, understanding the situation and then stepping into the ring per say. Seeing how our team steps up when they’re called into action really inspires me.

“Ultimately, we all face challenges, whether it’s in our professional or personal lives. You can’t be shaped by those challenges. It’s about what you are going to do about it and how will you respond. It’s also about being able to step out of your comfort zone, and to be comfortable doing that. That’s something I empower my team to do.”

How has NAWBO supported you in your entrepreneurial journey?

“I am the current Board president for NAWBO-San Francisco Bay Area. I joined at the end of 2018. One of the reasons why I joined is because I attended an event and was moved by the organization and what it was providing to women. Being a woman-owned company in a male dominated industry, I look to NAWBO to see how we can engage with one another to close the gap, whether it’s the pay gap or ensuring more women serve on corporate boards. I’m an advocate, so I believe we are very aligned.

“The support and education are very important for me, too. I want to push women to step out of their comfort zones and learn from one another. Women respond to stress and change very differently than men do; we have the ability to evaluate the system entirely before going after one lane. Seeing how women are tackling and approaching that allows me to grow as a person.”

What’s next for you and your business?

“I’ve always been involved in charities that are focused on women and children. That’s certainly something close to my heart that I want to continue to do.

“As for my profession, I’m a very flexible and fluid person by nature, so I don’t want to limit myself to one role, so I remain open to ideas and perhaps better understanding an opportunity and its potential and being able to seize it.”

The theme of September’s conference is “Brave Is…”. Can you share what brave has meant for you?

“I think brave for me is to be flexible, fluent, defiant and destructive, and in order to be all of those things, you need courage. Nothing comes to your footsteps until you take a step forward. When I started PAXON, I didn’t even have a business plan nor had raised any money, but I knew I had myself, my knowledge and expertise and that I was brave.”

What does an honor like WBO of the Year finalist mean to you?

“I’m truly humbled and part of that is because it allows me to be seen as the role model I’m learning to become. Making the top 10 or three takes a lot of effort. There are a lot of other women who truly deserve the accolade and here I am receiving the top 3. I’d like to accept it on behalf of everyone who has to take on so much and sacrifice day in and day out. It’s very near and dear to my heart.”

What’s your best advice to other WBOs?

“Collaborate with your competitors. It’s not because one business does it better. It’s not about being mavericks. Together, we’re much stronger and have a bigger impact. Working alongside and with your competitors is so important. Understand them—they are your best advisors, they give you honest feedback and they’re the mirror you need in front of you. Also, be generous—share the work as much as possible because the market is big. Getting and giving work creates a symbiotic relationship.

 

Rebecca Fyffe, founder and CEO of Landmark Pest Management in Chicago, IL

Rebecca is a socially conscious entrepreneur and is the CEO and director of research of Landmark Pest Management, as well as a subject matter expert on policies and programs designed to enable women and minorities to capture a representative share of economic opportunities in corporate and government procurement and contracting. She served as chair of the Chicago Transit Authority’s DBE Advisory Committee, and has testified in numerous disparity studies. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Rebecca served as a staff member on the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois. She founded Landmark Pest Management as the only pest control firm in the United States that is founded with a social justice mission and exists at the intersection of public health and social justice.

Tell us about the moment you knew you wanted to launch your own business.

“My interest in public health and social justice began with a family tragedy. My father’s sister became a teen mom at 15, and back in the ‘60s, there was a lot of pressure for teenagers to get married when they conceived a child. The marriage lasted only a few years, and by the time it ended and the father was no longer involved, my aunt was 19 and had just given birth to their third child. As a single teen mom, she lived in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood, which was an economically disadvantaged neighborhood lacking safe playgrounds. Seeking a safe place for her kids to play, away from gang activity and violence, she cleaned up the broken glass and bird droppings in an alley between apartment buildings where pigeons were roosting overhead. Both she and the baby contracted encephalitis and meningitis from the droppings. She recovered, but the baby did not.

