Detroit-based founder Carla Walker-Miller discusses how she built a successful business from the ground up and the challenges of being an African American female entrepreneur.
Carla Walker-Miller never imagined herself as an entrepreneur. In fact, when she first encountered the word “entrepreneur” while she was growing up, she thought it meant good-looking men who didn’t have jobs. That’s what she saw in the magazines: men talking about their ideas and starting companies but never seeming to work.
Walker-Miller, 58, pursued what she describes as an expected path for her generation. She attended college, where she earned a degree in engineering, and then made her way into Corporate America. But as she hit the glass ceiling for her gender and race—and watched her girlfriends doing the same at their jobs—she struck out on her own.
Initially, Walker-Miller formed a firm that distributed medium and high-voltage electrical equipment, an easy transition from her time at Westinghouse Electric Corp. But when contracts dried up during the recession, she almost lost her business. She switched her focus to energy efficiency audits and consulting.
Today, Detroit-based Walker-Miller Energy Services employs 43 people and is on pace for annual revenues of $7 million this year. Walker-Miller spoke with Fortune about how she broke out of the corporate world, the challenges of being an African American woman in business, and how she keeps her work-life balance.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: What do you think of entrepreneurship today? Do you see it is an accepted path for more women of color?
Carla Walker-Miller: My peers and I were raised to get a degree and then get a good job with a corporation. That was nirvana for us. Now, entrepreneurship is considered much less risky. We achieved a level of training in Corporate America that was almost a template for going out on your own. You develop expertise.
Now entrepreneurship is accepted as normal and much less risky. Being an entrepreneur is hip, it’s sexy. We envision a young person who develops a sweet app or takes the world by storm through social media. But a barber or a restaurant owner is just as much of an entrepreneur as an app maker. There is a disconnect. Entrepreneurship is small business rebranded.
So many people lost their businesses during the recession. How did you survive and find a way to pivot?
We had already decided to explore energy efficiency, but the recession forced us to make that move quickly, and under duress, at the same time we were trying to pay off debt from the energy equipment business. But survive was really all we did. It was a very painful period.
I was in an incubator, and I think that the fact that I was there with other businesses going through the same thing had something to do with me surviving that downturn. If I had been in a home office, I probably would have just gone to bed.
You frequently sit on panels to discuss how entrepreneurship can help rebuild Detroit. But there is criticism that small businesses owned by African Americans and other minorities are left out of the conversation. What are your thoughts?
There are dozens of business panels every week about Detroit’s resurgence, and the absence of small black businesses on those stages is disappointing. But now I’m one of few black female small business owners on the panel circuit. But I don’t want to be considered the safe one. I want to be the one who tells the truth as I know it, every time whether it’s comfortable or not.
What does it mean to tell the truth? What do you have to say on those panels?
It means that we have a responsibility to bring up the woman thing, the minority thing as points of discussion. The small business experience is still very different for black females. We must always bring the issues of access and inclusion to the floor. In business, we labor to establish our own credibility with potential customers, particularly large, well-known businesses. I feel the obligation to introduce other well-performing small, minority and woman owned businesses to those companies as well.
How did you finally make it into those conversations?
I’ve been in business for 15 years and it’s only been in the past few years that I made it to the panel circuit. I learned the hard way that relationships can make or break a small business. About four years ago, I submitted a proposal on a multi-million dollar contract. The supply chain called us and said we had received the highest evaluation, and my team celebrated. As it turned out, the business actually went to a company whose owner had a stronger relationship with that customer. That was my “big girl” moment; I understood that being good at what you do was not enough. My growth plan became four words: “Y’all gonna know me.”
What did you do?
I began to inquire about opportunities to speak on small business, energy efficiency, sustainability, etc. I became more active in groups like Inforum and the Detroit Regional Chamber. I bought $500 tickets I could not really afford to business events and luncheons. But you have to buy those tickets because that’s where you find out where the “real” deals are happening. Those deals are not only at another table, they are actually in another room in a building down the street, or in another city. Isn’t that something? Even as a small business, you have to find the resources to buy your way in to the meetings where the people making decisions are.
