Strategy, overcoming adversity, giving back to their community. These are just some of the ways the 2021 Woman Business Owner of the Year finalists shine in their industries. These finalists were celebrated at the recent Virtual National Women’s Business Conference Awards Gala. The winner of the award—sponsored by Bank of America—was also announced (see below). We sat down with these inspiring finalists for a conversation about how they’ve propelled business growth, navigated the challenges of the pandemic and more:
Courtney Brockmeyer, Sydney Paige Foundation - NAWBO San Francisco Bay Area (left)
Stephanie Isaacson, New Horizons Enterprises, LLC New Horizons Enterprises, LLC - NAWBO Kansas City (center)
Carla Walker-Miller, Walker-Miller Energy Services - NAWBO Greater Detroit (right)
What do you most attribute your business success to?
Courtney: Purpose. To grow and develop a business comes with many ups and downs. When we’re experiencing challenges, it’s easy to remind myself that we’re doing what we do for the kids. Seeing the positive impact we have on these students in underserved communities throughout the U.S. naturally gets me through those bumps (or challenges).
Stephanie: I would give much credit to my entire management team and all of my employees who help my enterprise thrive. It is their attitude, abilities and actions that build positive relationships with clients. They are the ones who perform the services required to enable my business to perform at such a high level. There are many long-term employees on all levels at New Horizons. I am so proud of their dedication and loyalty, which have made my vision for my business a reality.
Carla: In 21 years as a business owner, there have been so many factors contributing to my success. Hard work and high performance are givens. I have a talent for finding gaps in the ecosystem and finding “what’s next” in the market. Most important is developing trusting relationships with our team and our customers. The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program removed a barrier at a critical time. And I count on the favor of God.
How has NAWBO propelled your entrepreneurial journey?
Courtney: Since I’m new to NAWBO, it’s reading the testimonials of other members and seeing how other women have lifted each other up to be successful. This gives me permission to ask for help and once you ask, the doors open! It’s the collaborative nature and women lifting up women that I love.
Stephanie: Being a NAWBO member and attending their meetings and events has given me the opportunity to build relationships not only with dynamic women business owners, but with vendors and suppliers, too. In fact, the first line of credit I got was from a bank whose representative was at a NAWBO meeting. This was of great benefit to me at a time when I didn’t realize it would be possible. It truly helped me to grow New Horizons.
Carla: NAWBO’s advocacy has been critical. Being a part of a community that truly wants you to win is key. NAWBO has sought opportunities to acknowledge and promote my company. More importantly, they encourage women-owned companies to advocate for and do business with other women-owned businesses.
What have been the greatest challenges and opportunities you’ve met during the pandemic?
Courtney: The greatest challenge has been the rising costs of shipping, which have tripled, and even quadrupled in some cases, during the pandemic. I’ve had to pivot and find creative ways to fund these unexpected cost aggravations. Providing shared value to partners was also a challenge. We usually have hands-on employee engagement for our sponsors where we pack school supplies into backpacks. That shifted to having to put the kits together ourselves and simply ask [employees] to write notes of encouragement in order to still give them some sort of hands-on involvement in their company’s giving. We worked harder to get the partners photos, relay how they were helping and pack all of the supplies for them. On the bright side, this opened up a huge opportunity for volunteers. There’s no way we could have gotten through helping 50,000 kids this summer without our local volunteers.
Stephanie: The biggest challenge I faced due to the pandemic was truly just dealing with the unknown. I remember every day there were dramatic negative details in the news media. I didn’t know if everything I had worked so very hard to achieve might be quickly going away. Then, I realized how resilient my team and I could be. Even with a pandemic situation ongoing, we were able to innovate and adapt how we operated. In fact, New Horizons was given the opportunity to clean and sanitize for COVID for some of our clients.
Carla: The challenge of caring for and comforting our team members through this painful period. We have leaned into our humanity and are trying to help our team members who have suffered illnesses and the loss of loved ones. We are all navigating fear at some level. And we feel quite inadequate while trying to address the emotional needs of our team. The greatest opportunities have been the benefits of working from home and innovating remote solutions that accomplish our goals while staying safe. Some of these will become standard practices.
What’s next for you in your business growth and success?
Courtney: Our goal is to keep doubling every year. This year, we’ll help 70,000 kids and hopefully, 140,000 kids next year. We’ve also recently launched a literacy initiative to get books directly into the hands of kids who need them. Sydney Paige will be focused on school preparedness, which includes backpacks and school supplies, literacy (book ownership, borrowing and book clubs) and mental health (art therapy, journaling and other tools and resources). We have just started offering art kits to help kids express themselves. My team and I are passionate about getting resources to kids in low-income, underserved environments. We want kids to feel special regardless of their zip code or economic circumstances.
Stephanie: Despite the challenges of the last 12 months, I believe business is now on the upswing. We are moving forward with our strategic goals of marketplace expansion and innovation for New Horizons. These include continuing to transition New Horizons into a true turnkey business. We plan to excel even further in our core services of environmental remediation and demolition. I will be soon hiring key management personnel for these growth areas.
Carla: I am grateful to have landed in the energy efficiency business. We are now in five states and will close in on 200 team members by the end of the year. Energy efficiency is directly connected to renewable and sustainable energy. Our growth goal is to become a bridge between the utility side of the energy grid and the mobility infrastructure that will be created over the next few years. And of course, we will remain committed to our goal of changing lives through energy efficiency.
What does this honor mean to you personally?
Courtney: This is such a great honor for me. I’m so grateful to NAWBO for noticing the work we’re doing at Sydney Paige because it means that not only are we being recognized by other women business owners who we admire and look up to, but also that we can potentially help even more children and families because of the additional recognition we’re gaining within the organization and beyond.
Stephanie: This honor means so much to me! I really value my NAWBO experiences as a member. NAWBO helped move my business forward, from meeting my banker and attorney, to attending strategic planning sessions in San Francisco, to making friends with other women business owners who continue to encourage and inspire me. I can’t imagine a better organization from which to receive such an award than NAWBO.
Carla: Everyone wants to feel valued. Considering how many high-performing women-owned businesses there are in the country, to be in the top three nationally is surreal. I am so very grateful to NAWBO for providing the platform and actually “seeing” me and Walker-Miller Energy Services.
What advice would you give to the next generation of women business owners?
Courtney: Make sure that whatever you’re doing is not just about money. There has to be a higher purpose for it. Businesses usually start because there’s a need that needs to be filled. I would challenge you to go beyond that and make sure it fills you up, too. It’s a lot of hard work, you have to learn so many new things and deal with the ups and downs, but if you have that higher purpose, you’ll never think of quitting.
Stephanie: My advice for them would be to get ready to work hard and not give up, should they experience a few failures. While some people may think this advice is a bit cliche, I must disagree. I know from first-hand experience what is necessary to lead an enterprise, especially one that is in a non-traditional category for women. Yes, there will be 60-hour work weeks, missed meals, cancelled activities and sleepless nights. No, business ownership is not an easy road to choose, especially for women, even with the best circumstances. I do believe the next generation of women entrepreneurs will also find the entire ownership experience exciting, rewarding and exhilarating! So, ladies, work hard and make it happen.
Carla: If I may give two pieces of advice: First, no matter how dire things seem, have faith in yourself. The world will say “no” to you over and over again. Never say “no” to yourself. Secondly, lean in and intentionally develop deep, abiding relationships in business with people who are not part of your natural, organic circle. Relationships really are key to business growth and longevity.
The 2021 Woman Business Owner of the Year Is…
Carla Walker-Miller, Walker-Miller Energy Services - NAWBO Greater Detroit