“It was very formative for me to know that my cousin Ray had been born perfectly healthy and normal, but because he lived in a poor neighborhood without safe playgrounds, he was exposed to an environmental hazard in the form of pigeon droppings, and the high fever and brain damage he endured resulted in severe epilepsy, worsening developmental disabilities caused by his constant seizures, blindness and ultimately his death.

“This led me to pursue two interrelated fields of study, public policy and public health. My university honors research on the topic of wildlife disease epidemiology was supervised by scientists from the Field Museum of Natural History and the Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Because of my interest in policy development, I was working as a full-time staff member in the Office of the Governor. I was particularly interested in policies and programs affecting women, and I worked for the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois.

“One of the commissioners was Hedy Ratner, the founder of the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) in Chicago. Hedy opened my eyes to women’s economic development as a social justice issue. I asked Hedy how I could learn more and support the movement, and she invited me to volunteer at the WBDC’s annual conference. The women who I met at that conference and through the WBDC’s other programs changed my life. For the first time, I considered entrepreneurship and decided that perhaps I could have a greater impact on helping people live in greener, safer communities as an entrepreneur.”

What makes your business different from others in your industry?

“My company is a merger of two brands, Landmark Pest Management, which I founded in 2008, and ABC Humane Wildlife Control, the nation’s first commercial nuisance wildlife control company, which was founded in 1976, and which I acquired in 2012.

“One of our biggest differentiators is that we’re a team of scientists. The importance of studying wildlife diseases that have the potential to spill over from their animal host species to humans has never been more of a shared priority of the global scientific community than it is now, because SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had its origins in bats. Part of my philanthropic work involves contributing to science in the public interest. In fact, Landmark just completed another phase of a study in partnership with the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo to measure cortisol levels in wildlife hair samples. The specimens are part of a greater zoonotic surveillance program. Zoonotic surveillance programs improve the ability to detect new disease threats and document changes in wildlife host-pathogen systems for which urbanization has significant impacts.

“I became fascinated by the emerging global crisis of pesticide resistance during my research on pesticide susceptibility. Insects show increasing resistance to many categories of pesticides, and pest controllers end up trying to overcome the resistance by applying more and more product. You don’t want your grandparents’ dental care, and you don’t want their pest control either. We’re the only pest control company in our marketplace that performs pesticide susceptibility studies at every site at which insects show resistance. This allows us to deliver better results while using much less pesticide. In one third-party audit of our work that consisted of studying 350 buildings, it was found that we delivered much better pest control than other vendors while using 60 percent less pesticides.

“The way that we apply products is also very innovative. Our clients live and work in greener, safer buildings than do people who still buy the old-fashioned pest control that is still performed every day by the country’s biggest pest control companies. When someone shows up with a sprayer tank and sprays your baseboards again and again, that pesticide residue flakes off and becomes a pesticidal dust in your home or workplace. It concentrates in the ventilation system and redeposits on your clothing, furniture and countertops. Our method is very different. Rather than trying to make every surface where an insect might walk toxic, we use bait formulations that contain active ingredients like boric acid, which is very effective against insects, but nontoxic to humans and pets, and we deliver it in a sweet formula that the insects take back to their queens to kill their own colonies. This allows us to deliver excellent results without using carcinogens, or products that off gas, or contain VOCs.

“Lenders told me initially that no one would pay more for green pest control, and they were afraid to lend us growth capital because we wouldn’t compete on price. They were wrong, and one of the ways we have built our brand is through our alignment with Chicago’s restaurant community. Chicago is an amazing restaurant city. We went to all the Michelin-starred restaurants and James Beard Award-winning chefs and explained our commitment to quality and innovation. I said, ‘You select the best ingredients, and we do, too.' One after another, they signed up. We service most of the top restaurants in our region and serve 10,000 residential clients a year as well. Because of our innovations, Landmark has grown so much. We won the SBA Small Business Person of the Year award for innovation. It’s the highest award the United States government gives to a business, and we are the only pest control firm to ever receive this award. It’s really helped to take our business to the next level—we now service every airport, public transportation railcar, police station, fire station and public library in Chicago, as well as many food manufacturing facilities, organic farms, grocery stores, office buildings, hundreds of schools and more municipal square footage than any other firm in our marketplace.”