Small business is truly an out of sight-out of mind kind of thing. Staying “in sight” has been burdensome, as there is never enough time or money. For the past few years, two of us have gone to the most important business conference in the state, the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. It is a very expensive conference for a small business, but we go because it is truly networking on steroids. A program appearance or a chance meeting at Mackinaw can change the trajectory for a small business.
Is that a barrier that keeps entrepreneurs out or is it a meritocracy since anyone can buy their way to the table?
How do you get the money to buy your way to that table? The barrier to access to resources is painful.
I use the example of the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats.” I remember the first time I heard that. I was in my mother’s kitchen and my first thought was, “Who has a boat?”
What if you don’t have a boat, or your boat is raggedy, or your family could never afford a boat? Every time I hear that phrase, it gets on my nerves. Because yes, it’s a beautiful analogy, but a boat is a luxury that many people can’t relate to. A rising tide is dangerous for most people.
Has the time and expense translated into revenue growth or more contracts?
I am still fairly early in the process of solidifying business relationships, but more are coming in. In the last year, I have been invited to sit on several boards, which provide an opportunity to help the nonprofits and forge great relationships.
Those relationships provide increased access to opportunities. As a black woman, I must first introduce myself and then prove myself. It’s always a two-step process.
Is that unique to black women or is it an issue for all women?
If it’s a two-step process for white women, it’s a three-step process for a black woman. As a black woman, it always takes more; it requires that much more time, money and effort. Think about it: Access is the true issue. A white woman has natural relationships with white men and easier access to the circles of power, which even in Detroit, are predominantly white. Someone has to intentionally introduce a black person to that inner circle. As a rule, you don’t just show up.
What advice do you have for others who are trying to break in?
Get out there and be uncomfortable. Put yourself in a place to get to know people. Cultivate relationships with people who are planners, who know what is going to happen next, or more importantly, make something happen!
People deal with who they like dealing with. So part of being small business owner is to be capable and likeable so that people will want to do business with you. Ask for business. Sometimes people think your business is going really well and that’s why you’re on the panel.
With so many extra hours involved in events and meetings, how do you maintain work-life balance?
There is no balance. I wish my husband and I could say we had that worked out. We both are responsible for dinner, the house, but it’s pretty hectic. He is a retired Detroit Police sergeant and has his own small business, Miller Protection, an asset-security business with federal accounts.
I fought for work-life balance when my children were younger, and never truly achieved it. My youngest is now 19, so it’s not the same as missing the school play or final sports dinner. I remember explaining to myself, because I do a lot of self-talk, that the Bunny Breakfast at Macy’s had to prevail one Easter. Right now my mother is 90 years old in Nashville, so I try to see her every five weeks. The specifics change, but the work-life struggle remains.
How important to your success is your staff?
When you start a business, you are the business. But if you do it correctly and the business has a culture you established, you don’t have to be in every aspect of the business. We’re at a point where I don’t have to be in every aspect. If I’m gone for a week, nothing changes.
How did you actually make the transition happen?
It happened during the Goldman Sachs program. We had already established that I had to play a different role, but I had a hard time accepting that even though I have a very capable vice president, Melanie Steele, and staff. I still wanted to review things and know every quote that was going out. The class combined with my business travel schedule made it so that I just couldn’t do it. I was forced to be away.
Do you think you can do it all or have it all?
It’s impossible to do it all. And it’s not smart. You’ll be resentful if you continue to do it all because you’ll feel like, “Why do I have 43 people if I still have to do all this?” I groomed a wonderful executive assistant, Vertrice Allen. I really believe in hire for character and train for skill. If you hire great people and have a positive culture, people want to stay and be a part of that team.
A few years ago, I had a team member who was a business whiz, but had such a difficult attitude that I had to pray before I was going to meet with her – and I owned the company! I’m in my office asking Father please let my words be acceptable, help her to receive direction in the positive spirit that I offer it. It took a minute for me to realize that if I felt that way and other team members felt that way, my clients were not receiving the best service?