What unique challenges have you faced over the past 6 months?

“COVID has made running our business even more expensive. I just wrote a check for $16,000 for respirators that would have cost $2,500 before COVID. Even the price of gloves increased by 300 percent. Everything has become so much more expensive, but because of our commitment to the communities we serve, and our employees, we have spent the extra money and have not taken any shortcuts when it comes to safety. We were very lucky to be deemed an essential service and operate without interruption. We’re also lucky that our team members are science minded and have embraced public health guidance in their own lives, so they don’t contract COVID. Their health is priceless, so we’re going to operate less profitably until the supply chain issues around PPE are resolved.

“A lot of our clients asked if they could put our service on hold, and we couldn’t do that, but for many of them, we allowed payment plans or spaced out service to make it more affordable. We are also working pro bono for some of our clients that are doing good work in the community during this time, like the Montessori School of Englewood in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.”

Where do you draw the most inspiration from in leading and growing your organization?

“It’s seeing our impact that keeps me excited to grow and contribute more. Our innovations extend far beyond pest control. Hedy Ratner’s formative influence on me can be seen in so many parts of my company’s culture and programs. One program that I created called Ignite, named after the idea that one candle can light many candles, started as part of our internal supplier diversity program, and it has grown so successful that it is on the verge of outgrowing me and taking on a life of its own. We give preference to woman and minority vendors. The program started off as a big ask that we put on these vendors, requiring them to have supplier diversity programs of their own in order to work with us. I created templates of diversity supply plans and programs to recruit diverse suppliers, and I invited our suppliers in for workshops, had them adopt these plans and then went a step further and asked them to teach these workshops, with my help, for all of their own suppliers. We asked them to require that their suppliers also adopt and publish diversity supply plans. As a result of this program, over 1,000 businesses have adopted diversity supply plans, but there are so many requests for these workshops now that I can’t keep up with them, and it’s time for the program to have a life of its own. I’ve spoken with a number of nonprofits and business schools that have economic justice missions, and they are all interested in hosting and developing the Ignite program. I even had a meeting with an NAACP chapter president who is interested in exploring whether Ignite might fit with the work they’re doing to support entrepreneurs, which is incredibly exciting to me. I hope every WBO considers emulating the Ignite program in their own organizations and buying plans. I’m happy for anyone to reach out to me for support in getting started. I grew Ignite to 1,000 businesses. It’s only with your partnership that we can grow it to 1 million and beyond. Imagine the impact we can have.”

How has NAWBO supported you in your entrepreneurial journey?

“I don’t think that I could have achieved any of the success I have if it weren’t for NAWBO. In the past 45 years, they have done so much to pave the way for my success. First, NAWBO was instrumental in the passage of HR 5050, the Women's Business Ownership Act of 1988, which, among other things, led to the establishment of the small business development centers across the country geared toward equipping woman entrepreneurs with access to capital and other key capacity-building programs. I wouldn’t have even started a business without the training and information that I received from the WBDC in Chicago.”

What’s next for you and your business?

“We’re going national. We have had the pleasure of helping people in Illinois live healthier, greener lives in their homes, the restaurants they dine in and the food production facilities for some of the nation’s largest brands. We want to take that same commitment to public health and open in some additional cities. We’re opening a west coast office in the spring of 2021. We will also have a presence in a few other states shortly. I’m so excited to bring our unique take on philanthropy in the form of science in public interest to more people.”

The theme of September’s conference is “Brave Is…”. Can you share what brave has meant for you as a WBO?

“For me, brave is a refusal to ever be comfortable and forget where I came from. While we serve the Michelin-starred restaurants and the highest economic echelon of clientele, my real passion lives in the neighborhoods that need our help the most. I’m reaching out to organizations like the Chicago Housing Authority about the way their pest control is done to say that there is a better way. I care about kids who grow up with their asthma triggered by exposure to the proteins in cockroaches and bed bugs. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can make it so they can grow up in pest-free homes. Good health should be a birthright, and it’s not going to cost a ton more. It will cost slightly more in the short term, but in the long run, it will cost exponentially less. I’m the person writing the plans and procedures to make this vision a reality in Chicago. Every child deserves the chance for a healthy, good life. It was what my cousin Ray deserved, but didn’t get, and the most meaningful part of my work is the government consulting that I do pertaining to pigeons, rats, mice, cockroaches and bed bugs in the urban environment.

“Schools, in particular, choose to work with Landmark because of our social justice mission. While other pest control companies will treat a classroom when a child brings bed bugs to school, we go a step further. Many children in our cities are economically disadvantaged and there are obstacles to their education, but disparate access to pest control doesn’t have to be one of them. When a child brings bed bugs to school, we work through the administration to help the student’s family invoke their rights under the Chicago Bed Bug Ordinance. While writing and mailing a letter seems easy to some people, it’s a prohibitive barrier to others, so we write the landlord notification letter for them and deliver it by certified mail at our own expense. You can imagine that children who bring bed bugs to school get bullied and made fun of, so for us, it’s not enough to treat the classroom, we want to help level the playing field for that child so they can focus on their studies and not feel embarrassed.

“My measure of success isn’t just based on revenue. I’m never going to stop confronting hard problems. I’m always going to work within economically disadvantaged communities. I want to be a change agent, and to help people live greener, healthier lives.”

What does an honor like WBO of the Year finalist mean to you?

“This honor reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. It’s something Michelle Obama said. She said, when you make it through the door, it’s not enough to just leave the door open. Reach back and pull others through. In everything I do, I make sure to do that. I’m in this privileged position where I’m able to help others because of the women who did this for me. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, and this award is another example of how NAWBO lifts up WBOs and pulls us through that door. I feel like NAWBO is pulling me through another door, to another level as a finalist.

“It’s also an honor to be nominated because Bank of America sponsors the award. Many people know that Bank of America helps women business owners gain access to capital, but they actually do so much more. Their focus on women business owners also includes offering educational resources designed to help women build, manage and scale successful businesses. They even created the Institute for Women's Entrepreneurship that offers the opportunity for women to earn a certificate in business from an Ivy League university. Bank of America sets an example of good corporate citizenship that I hope to emulate in my firm as we scale nationally and develop the resources to increase our reach and impact.”

 

Ranee Cress Wright, founder and president of Drillmax in Houston, TX

Ranee is an entrepreneur and business owner with over 25 years of experience and is president of Drillmax. Through her dedication to innovation and growth, she has positioned Drillmax as a global brand in more than 35 countries. Within her company, Ranee creates a unique culture that stems from her collaborative management style, leading to employee retention of 20 years and earning Drillmax the reputation of premier valve manufacturer of quality products for over two decades. Her visionary approach and ability to diagnose and solve problems has helped to expand Drillmax products and streamline processes, allowing her company to brave a consistently changing oil and gas market.

Tell us about the moment you knew you wanted to launch your own business.

“It was a very defining moment. We’ve been in business since ’96 as a manufacturer of valves used primarily in drilling. Back in ’96, I’d just graduated from college and was working an entry-level job. My husband had been let go from his job, we just bought a house and I was expecting my first child. He had some experience in the oil fields and said, ‘What do you think about us starting our own business?’ I thought there couldn’t be a worse time for us to do this. His family even advised strongly against it at the time. But I specifically remember this coming to me: if I don’t try, I will never know through God’s grace what I’m capable of doing. So we formed as equal owners and started figuring things out as we went.

“My husband became less and less involved for different reasons and by 2013, he moved 1,300 miles away and left me with three kids, bills and a business to operate, so I had another defining moment and decided once again if I don’t try, I won’t know what I’m capable of. I started looking at how to make Drillmax the company I always wanted it to be. There were several gaps I could see. In 2015, I decided to file for divorce and assumed the title of president. I was already doing all the responsibilities. In 2018, I leveraged everything I had and acquired Drillmax at 100 percent, and I’ve been riding the roller coaster ever since.”

What makes your business different from others in your industry?

“There are a lot of big names and it’s definitely male dominated. We’ve positioned ourselves as a brand and name, not based on me, or any individual, but on the branding and quality of our product and customer service. That’s what identifies Drillmax. Float valves are our main product and everyone knows we’re the best and we’re not the cheapest either. We’re in over 35 countries. We’re not a huge company and have never wanted or intend to be. We serve this small niche where when someone needs a product, they’re able to get it. That allows us to weather the extreme highs and lows of this industry. A year or so ago, I was talking with a vendor and he said, ‘You know we started this business with nothing and we know how to operate with nothing.’ With the industry as it is now, you have to buckle down and do everything you can to weather through so you’re still standing on the other side, which we intend to do. That’s what we’ve done for 25 years.”

What unique challenges have you faced over the past 6 months?

“The drastic reduction in revenue has been the biggest challenge. We did apply for a PPP loan and received it. The interesting thing is, this is how I found out about NAWBO. I’ve been running and doing this business by myself with the support of professionals with different areas of expertise that I didn’t have, but as far as having someone to bounce ideas off of, I didn’t really have that. I had applied for a PPP loan and was looking at SBA’s website and was intrigued when I saw something about women. I clicked and NAWBO came up and I thought ‘Oh my Gosh, where has NAWBO been my whole life?’ I immediately joined and did a few workshops. I thought, ‘This just would have been great before. I’m going to go with this.’ So it was actually through this pandemic, the bottom out price of oil and real struggle in my business that I came to find NAWBO and then ended up here as a finalist.”

Where do you draw the most inspiration from in leading and growing your organization?

“I would say that same question: What am I capable of? I’ve always been one who is somewhat of a visionary. When you look at a bush, do you see a bud or a flower? I see a flower—the potential of it—and I think that’s what continues to inspire me. I don’t want to settle for the good. I want to go for the great. I also want to stay balanced and present so I can learn what I need to know now so I can have the skills I need to meet the struggles just around the corner.”

What’s next for you and your business?

“I hope we are able to see our revenue back up to the norm and then continue to grow at a slow, progressive growth rate. We have a new higher-pressure product line I’m excited about. I’d like to see us move into other industries where we don’t have much of a footprint in now, too, including horizontal drilling, utilities and construction.”

The theme of September’s conference is “Brave Is…”. Can you share what brave has meant for you as a WBO?

“I think bravery for me is to reach beyond where I’m comfortable, then to lean into the fear and quite honestly, pain of not knowing and to be willing to be in that uncomfortable place until you know what the next step is. It’s not having all the answers.”

What does an honor like WBO of the Year finalist mean to you?

“I think it is just a huge gift. It’s affirmation whenever I ask myself, ‘What was I thinking?’ and ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s affirmation that I’m doing something right. I think we miss that. We work so hard to achieve our goals and to be what we think is expected of us. It’s the affirmation that the choices I’ve made based on my core values are being acknowledged, and that’s huge.

Do you have any advice for other WBOs right now?

“I would hope they take away how important it is to take the time to invest in and know your company’s most valuable asset—and that’s YOU. I think we get so busy trying to operate, at least I know I do. Until we’ve taken the time to really know who we are and what’s meaningful and fulfilling to us when life happens and literally knocks us to our knees, having that knowledge is what continues to motivate us and keep advancing and moving. Also, you’re never too old to try.”

 

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